- The World of Luis Buñuel: Essays in Criticism (1978)Our PickBy Joan Mellen
- Surrealism and CinemaBy Michael Richardson
- Companion to Spanish Surrealism (2004)By Robert Havard
Progression of Art
Un Chien Andalou
This silent short film, inspired by the dreams of Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, fulfills the Surrealist goal of achieving the pure automatism of the dream state, liberated from the constraints of reason, logic, traditional narrative, and temporal unity.
Un Chien Andalou shocks at multiple levels, showing acts of irrational physical violence, raw sexual desire, rotting animal carcasses, insects, and a complete violation of the fundamental rules of logical plot. In his Poetics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had written that a work of literature or drama must consist of actions that arise logically out of each other, as well as preserve a unity of time and place. These rules of plot structure had dominated Western literature and theatre for centuries. But from the beginning, as they worked on their script at Dalí's home in Cadaques, Buñuel and Dalí agreed that nothing about the film could have a rational explanation. The resulting film has no narrative or linear logic. Skipping arbitrarily through time, "eight years later" and "sixteen years earlier," the film mocks and subverts the "title cards" that were used in silent movies to fill in temporal and narrative breaks.
There is no core narrative, although, if there is a constant at all in the film, it is an agonizing sense of sexual desire and sexual failure. Several of the film's images are among the most disturbing ever produced in the history of cinema: a razor slicing through a passive woman's eyeball, ants crawling out of an open wound on a hand, a woman's armpit hair turning into a man's beard, and many more. In the final scene, the romantic image of a happy couple cuts to an image of the same man and woman buried in the sand, the positions of their bodies or inclined heads reminiscent of Jean-François Millet's famous painting of 1859, The Angelus.
Both Buñuel and Dalí dismissed any attempts at analysis or rational meaning. Dalí wrote that the film "consists of a simple notation of facts... enigmatic, incoherent, irrational, absurd, inexplicable." In anticipation of a riot at the premiere in Paris, Buñuel filled his pocket with rocks to hurl at protesters - he later expressed his disappointment that a film aimed at offending the bourgeoisie was actually applauded by it.
Buñuel's second collaboration with Salvador Dalí pushed the boundaries of decency even further. This film attacked the institutions that were considered the pillars of society: church, state, and family. The Surrealist combination of sex, violence, and truly bizarre images, made for confrontational viewing. Mocking the serious tone of documentaries, the film references the mating habits of scorpions, and features hapless bandits played by fellow Surrealists such as Max Ernst. In retelling a tale from the Marquis de Sade, the film's final episode casts Jesus Christ as the leader of the band of sexual libertines who have kidnapped and tortured young women in a castle. The film mercilessly mocks the clergy, shows the disrespectful manhandling of an ostensorium (one of the most sacred objects in the Catholic Church, the vessel that holds the Eucharistic host) as well as female scalps nailed to a cross. Other disturbing scenes include a father who shoots his little son for a ridiculously minor infraction, and the handsome lover in the film who beats up an old woman for spilling a drop of sherry on his suit. Outrageous as these scenes are, the characters seem to act as in a dream, without the restraints of reason. (Who has not committed terrible acts in their dreams?) A particularly strange scene, full of both a regressive, infantile orality, and outright cannibalism, shows the handsome lover and the young woman he desires sucking each other's fingers ecstatically instead of engaging in traditional coitus, and we discover at the end of the scene that the young woman has actually eaten most of the man's fingers; he caresses her with the almost fingerless stump of his hand. When he is called away, she resorts to sucking the toes of a classical statue in the garden.
If a continuous theme or narrative can be found in this film it is this couple's crazed desire for sex, which is persistently thwarted by absurd interruptions and petty annoyances. As in Un Chien Andalou, there is a nightmarish atmosphere of sexual desire, frustration, and failure. Buñuel achieved his aim to provoke: the crowd at the premiere rioted, destroying an exhibition of Surrealist paintings in the lobby. Le Figaro raged that the film was "obscene, disgusting and tasteless." The anti-Catholic themes were so upsetting that Dalí - who became a devout Catholic later in his life - refused to work with Buñuel again, and the Vicomte de Noailles, who had financed the project, was threatened with excommunication. The film was subsequently banned until 1979.
This film portrays the slums of Mexico City, where a group of street children live a life of murder, violence, poverty, and despair. Buñuel wanted to expose the reality of life here, and used Surrealist techniques to shock the audience - at one point an egg hits the camera and runs down the lens, breaking the fourth wall (thereby crossing the line between image and viewer, reminding us that we are watching a fictional story.) Other shocking scenes, reminiscent of L'Age D'Or, include the brutalizing of a blind man by the children as well as their destruction of a legless man's makeshift cart. The film reflects the Surrealist interest in pointing out the hypocrisy of accepted morality as well as the unrestrained actions of a group which, though brutal, is free from the controls of rationality. It explores the themes of sin and guilt, and in a stunning dream-sequence uses the techniques of superimposition and slow-motion to show the unconscious: chicken feathers fall as a mother walks holding a lump of rotten meat.
Buñuel screened this film first in Paris for his old Surrealist friends in the same cinema that had premiered L'Age d'Or twenty years earlier. The Surrealists loved his unsparing exposure of life's essential amorality - an issue that had always been at the heart of the Surrealist philosophy. It was shown at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival, where the accompanying brochure held praise from Andre Breton, and a poetic tribute from the Surrealist Jacques Prevert. Here, he was awarded the prize for Best Director. The film caused outrage in Mexico, however, where it was considered an insult to the country, to the point that Buñuel's Mexican citizenship was almost revoked. The Mexican poet and intellectual, Octavio Paz, defended the film passionately.
In this film, a young nun has a devastating encounter with her uncle who attempts to rape her but then commits suicide. He leaves her his house, and with her blind faith and trust in humanity, she decides to invite local beggars and lepers to share her home. This kindness is not repaid, and she is exposed to life's fundamental amorality, which corrupts her. The film's shocking tableaux vivant of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, with a blind Christ and sinful disciples, was denounced for blasphemy and banned by the Spanish authorities. This criticism of the Catholic Church reflects that expressed in L'Age d'Or, but in Viridiana he makes two clear points. Firstly, that naive faith in an institution such as the church or the innate goodness of people is foolish. The second point is about control - the Church is a symbol of oppression and attempts to crush natural human instincts, which can only lead to temptation and sin. The film ends with the woman with her hair down playing a game of cards - she has lost her innocence. The film uses Surrealist black humor to expose the fake morality of society. Despite the outrage in Catholic countries, the film was smuggled out of Franco's Spain to the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the 1961 Palme d'Or.
The Exterminating Angel
At an upper-class dinner party, the guests discover that they are mysteriously trapped in the room. It is an invisible barrier that traps them, not a physical one. It must be either magical in nature, or a shared psychiatric delusion. Trapped, their masks of social politeness rapidly fall away. This film picks up the key Surrealist theme of society attempting to control our true nature, despite the wild desires within. The primitive nature of the characters is exposed as they drop their social facades. In various ways, they try to find meaning or solutions. Some become argumentative, some depressed, some hysterical. Under the surface of polite society they are all savages. Random and inexplicable events take place: a sleepwalker stabs a woman, several people commit suicide, wild animals appear, characters enact magical rituals. Buñuel as usual takes aim at the Church, the film ending with a riot on the streets as a flock of sheep enter a church. Despite constant attempts to analyse this and other of his films, Buñuel resisted interpretations, saying: "basically, I simply see a group of people who couldn't do what they wanted to do - leave a room".
That Obscure Object of Desire
At the start of this film, a man travelling on a train dumps a bucket of water onto a young woman. This shocking image is explained by flashbacks. This man is the aging Lothario, Mathieu, who has fallen in love and is sexually tormented by a much younger woman, Conchita. A wealthy man, he believes he should be able to buy her with money and gifts, and his failure to seduce her turns his frustration into obsession. This expression of desire is a key concept of Surrealism, which Breton called l'amour fou (mad love). The early Surrealist movement considered the female more powerful than the male for her sentient and imaginative abilities; woman often appears in Surrealist works as an erotic muse but also as a conduit to the world of the fantastic and the magical. (This central role of the female in Surrealism is one reason why Breton forbade homosexuals writers and artists from joining the official movement.) Buñuel greatly admired Breton's novel Nadja (1928), in which the narrator, juxtaposing texts and photographs, explores his obsessive love for a beautiful, mysterious young woman who is ultimately placed in a mental asylum (the tragic real-life story of Leona Delcourt.) "Beauty is CONVULSIVE," the novel ends, "or not at all." Buñuel chose to have two actresses play Conchita to show both sides of her personality, one elegant, sophisticated, the other that of a wild Spanish flamenco dancer. But in a surreal touch, while the audience can see that she literally is two people, Mathieu does not. His sexual frustration is illustrated with Surrealist images and juxtapositions: a rough brown hobo sack reappears throughout the film, sometimes absurdly as Mathieu's sack (replacing his luxurious briefcase) or in the window of a fancy store for fine lace, Conchita wears a medieval chastity girdle that the exasperated Mathieu cannot unfasten, a pig is carried like a baby by a Spanish gypsy, a fly swims in a cocktail at an expensive bar, a mouse is killed in trap as Mathieu attempts to explain his feelings to Conchita's mother, and most shocking of all, senseless acts of terrorism are carried out by a group that calls itself "The Revolutionary Army of The Baby Jesus." Conchita in a sense terrorizes Mathieu sexually, at one point forcing him to watch her have sex with another man, though later she claims that the man was a homosexual and that nothing at all happened. The confusion of fantasy and reality, the violent depiction of frustration, and the inconclusive ending of a terrorist explosion, suggest the destructive power of unfulfilled desire.