Luis Bunuel

compiled by Bill Mousoulis

A mini-retrospective of films by Luis Buñuel:

L’Age d’Or (1930)
Viridiana (1961)
The Exterminating Angel (1962)
Simon of the Desert (1965)
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)


As a Surrealist, Buñuel’s desire was for revolution brought on by scandal. This meant levelling constant hostility towards the tyranny, hypocrisy, exploitation and injustice practiced by the institutions of organised society. “The real purpose of Surrealism”, as he said, was “to explode the social order, to transform life itself.” Despite the ‘public call to assassination’ of his films and the Surrealist movement, Buñuel remained convinced of Surrealist claims to morality. This was a morality, however, which bore little resemblance to traditional bourgeois, Christian values. As such, the expression of this revolutionary morality in Buñuel’s films remains still rich and still vital.

– Mark Nicholls, reprinted from the MIFF catalogue.

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L’Age d’Or (1930) by Bill Mousoulis

L'Age d'Or

Buñuel’s debut feature L’Age d’Or is extremely funny and extremely sexy. A passion play about the travails of love (or l’amour fou, though one wonders exactly what the “mad” thing is) in the bourgeois world, it combines a clear-cut narrative (a man and a woman are continuously thwarted in their attempts to make love) with bizarre, random set pieces (the death throes of a ragged band of soldiers; the killing of a child; a man walking through a park with a loaf of bread on his head; a hair-adorned wooden cross; etc.)

The film functioned as a Surrealist statement at the time, typically attacking the bourgeoisie and the Church. Now, L’Age d’Or still remains remarkably fresh, its violence incredibly salutary, its devilry magnificent.

It attacks the bourgeoisie both from the outside (as when two drunken yobs on a rickety horse and cart pass through the loungeroom where an upper-class party is taking place) and the inside (our hero is a ministerially-appointed “Ambassador of Good Will”, and our heroine the daughter of a Marquise). And there’s a glorious attack on Christianity in the closing sequence.

Our heroic, nameless couple, the Man (Gaston Modot) and Woman (Lya Lys), are in the throes of an intense, unconsummated desire all through the film. The erotic charge on display is exemplary: Modot looks in a store window at an advertising photo of a woman leaning back in a chair, and the film dissolves to Lys in the same pose. She then looks into her dressing-table mirror, and the infinite sky replaces her reflection, and she experiences a sublime psycho-sexual longing. Compared to this, the spiritual connection between the lovers in L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934) is somewhat mild and homely. Imagine what more Buñuel could have achieved in the ’30s (think of Renoir) had he been given the chance …

L’Age d’Or is one of the cinema’s great “shock” films. At the time, it was accompanied by a manifesto. It needs no such justifications or provocations now. All one has to do is to watch it, and its power and passion literally explode off the screen.

© Bill Mousoulis  2000           [Bill Mousoulis is an independent filmmaker, and co-editor of Senses of Cinema.]

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Viridiana (1961) by M. C. Zenner


The films of Luis Buñuel always involve a strong narrative element. The Surrealism connection, too long overstressed, misleadingly suggested a haphazard juxtaposing of ‘associative’ but otherwise-disconnected fragments as the heart of early Buñuel. They were mistaken. Buñuel was an Anarchist before he was anything else, æsthetically or politically. The stark contiguities of this with that, an essentially static device, were Dali’s contribution, building on what was effective as an unmoving image upon a surface into which spectators could project. But in films we are already ‘projected’ into surfaces, so to speak-and they were Buñuel’s side of this volatile partnership. By putting those fragments into motion, he showed how they were (probably) arrived at, and what they might develop into: new configurations, further tableaux, both nightmarish and banal.

So it remained. Never afraid to solder the edges of a razor-etched nightmare to a most enjoyable unwinding of its history (but omitting the fatalism of the ‘flashback’), Buñuel was equally unafraid of the most hackneyed, lurid or vulgar material when it suited his purposes. Viridiana is exemplary. Its scenario reads like a ghoulash of Sadean theatrics, Elinor Glyn, and Harold Robbins at his cheap worst. The downward path of a novice released to care for her ailing uncle (a fetishistic voyeur with designs on his niece) on an estate in modern-day Spain, who tries charity on its beggars, and ends up having her chastity assailed from three separate sources-uncle, cousin, and beggars-is not exactly a new one to trace. The progress of Innocence, three stations, three suitors competing for the prize.the late-18th century feel may not be indeliberate on Buñuel’s part. All he required of the story was that it be bendable in a certain direction; that portions of it branch off towards provisional narrative climaxes, with perfect naturalness and no forcing on his part. This it beautifully achieves.

Time and again in Viridiana, a sequence of events leads up to a massed or summary tableau that catches something like its essential nature, timeless yet inalienably the moment’s own. These tableaux are like epiphanies, carrying a charge of meaning that wordlessly erupts in all directions-social, political, sexual, artistic-and travels centuries: two, to be precise, reaching back to a certain referential limit-point located at the core of Spain’s late Enlightenment. There are about half a dozen in the film-from the rope-and-bough paraphernalia of the Don’s suicide, to the final card-game trio, seated in the vast, dim kitchen, cigarettes busily going as a brassy rock’n’roll number belts out from the record-player: the cousin, the maid, and a disillusionedly un-virginal Viridiana. Watching the well-oiled narrative wheels rolling to each one is highly enjoyable, given the evident priority of Destination over Journey.

But the one that is the most fun to watch is the famous Beggars’ Banquet at the film’s ‘dramatic’ climax: a pilfering and gastronomic trespass, ending in an orgy, rape and a possible murder (the fate of the blind victim not being shown). It is a gloriously anarchic experience, seeing the convergence of two totally alien histories into an iconograph both famed and revered, building with ‘natural’ ease to the point when, in near-perfect registration, they suddenly fuse in a flash of-Polaroid Instant: the Last Supper of daVinci and Buñuel. The central seat and the downcast eyes now belong to a blind, viciously lecherous drunk, steadying himself with Leonardo-placed hands for his picture, while his inebriate apostles lurch about and cuss each other out.

Rather than admiring Buñuel’s outrageous cleverness in dismantling the false ‘essentialness’ of art’s timeless postures, the moment ought to send us back to the likely studio circumstances-and the political money engine-at the core of this rotting High Florentine gestography and the transfiguration we think we see (or saw, once) in it: see-saw in it. For the movement that produced and paid for it was mercantile to its bones, with all the usual vices attending a money culture. Alternatively, there is no harm in looking forward to the Rolling Stones album which this scene certainly inspired. Why not? Viridiana’s big moments invite such multi-faceted, trans-temporal unfoldings. Committed to no exclusive interpretation, no single period, no one political program, they may allude to any or to all as the case suits. Their grimy but sharply highlit black-and-white groupings-huddled beggars, a hooded virgin, the cloaked Don, the candelabrum, the hot eyes and insane grins of the marked-are charged from the same nerve-lightning in Goya’s Peninsular War, his Disparates and the Black frescos: the sudden vision that growing stone-deaf to words can bestow.

Or-another 18th century vision-the Jolly Beggars of Burns, that acid-etched plate in verse. All the nightmares of that century’s most enlightened artists, in fact, are in the resonances of the film’s strongest tableaux. This carries a special sting for ‘modern’ Spain (represented by Jorge, our heroine’s hungry and moneywise cousin): a country only recently allowed to commence the epoch following the Fall of the Bastille, and to whose lingering older half the copperplate homilies subscribing an 18th century print might still be applied with no appearance of incongruity. To the newer half, frankly bourgeois without any of the first bourgeois cycle’s high-medieval masks (as in the Florentine renaissance), Money Talks and sex is a token of the talker-Jorge, in this case. This half perhaps lacks mystery, and the romance born of believing the lie called ‘love’. (Indeed, the only remaining mystery at the end is whether the blind man got to the prize first, just before the mayhem, or Jorge has managed to come in by a head. You decide, viewer.) At this price-and still an epoch or two behind-Viridiana survives the thrilling terminus of the orgy into the ‘new’ age, stripped (was she?) of her virgin bloom.

Note that her name derives from the Latin viriditas: green, virid, Spring-fresh. Green she has certainly been, in her naïve belief in the efficacy of Christian ‘charity’ (handouts + homilies) among the moneyless and terminally deprived. But there is never any going back to beliefs you no longer have. Which may or may not mean that there is an Up side to the ending withal its counterbalancing hint, that the devil you know might after all be the better of the two: Old and New. But watching Viridiana lose her viridity is such an unadulterated buzz, that to the marriage of devil with devil we bring no frowns.

© M. C. Zenner 2000    [M. C. Zenner is an occasional writer, a voracious reader, and a once-avid viewer who is glad to have no academic connection whatever.]

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The Exterminating Angel (1962) by Acquarello

The Exterminating Angel

The sound of a tolling church bell prefaces the bizarre events that are to unfold at a Mexican estate on Providence Street. An aristocrat appropriately named Nobilé (Enrique Rambal) has invited several society friends to his home after the opera. But even as the dinner preparations are underway, the servants feel an inexplicable urge to leave the premises. Despite the threat of dismissal, an anxious footman, Lucas (Ángel Merino), is the first to leave. As the guests arrive and ascend the staircase to deposit their overcoats for the evening, two more servants attempt to escape, only to turn back when the guests emerge from the room. Or do they? Curiously, the entrance scene of the guests is repeated from a higher camera angle, and this time, the servants successfully escape.

Repetitive patterns emerge. Nobilé toasts Sylvia (Rosa Elena Durgel) on her operatic performance, and is joined in the celebration by the attentive audience. The camera pans to the idle gossip of the guests, then cuts back to Nobilé, whose toast is now ignored amidst the conversational din of the preoccupied guests.

As the hors d’oeuvres are served, the waiter accidentally drops the tray. The hypocritical guests exuberantly applaud the unusual presentation as “entertainment”. The rest of the dinner passes without incident. Inevitably, the guests migrate to an adjoining parlor to continue with their empty conversation. Two men focus their attention on the beautiful “Valkyrie” (Silvia Pinal), rumored to be a virgin. Several familiar guests, including two lovers engaged to be married, Beatriz (Ofelia Montesco) and Eduardo (Xavier Masse), go through the pretense of introducing themselves to each other. Blanca (Patricia de Morelos), a terminally ill pianist, passionately kisses her attending physician (Augusto Benedico), and the doctor reveals to the other guests that she will soon grow bald. A pregnant woman named Rita (Patricia Morán) casually alludes to the questionable paternity of her baby in front of her equally dispassionate husband.

The hours pass. The people yawn and stretch out in exhaustion, yet no one leaves. And so the unusual charade continues, as the guests make their way towards the open hallway of the entrance, hesitate, and find a reason or excuse to stay. Despite their mutual realization that they have clearly overstayed their welcome, no one wants to bear the distinction of being the first person to leave the dinner party. The veneer of civility erodes as desperation and distrust set in, and inevitably, the guests turn against their accommodating host, blaming him for their absurd, self-induced captivity.

Luis Buñuel uses his signature sardonic humor and surrealist imagery as instruments of social indictment in The Exterminating Angel. In an environment defined by etiquette instead of humanity, Buñuel exposes the underlying artifice and hypocrisy of civilized society. In essence, it is the burden of the guests to perform the meaningless, Sisyphean rituals dictated by their privileged class: the repetitive introductions, the polite acceptance of social invitations, and the perpetuation of self-indulgent dinner parties. However, it is also the passive comfort of their social status that creates their exclusive isolation and complacent inertia.

But why cannot the guests simply leave? The odd situation seems to result from an inherent fear of individual exposure. During the first evening, upon seeing that some guests have the audacity to remove their dinner jackets, Nobilé tells his wife to follow their improper behavior and take off their own jackets in order to “attenuate the incorrectness.” In essence, by not taking the initiative to leave, the guests are attenuating the incorrectness of their own polite behavior (and that of their host), and no one will break etiquette and lead them to the door. The fear of committing a social faux pas far outweighs their desire to leave, and the guests become trapped in the absurdity of their own social correctness.

The Exterminating Angel is a visually stunning, richly symbolic, and subtly allegorical tale on the nature of human behavior. Through a claustrophobic examination of masters without servants, Luis Buñuel strips the façade of all social pretense and exposes the fundamentally base, instinctual, and primal behavior innate in the human soul. What separates man from beast? According to Buñuel, the answer lies in the freedom of the animals.

© Acquarello 2000       [Acquarello is a NASA Design Engineer and author of the Strictly Film School website. ]

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Simon of the Desert (1965)

Simon of the Desert

Short, sharp and astounding, this film provides a teasing bridge between the Old Testament Buñuel (Viridiana) and the New (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). Simon of the Desert concerns a living saint who resides atop a 60-foot pillar large enough only to stand on. Aside from performing miracles to the accolades of his adoring followers, Simon Stylites is also assailed by a series of characters including an epileptic priest, a dwarf goat-herder and his goats, which give rise to some very funny dialogue and some wonderfully surreal imagery.

Throughout the film Simon is presented with numerous temptations by the Devil (in the fomr of Sylvia Pinal – who plays the title role in Viridiana), culminating in his being brought back to earth, to a modern New York discotheque. The film, shot in the form of a socialist realist documentary, has been described as an incredibly perceptive rendering of the unnaturalness and hypocrisy associated with religious fanaticism and extremism, but Buñuel has put all the interpretations of Simon of the Desert in perspective when he said “Thank God I’m still an atheist.”

– taken from the MIFF catalogue (uncredited writer)

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The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) by M. C. Zenner

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

It used to be a truism among purist cinephiles, that the better the film, the less that can be written about it. I am delighted to say that the most that can be attempted in the allotted space is a few summary remarks on the salient features of this first entry in Buñuel’s ‘bourgeois’ trilogy.

The most visible structural device is the embedding of little narratives-anecdotes or dreams-within the ‘main’ one, which concerns the rather random peregrinations of the Ambassador of Miranda, Rafael D’Acosta (Fernando Rey), among a little group of wealthy Parisian friends, two of whom evidently have their hands in some highly placed government pockets. With good reason: these three are engaged in some illegal private business, to wit, importing top-grade cocaine; everything to do with our friends is ‘top-grade’, including their brand of illegality. Between threats to the ambassador from political terrorist groups, and threats to their business from local detectives (who should really know better), our heroes have their hands full, kept in a state of somnolent paranoia between gourmet meals. These are forever being interrupted or cancelled: an appointment mixup, a wake, army manouvers, a police raid, etc. This is the main thread, on which the various episodes and narratives are pegged: the inability of the wealthy bourgeoisie to get a square meal!

Death, or the threat of death, dogs the Interruptions theme, running its cold little finger across even the dreamed episodes and into the ‘reality’ that follows. Which brings us to the second main structural thread: the weird unreality that begins to contaminate even the most stolidly wakeful episodes, with doubled characters, ghosts, repetitions, impossible ‘facts’, etc., the net result of which is to make the status of each uncertain. At what point, exactly, has the final ‘dream’ (D’Acosta’s) begun-or has the entire film been his dream? Why does the same soldier, first a cadet lieutenant, then a sergeant, recounting two different tales, ellicit no recognition from the ladies when he reappears? Why is the youthful maid said to be 52? What are the crickets from Un Chien Andalou (1928) doing in the episode of The Bloody Sergeant-in the Superintendent’s dream? This is the Chinese Box theme: the embedding of dreams within dreams, as one character dreams another’s dream, dreams him waking up, and continues on with his ‘own’ until an awakening that might not be his. Our bourgeoisie feels even its dreams as property under threat!

The dreams’ irresistible reminder of the famous Borges story, The Circular Ruins, is not inapposite, given the ‘Miranda’ connection. Between Peronist Argentina and D’Acosta’s wretched banana republic-outwardly bourgeois-democratic and really fascist-there is little to choose. An endless and cyclical unreality erected on the ruins of a huge Lie is what these men are custodians of: the Library of Might-Have-Beens. Is there an Outside of its walls-an Ultimate Dreamer, named Borges or Buñuel? Self-reflexive solutions are so comforting. C’est trés chic!

But no: the only certain outside to all this is the recurrent Road theme-our group of six aimlessly strolling along a paved but deserted stretch of road in open country, not visibly headed for anywhere. (The film, in fact, ends with them still strolling.) It is like a partly submerged rope resurfacing in four places, unrelated to any other diegetic element, but there all the time as a background to the rest. Each time we return to it, there is no change, no apparent progress-not even a lapse of time that we can see. Precisely: there is none, the journey is aimless, the road is an empty one. This is the only comment that can be made, and not much footage or verbiage need be wasted on it. The discreetly good life, lived in complacent ignorance of other modes or social classes, is its own empty aim and end.

And that, all the disturbing interruptions notwithstanding, is what we get most of: the fatuous platitudes uttered at table and away from it, the country houses and dining-rooms that look like a glossy color-spread, the fashionable spot of country-copulating-in-the-bushes, the ‘worker-priest’ (with an updated neurosis of his own to match those of the other characters). The obviousness of it all is part of the humor. To illustrate: the noisy jet plane that covers the ‘explanation’ of the Minister of the Interior (Michel Piccoli) both times, when the Superintendent wants to know why he must let our cocaine-dealers go (it drowned out the first delivery). A moment’s thought shows how easy it is to guess, without having to tie the reason to a specific party and point in time, and all the ‘historical’ alibis this releases: good for any or for all! The laughable paucity of what is ‘hidden’, and of the threats to our determined heroes, is of a piece with their inane opinions and proverbial utterances-with their lives, as we have them. With our lives (given a second moment’s thought).

This is why Buñuel pitched his tale at a generalized level: to gain the necessary distance from the alibis of a too-particular place and time, a too focussed psychology. Against this background, fighting your way through to a frozen midnight snack amounts to a really tremendous victory-one that the viewer will on some occasion have perhaps enjoyed. Meaning? Well, if you are going to agonize over trivialities, and even invent something to agonize about where history so cruelly withholds it-then it is probably impossible, or at the very least impossibly probable, to eat your meal and have it. Which, in appropriately worn-out summary form, closes the circle where we began.

© M. C. Zenner 2000    [M. C. Zenner is an occasional writer, a voracious reader, and a once-avid viewer who is glad to have no academic connection whatever.]

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