Luis Buñuel’s movies, beginning of course with Un Chien Andalou (1928), that ur-surrealist film for all seasons, defy category, logic, good taste and ‘common’ sense. They are, quite simply, unique. It’s amazing how he kept getting the money! But the simple fact is that Buñuel’s infrequent movies nearly always made a profit in Europe alone. He was, quite simply, as bankable as the High Art that rich corporations so love to hang in their boardrooms. Like Woody Allen he always seemed to be able to raise the monies for his latest assault on the bourgeoisie while stalking the gallery openings and premieres like any other hipster of the demi-monde. Though as his work grew more and more willful and whimsical – as charted by Michael Wood in this elegantly visual book – some of his former audiences deserted him for younger sensations, mistrusting perhaps his very bottle-age: for when he made Belle du Jour he was 67, two thirds of a century old.
Wood’s argument is that Buñuel, through all his careers shifts, was essentially both ageless and consistent and that his ‘late period’ really began with Belle du Jour. Buñuel died 16 years later but not before creating another six excellent movies, all in colour, and including The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (the perfect Buñuel title?) in 1972 and ending with That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).
The BFI Film Classics are a curious phenomenon, seeming to be a late flowering of British dilettantism but stylishly set in the stone of a new, glossier format and valorised by footnotes, bibliographies and other appurtenances of the scholarly. Yet the style and varied approaches, from literary (Rushdie) to academic cool (Brian Winston on Fires were Started) of the series is, idiosyncratic, relaxed scholarship aside.
Michael Wood’s book of course doesn’t concern itself with such crudities as film finance; this is more like a gallery catalogue at times, combining great stills with writing that veers between the cool, the analytical and the lush – almost in the tradition of Buñuel ‘s latter day screen world of gorgeous images and rich colours laid over complexly patterned and obscurely troubling writing. Indeed the longish BFI Classic backlist seems rather haphazard, not necessarily from any conventional film buff’s world. All the better: any list that can range from (say) Bride of Frankenstein or L’Atalante and Things to Come in the 1930s to Annie Hall or La Nuit Americaine in the 1970s can’t be a bad thing!
Belle du Jour arises from an earlier more academic project on Buñuel’s life and work that was abandoned at the time. In a revealing interview with Noel King, Wood explains how he had narrowed his focus given the smaller frame of the monograph form. However, he hoped to end up by producing:
…some account of the film’s production history, its relation to the Joseph Kessel novel, so that it would match the rest of the [BFI] series. The other thing that I thought I could do was use that space to try to figure out the ending of Belle de Jour. Buñuel claims that there are not two endings, there is just one ambiguous ending. I think he’s right in one sense and wrong in another. It doesn’t seem quite tenable to think that there is only one ending. (King and Wood extract p.1)
Wood is concerned to get right down to it though. Quoting Buñuel, “I don’t like psychology…(but) it goes without saying that reading Freud and the discovery of the Unconscious meant a lot to me in my youth”. And he is keen to play off this nicely setup disclaimer against the evidence of the movie: “What does it mean to remember Freud and not like psychology. One answer would be that it meant making Belle du Jour.” (45) Neat! Wood is nothing if not concerned to discuss endlessly the famed ambiguities of the film, and the unconscious resort of Buñuel to the Unconscious is certainly one way to set up the terms of the debate. Indeed it would explain everything about Buñuel from Un Chien Andalou to Viridiana (1961), wouldn’t it?
But Buñuel as a filmmaker also hooks us because he almost always tells a rattling good yarn. Leaving aside debates about the incidental horror, say, of the ‘infamous’ eyeball slitting of Un Chien Andalou his films actually tell stories of stark simplicity and create almost perfect internal worlds, but the narrative lines are stark, often generic and easy to follow even when at their most sly or, as with Severine (Christine Deneuve) and the ‘bee in the box’ in Belle de Jour, ultimately too much fun to really need to be explained in mundane terms. (A bee? A battery driven micro-dildo? Who cares.)
The stories are also most often tragic at the core if blackly comic in execution: games of lust, art and machine gun politique in a stately home (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) for example and, always, the interlacing of powerful sexual themes as the motor for action. After all, let’s not forget Belle de Jour‘s plot (based on Joseph Kessel’s play) is about a woman, Severine, a classic haute bourgeoisie in both looks and background detail, who spends the afternoons in a Paris brothel, on the job.
Phew, what a scorcher. It can get hot in Buñuel’s cinema universe at times. Indeed, watching an elegant late Buñuel movie (shot by Sascha Vierny, as Belle de Jour was) is a bit like conducting a (classy) affair in the Paris Musée de la Mode et du Textile by night. How is it that such a contrary fellow had so quickly and permanently ensnared a worldwide following bordering on cultish from his first film – not unlike Salvador Dali, but without the silly Hispanic carry-on?
Of course, Wood’s sometimes florid style is a characteristic mark of the BFI series as a whole, as if those from an academic background are contracted to let their usual steely control slip, just this once, mind. Naturally such stuff won’t help you out with such puzzles as why Buñuel’s oeuvre is so damned intriguing – it’s too, well, personal. And this gorgeous-looking book, so often clogged with tutorial-style rehearsals of film and psychoanalytic theory, as often seems to miss the point.
Wood’s book, as with all the series in general, features many fine film stills (in black and white and plenty in colour) and they alone come to seem worth the price of admission, often undermining by their juxtaposition the determined efforts of the writer to be coolly detached and professional about movies in general. But, for example, why that still of walking feet from Strangers on a Train in a Belle de Jour monograph (13), even for purposes of a (spurious) technical comparison? And those rather over fussy shot descriptions that somehow feel as if they make up almost half the text? Just one example:
The long-held shot which opens Belle de Jour ends as the camera (…) slowly pans up (sic) a row of trees towards the sky. Another director would pause here, allow us to absorb the scenery and make sense of the implied location … (11-12)
But Wood is at his best – and the monograph at its most useful – when the writing is loose and more speculative rather than concerned with the technicalities of shot description. Dealing with the ending of the film he writes: “The other image is far from graceful or quiet. It is so crass that it looks like and must in part be, one of Buñuel’s jokes about the very idea of intelligible meaning.” (66)
When less certain Wood is more helpful – Buñuel’s work cannot be reduced to a Bordwell and Thomson shot listing. But this book – and the BFI series in general – are better when going with the movies rather than cutting them up. So that as Wood himself has suggested, it is possible to say something about the unspeakable gap between the Novel and the Film when you relax a bit:
In a novel, you can simply say it didn’t happen. I was dreaming all this, and there are no real consequences. In a film, you can say ‘I was dreaming all this’ but it’s not clear what you’ve done when you say it. The same is true, endlessly, within The Discreet Charm. You see what you see, and then someone says, ‘I was only dreaming’.” (Wood and King, p.4)
In the end we are left with the movie itself, still as elusive and confronting as ever. And Luis Buñuel –one of our most fascinating image-makers of the last century – and this book ensures that the postmodern set, the new generation of highly visually literate readers, will continue to take as much interest in him as the movie punters.
Click here to order this book directly from
Aranda, Francisco, Luis Buñuel, trans. and ed. by D. Robinson, Da Capo Press, New York, 1976
Durgnat, Raymond, Luis Buñuel, Studio Vista, London, 1982
Kessel, Joseph, Belle de Jour, Gallimard, Paris, 1928
King, Noel, An Interview with Michael Wood at Princeton University, 25 October 2000 Forthcoming Metro Magazine. Interview extracts reproduced with kind permission of Noel King.