Article abstract: With his first three films, Buñuel virtually defined the genre of Surrealist cinema. The thirty-two films that he directed (and often coscripted) establish him as one of the century’s most gifted film auteurs.
The eldest of seven children, Luis Buñuel was born in Calanda, Spain, on February 22, 1900. His father, Leonardo, was a landowner with intellectual interests who died in 1923; his mother, Maria, was a well-educated, devout Catholic. Although Buñuel soon moved with his parents to Zaragoza, he regularly revisited Calanda for Easter weekend, when he would join hundreds of other males in a two-day drumming ritual called the Procession of the Drums. Buñuel received top marks as a student; among his interests were music and zoology. Following his father’s urgings, he entered the Students’ Residence in Madrid to become an agricultural engineer; in 1920, however, he surreptitiously began a two-year course of studies in entomology. A sports enthusiast, he also became the amateur boxing champion of Spain in 1921.
By the early 1920’s, Buñuel had become acquainted with a group of friends that included Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí. Increasingly involved in literary and theatrical pursuits, he began the study of philosophy and letters at the University of Madrid, receiving his degree in 1924. He moved to Paris in 1926 with a letter of introducton to the pianist Ricardo Viñas, who soon assigned him to act as scenic director in the 1926 Amsterdam production of Manuel de Falla’s El retablo de Maese Pedro (1923) under the musical leadership of Willem Mengelberg.
Soon afterward, a viewing of Fritz Lang’s Der müde Tod (1921; Destiny) awakened Buñuel to the possibilities of film as an art form. After receiving an introduction to Jean Epstein, he spent the following two years working as assistant director on Mauprat (1926) and La Chute de la Maison Usher (1928; The Fall of the House of Usher), as well as the Josephine Baker vehicle La Sirène des Tropiques (1927; Siren of the Tropics). Buñuel also partook of more personal endeavors, enjoying some recognition as a writer, organizing screenings in Spain, and trying to initiate a number of film projects. Besides writing fiction and poetry, he edited the cinema page of La Gaceta literaria hispanoamerica, writing eight articles that reflected his commitment to Surrealism. In 1928, he helped to organize the Cineclub Español, the second such organization in Spain. That same year, he completed Un Chien andalou (1928; An Andalusian Dog), a collaboration with Dalí.
The seventeen minutes of An Andalusian Dog, among the most unforgettable and widely analyzed in cinema, provided both Buñuel and Dalí with their entry into the Surrealist circle. Buñuel’s savage slicing of an eyeball comprises the film’s most emblematic moment, for, with its revolutionary mixture of brutality, sexuality, and amour, Buñuel’s first film opened Surrealist eyes to the potential of cinema to provoke the public into confronting previously unexplored truths.
Insisting that An Andalusian Dog, with its violent succession of titles and sequences, was “a desperate and passionate appeal to murder,” Buñuel voiced dismay upon discovering that some had found beauty in it. Though L’Âge d’or (1930; The Golden Age) utilized a more coherent story line, it nevertheless sparked one of Paris’ great controversies. An irreverent examination of the tension between human passions and social mores, the film opens with a documentary sequence about scorpions and proceeds to launch stinging attacks on a number of institutions, Catholicism among them. After Fascists and anti-Semites interrupted one of the film’s first screenings, vandalizing the theater, L’Âge d’or
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L’Âge d’or was banned in France.
Buñuel left the Surrealist movement in 1932 but remained very sympathetic to its spirit. His documentary Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan (1932; Land Without Bread), narrated in bitter, sardonic tones, was a landmark study of life in an impoverished region of Spain. As in his previous films, Buñuel used lush classical music, in this case excerpts from Johannes Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, as his score.
Over the following years, Buñuel worked as a dubbing director in Paris and Madrid and oversaw the production of four comedies for the Spanish company Filmófono, leading crews with characteristic discipline and financial restraint. After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he assisted the Republican government in Paris, where he supervised the production of a documentary about the conflict.
Following the war’s cessation, Buñuel went to New York, where he worked at the Museum of Modern Art Film Department from 1939 to 1941. There he created documentaries from previously existing footage until anti-Communist paranoia and Dalí’s comments regarding Buñuel’s religious views precipitated his resignation. After a brief stint as a commentator for United States Army Intelligence films, Buñuel lived with his wife, Jeanne, and their two sons, Juan Luis and Rafael, in Hollywood. Backed by producer Oscar Dancigers, he began his directing career anew in Mexico with Gran Casino/En el Viejo Tampico (1947) and El gran calavera (1949; The Great Madcap, 1949).
Buñuel returned to international prominence with Los olvidados (1950; The Forgotten Ones). Winner at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival of the Jury Prize for best direction, the film depicts the lives of Mexico City slum youth with startling, unsentimentalized imagery. In the ensuing years, the director worked at a quick pace, creating profitable low-budget films with varying degrees of artistic success. Susana (1950; The Devil and the Flesh) and La hija del engaño (1951; Daughter of Deceit) were followed by Una Mujer sin amor (1951; A Woman Without Love), a melodrama that he considered his worst effort. More intriguing were the award-winning Subida al cielo (1951; Mexican Bus Ride), El Bruto (1952; The Brute), and Las aventuras de Robinsón Crusoe (1952; The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe), his first use of color. He made several more commercial films in the 1950’s, including Nazarín (1959), a tale of a priest’s attempt to emulate Christ’s ideals, which won the 1959 Special Jury Prize at Cannes, and, to the anticlerical Buñuel’s amusement, almost received the Prix de l’Office Catholique as well.
Despite his commercial orientation in the 1950’s, Buñuel developed a manner of storytelling distinguished by its moral integrity, quasi-documentary realism, and iconoclastic incorporation of the incongruous. After making the political thriller La Fièvre monte à El Pao/Los Ambiciosos (1959; Republic of Sin) and La Joven (1960; (The Young One), he inaugurated a new phase of his career with Viridiana (1961), the official Spanish entry at Cannes. The spectacle of Buñuel the iconoclast collaborating with the Francisco Franco regime surprised many, but ultimately the brilliance of his direction vindicated Buñuel, who kept the censors from “supervising” his production by arranging for final mixing to occur in France just before Viridiana’s festival premiere. The film won for Spain its first Palme d’Or, but the final cut’s treatment of sexuality and presentation of beggars mimicking The Last Supper were among the elements that led to Viridiana’s being vilified by the Vatican and banned in Spain.
For the next two decades, Buñuel enjoyed greater financial support and increasing control over subject matter. El ángel exterminador (1962; The Exterminating Angel) finds a group of people unable to leave a room in which they have just eaten their dinner. An updating of the Octave Mirbeau novel, Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (1964; Diary of a Chambermaid), Buñuel’s first film with producer Serge Silberman and writer Jean-Claude Carrière, climaxes with a searingly personal indictment of French bigotry at the time of L’Âge d’or.
In 1966, Catherine Deneuve appeared as the bourgeois wife/prostitute in the 1967 Venice Film Festival winner Belle de jour, a treatment of the 1929 Joseph Kessel novel. After Buñuel made La Voie lactée (1969; The Milky Way), an anachronistic pilgrimage through Christian heresy, Deneuve returned alongside Fernando Rey in Tristana (1970), the director’s second adaptation of a Benito Perez Galdos novel.
In the 1970’s, Buñuel became increasingly subject to deafness and other problems of advanced age. If his first three films had established him as a fiery young iconoclast, his final three revealed him to be a matured master, able to enhance his Surrealist sensibility with an exceptionally profound understanding of human foibles. Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972; The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), winner of an Academy Award for best foreign language film, revolves around a group of well-to-do friends who continually arrange dinner appointments but hardly manage to eat anything. Le Fantôme de la Liberté (1974; The Phantom of Liberty) presents a series of bizarre vignettes in a free associational manner. Cet obscur objet du desir (1977; That Obscure Object of Desire) dramatizes the perverse relationship between a flirtatious young woman and an older gentleman who wishes to possess her.
In 1983, the year of Buñuel’s death, the English translation of his autobiography, My Last Sigh, was published. He died in Mexico City at the age of eighty-three.
Although Luis Buñuel’s early films represent a fraction of his entire output, they have often served as a pretext for categorizing him merely as an anti-Catholic provocateur with a predilection for scandalously violent imagery. While the significance of those works is incontestable (An Andalusian Dog and L’Âge d’or in particular were of paramount importance to the Surrealists), the entirety of his oeuvre, reflecting a level of wisdom and craftsmanship attained by few artists, is worthy of close consideration as reflecting the genius of one of cinema’s great masters.
Buñuel deliberately cultivated a “flat” camera technique that focused attention on his enigmatic imagery and captivating scenarios, in which fanaticism, passion, and pathos often come to the fore. Slow motion and fading are used to imbue sequences with dreamlike qualities; montage is used sparingly. Music, used with irony in Buñuel’s first films, faded further into the background as the director’s career progressed (indeed, many of his later works lack scores). Also used sparingly are naturalistic sound effects, sometimes employed to suggest mental states or, notably, to obscure dialogue (a device that approximated Buñuel’s own hearing difficulties). An underappreciated aspect of his directorial style is his treatment of actors; having been weaned during the silent era, Buñuel seems to have placed great stock in the histrionics often seen in silent melodramas.
Notwithstanding his iconoclasm, Buñuel was a creator rather than a destroyer, a moralist whose art arose from a deep appreciation of existential mystery and the human condition. At all points in his career, the director remained faithful to an aesthetic dictate predicated on “awakening” audiences by depicting authentic social relations. In many respects, he can be considered a forerunner of filmmakers such as Pedro Almodóvar, the members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and John Waters. His achievements continue to have a profound influence on world cinema.
Aranda, Francisco. Luis Buñuel: A Critical Biography. Translated by David Robinson. London: Socker and Warburg, 1975. A valuable source of rare primary materials in English translation, this survey emphasizes the relationship between Buñuel’s career and Spanish culture, and details some of his childhood experiences.
Bazin, André. The Cinema of Cruelty. Translated by Sabine d’Estrée. New York: Seaver Books, 1982. Introduced by François Truffaut, this collection of essays includes critiques of seven Buñuel films as well as an interview with the director.
Buache, Freddy. The Cinema of Luis Buñuel. Translated by Peter Graham. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1973. An admirer offers an impressionistic appreciation of Buñuel’s films in a book that suffers from its awkward translated prose.
Buñuel, Luis. My Last Sigh. Translated by Abigail Israel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983. Assisted by Jean-Claude Carrière, Buñuel drolly reflects on his exploits.
Durgnat, Raymond. Luis Buñuel. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. An unexceptional guide to Buñuel’s films through The Phantom of Liberty.
Edwards, Gwynne. The Discreet Art of Luis Buñuel. London: M. Boyars, 1982. This book contains clearly written summaries of selected Buñuel films.
Higgenbotham, Virginia. Luis Buñuel. Boston: Twayne, 1979. A chronology and filmography help to distinguish this thorough study from Buache’s and Durgnat’s books.
Mellen, Joan, ed. The World of Luis Buñuel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. This most useful collection of essays includes Henry Miller’s famous “The Golden Age” from The Cosmological Eye (1939) and pieces by Bazin, Vincent Canby, Carlos Fuentes, Ado Kyrou, and Andrew Sarris.
Sandro, Paul. Luis Buñuel and the Crises of Desire. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1987. A professor of French offers a scholarly, jargon-ridden look at the psychology of Buñuel’s films.
Williams, Linda. Figures of Desire. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981. Written with an obvious appreciation of Buñuel’s subtleties, this book offers an invaluable, highly sophisticated look at An Andalusian Dog, L’Âge d’or, The Phantom of Liberty, and That Obscure Object of Desire.