Luis Buñuel: The Master of Film Surrealism

Luis Buñuel, the master of film surrealism, challenged social and religious norms, and bourgeois conventions throughout his five-decade career. His distinct style provocative themes and called out the hypocrisy of contemporary bourgeois values. The 40th anniversary of his death passes on July 29.
Caption Luis Buñuel in his film production, Un chien andalou

Caption Luis Buñuel in his film production, Un chien andalou

July 29, 2023 06:49 EDT

“In a world as badly made as ours” said Luis Buñuel, “there is only one path—rebellion.”

This quote captures the essence of the renowned filmmaker’s life and work, which spanned five decades, three continents, three languages, and encompassed every imaginable genre. Despite such diversity, a Buñuel film was always distinctive and easily recognizable. As Ingmar Bergman aptly put it, “Buñuel almost always made Buñuel films.”

Born into a wealthy Spanish family on February 22, 1900, Luis Buñuel Portolés received a strict Jesuit education and grew up in a deeply religious environment. However, he became disillusioned with the hypocrisy and cultural influence of organized religion, ultimately dedicating his life to challenging the church, state and established social order. Buñuel believed that the external veneer of so-called polite society stifled natural human desires, leading to societal dysfunction.

Being acutely aware of the ironies of satirizing his own class, Buñuel possessed an intimate understanding of the neuroses associated with a middle-class Catholic upbringing. When asked about his religious beliefs, he famously replied, “I am still an atheist, thank God.” While he didn’t outright reject the idea of divinity, he delighted in subverting the associated tropes.

A young artist in Paris

Buñuel’s formal education began at the University of Madrid in 1917, where he studied philosophy. It was there that he developed close relationships with poet and playwright Federico García Lorca and painter Salvador Dalí, friendships that profoundly influenced his life and work.

About his eccentric friend Dalí, Buñuel said, “Salvador Dalí seduced many ladies, particularly American ladies, but these seductions usually consisted of stripping them naked in his apartment, frying a couple of eggs, putting them on the woman’s shoulders and, without a word, showing them the door.”

After his father’s death in 1925, Buñuel moved to Paris, where he became an assistant to director Jean Epstein. This apprenticeship led him to collaborate with Salvador Dalí on their iconic 1929 silent film, Un chien andalou (“An Andalusian Dog”). The film catapulted them into the forefront of the burgeoning French surrealist movement led by poet André Breton.

Un chien andalou, written in just six days at Dalí’s home and financed by Buñuel’s mother, featured a series of startling, Freudian-inspired images, including the infamous scene of a woman’s eyeball being sliced open with a blade. The film aimed to shock and insult the intellectual bourgeoisie of Buñuel’s youth. He even carried stones in his pockets, anticipating hecklers at the premiere.

“Our only rule was simple: we would not accept any idea or image that could be rationally explained. We had to embrace the irrational and keep only the images that surprised us, without attempting to provide an explanation,” Buñuel wrote in his autobiography.

Ironically, Un chien andalou was well-received by the very bourgeois audience it aimed to challenge. Determined not to repeat this outcome, Buñuel sought to create a film that would truly provoke. The 1930 film, L’age d’or (“The Golden Age”), turned out to be even more controversial than anticipated.

The film opens with a documentary about scorpions and proceeds with a series of vignettes depicting a couple’s constant thwarted attempts to consummate their relationship due to the hypocrisy and double standards of family, church and society.

During the premiere, fascist groups seized control of the theater, hurling ink at the screen, tearing up seats, throwing bombs and vandalizing the adjacent art gallery. The police banned the film “in the name of public order,” and the Vatican threatened excommunication for the blasphemous final scene that visually linked Jesus Christ with the erotic writings of the Marquis de Sade. L’age d’or was withdrawn from circulation and remained unseen until 1979.

For his next project, the surrealist documentary Las Hurdes (1933), Buñuel returned to Spain. The film focused on the lives of peasants in Extremadura, one of the country’s poorest regions. By adopting a voyeuristic style, Buñuel aimed to discomfort viewers by making them complicit in the depiction of the locals’ pathetic living conditions. The film was known for its disorienting combination of commentary, music and visuals. It faced bans from three consecutive Republican administrations and remained prohibited thereafter.

During the tumultuous period of the Spanish Civil War and World War II (1934-1946), Buñuel worked at Filmófono, a commercial film studio in Spain, before an unproductive stint in Hollywood. He later served as an artistic director at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The execution of his close friend, Federico García Lorca, at the beginning of the Spanish war deeply impacted Buñuel and stayed with him for the remainder of his life.

Buñuel finds a new home in Mexico

In search of new opportunities, Buñuel moved to Mexico in 1946 with his family. His first major success in Mexico came with the 1949 film El gran Calavera (“The Great Madcap”), a hilarious satire of the Mexican nouveau riche that delves into mistaken identities, sham marriages and misfired suicides. A year later, Buñuel renounced his Spanish citizenship and became a naturalized Mexican.

Seeking inspiration, Buñuel frequently ventured into the shanties and ghettos of Mexico City. During one such expedition, he came across the story of a 12-year-old boy found dead at a garbage dump, which became the basis for his next film, Los olvidados (1950), dubbed The Young and the Damned in English. The film, which won the Best Director prize at Cannes, was perceived at the time as an insult to Mexican sensibilities. There were even calls to revoke Buñuel’s Mexican citizenship.

Los Olvidados tells the story of a gang of street children who wreak havoc in their impoverished community, brutalizing a blind beggar and assaulting a crippled individual. Film historian Carl J. Mora noted that Buñuel presented poverty in a radically different way from traditional Mexican melodramas. The street children are not romanticized heroes struggling for survival but ruthless predators no better than their victims.

Buñuel made 20 films in Mexico, most of which conformed to the generic conventions of the studio system. However, some films like Él and Nazarín pushed boundaries and showcased flashes of the irreverent style for which he was known.

Él (called “This Strange Passion” in the US) presents a detached and unsentimental portrait of an affluent Mexican man driven by jealousy to threaten to sew his wife’s vagina shut. The film explores power dynamics between the husband and wife, ultimately questioning the validity of his suspicions. Buñuel described his fascination with the character, saying, “I was moved by this man with so much jealousy, so much internal loneliness and anxiety, and so much external violence. I studied him like an insect.”

In 1954, Buñuel directed his first color film and American production, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, financed by United Artists and produced by George Pepper. The film was followed by The Young One (1960), his second and final American production, based on a short story by Peter Mathieson. It portrays a black man accused of rape who seeks refuge on a remote island, only to encounter a racist gamekeeper. The film explores themes of racism and desire, receiving critical acclaim but also harsh criticism from US audiences.

Two trilogies mark a mature career

In the mid-1950s, Buñuel returned to France to work on international co-productions. During this period, he created what has been called the “revolutionary triptych” with films like Cela s’appelle l’aurore (“This is Called Dawn”), La mort en ce jardin (“Death in the Garden”) and La fièvre monte à El Pao (“Fever Mounts at El Pao”). Each film explicitly or implicitly explores armed revolution against right-wing dictatorships.

In 1960, Buñuel returned to Spain, where he received support from a group of financiers, including Mexican movie star Silvia Pinal and her producer and husband, Gustavo Alatriste. Their collaboration led to the creation of Viridiana, based on a preliminary screenplay written by Buñuel and Julio Alejandro. 

The film centers around a nun named Viridiana, who struggles to uphold her Catholic principles when confronted with the lecherous desires of her uncle and a group of paupers and reprobates. Viridiana caused a massive controversy due to its explicit scenes of rape, incest, necrophilia and animal cruelty, as well as its sacrilegious re-enactment of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Despite the Vatican’s condemnation of Viridiana as an attack on Catholicism and Christianity, the film won the Palme d’or at Cannes. The notoriety thrust Buñuel back into the spotlight and marked the beginning of his fruitful collaboration with actor Fernando Rey, often considered his alter ego.

Buñuel continued to find support for his films after the success of Viridiana. He went on to make two more films in Mexico with Pinal and Alatriste: The Exterminating Angel (1962) and Simon of the Desert (1965). Together with Viridiana, these films are often referred to as the “Buñuelian trilogy.”

The Exterminating Angel satirizes the fears and fantasies of the landed gentry through a group of dinner guests who find themselves unable to leave after a banquet. Trapped in their own bourgeois world, they become increasingly resentful, revealing their worst tendencies.

In Simon of the Desert, the devil tempts a saint by assuming the form of a bare-breasted girl singing and flaunting her legs. The saint eventually abandons his ascetic life to embrace the pleasures of a jazz club.

Leaving behind a legacy

The term “Buñuelian” has come to signify dark, often morbid humor that highlights the absurdities of everyday life. It involves juxtaposing the mundane with the irrational, blurring the boundaries between dreams and reality. Buñuel’s films often feature incongruous imagery, such as farm animals in bourgeois settings, cannibalistic animals and fetishistic shots of feet and legs. In his world, politics and sexuality are inextricably intertwined, exposing the interplay between power, the suppression of desires and freedom.

Insects also feature prominently in many of Buñuel’s films, serving as a recurring theme. Examples include the death’s head hawkmoth in Un chien andalou, the scorpions in L’age d’or, and the framed tarantula in Phantom of Liberty (1974).

Buñuel’s partnership with producer Serge Silberman marked a new phase in his career. Silberman, a Polish émigré in Paris, had previously worked with several renowned directors. Their collaboration began with the 1964 film Diary of a Chambermaid, based on Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel. The film was known for its candid and bold depiction of sexual perversions, a subject that fascinated Buñuel. The young writer Jean-Claude Carrière was brought on board to work on the film, and he would go on to co-write 10 scripts with Buñuel.

The casting of actress Jeanne Moreau in Diary of a Chambermaid was influenced by her mannerisms and body language, reflecting how she walked, ate and carried herself in both public and private settings. Moreau portrayed Célestine, a chambermaid in an upper-class French household who becomes the object of desire for both the father and son of the family. The film slyly acknowledged the repressed desires and voyeuristic tendencies of middle-class audiences.

The pair’s next collaboration, Belle de Jour (1967), was adapted from Joseph Kessel’s 1928 novel. Catherine Deneuve portrayed Séverine, an affluent housewife trapped in a sexless marriage. To awaken her dormant sexuality, she becomes a part-time prostitute. However, her involvement with a young gangster named Marcel leads to the unraveling of her carefully constructed social façade. Buñuel and Carriere reportedly interviewed dozens of prostitutes in Madrid as research for the film. Belle de Jour became Buñuel’s most commercially successful film.

Deneuve also starred in Tristana (1970), a morbid romance depicting the relationship between an aging pederast and the woman he adopts, mistreats and eventually loses. After having her leg amputated, she returns to him seeking support and revenge. Critic Roger Ebert commented on the film, saying, “A few great directors have the ability to draw us into their dream world, into their personalities and obsessions, and fascinate us for a short time. This is the highest level of escapism that movies can provide.”

Among Buñuel’s notable French works, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) stands out. It revolves around a group of wealthy companions who are repeatedly frustrated in their attempts to enjoy a meal together. Through dream sequences, the film delves into their intense fears, including public shame, arrest by authorities and execution by firing squad. Buñuel cleverly employs nested dream sequences, challenging viewers’ efforts to make sense of the narrative.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but Buñuel scorned the accolade, derisively referred to it as the verdict of “2,500 idiots.” The success, though, allowed the 74-year-old director to make The Phantom of Liberty, a film considered quintessentially Buñuelian.

Buñuel and Carriere wrote the script for The Phantom of Liberty by recounting their dreams to each other every morning. Watching the film feels akin to attempting to comprehend a strange dream as it fades into the murky depths of the subconscious. It tackles subjects such as incest, mass murder, sadomasochism, fetishism and pedophilia. The film’s anti-narrative structure combines Buñuel’s satirical humour with increasingly bizarre and outlandish vignettes, challenging viewers’ preconceived notions of reality.

The politically charged film appears eerily prophetic in its voyeuristic and sensational treatment of terrorists and mass murderers. It also foreshadows the impending destruction of the world through humanity’s own foolish and self-destructive desecration of the natural environment.

Buñuel’s final film, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), adapted from an 1898 Pierre Louÿs novel, unfolds through a series of flashbacks. Aging Frenchman Mathieu reminisces about his tumultuous relationship with Conchita, a seductive 19-year-old Flamenco dancer played by two different actresses, Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina. Each actress possesses a distinct on-screen persona. Conchita plays a twisted, erotic game, tormenting Mathieu with intimacy while denying him what he truly desires.

Luis Buñuel passed away at the age of 84 in 1983, with his wife and long-time collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière at his side. Contrary to expectations, he chose Mexico as his final resting place, spending his last weeks discussing theology with a Catholic priest—a symbolic act for a man who had relentlessly criticized the institution throughout his life.

Buñuel summarized his perspective on the world and his place within it by stating, “Somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite people’s attempts to diminish or eradicate it altogether.”
[Anton Schauble edited this piece]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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