The Spanish subversion of Buñuel

 

Last June, Leaf Collecting added a post about the poet Lorca. Today, by coincidence almost exactly a year later, we give some attention to one of his Spanish contemporaries, the film director, Luis Buñuel.

How British television’s treatment of cinema has changed is shown in clear relief when you consider how the programmers reacted differently to the deaths of two equally famous foreign language  directors, Buñuel and Ingmar Bergman.  When Buñuel died in 1983, BBC2 showed a commemorative season of his films in a prime slot, the middle of Friday evenings, around 8 pm.  At the time of Bergman’s death in 2007, he merited only a few late-night screenings on minority channels BBC4 and Film4. Such was the change in the status and popularity in foreign language cinema within a generation.

At the time when I was gaining my first knowledge and interest in world cinema in the early 1970s, Buñuel’s reputation was probably the highest it had ever been.  This was one of those times when cinema was politically, socially and morally provocative while still holding and building mainstream popularity.  Buñuel had been making films since the silent era, yet his latest work was attracting attention in the manner of a director half his age, starring the established European stars of the day like Catherine Deneuve, Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Stéphane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel  and Michel Lonsdale.

 

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The Prado art gallery in Madrid. Buñuel went to university in Madrid and met Lorca around that time.

 

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The statue of Lorca in Plaza de Santa Ana in Madrid.

 

With Lorca, the young Buñuel had been part of a Madrid group of avant-garde artists known as Generación del 27.  His ideas and values were clearly formed by the political and social upheaval in Spain before and during the Spanish Civil War, when the country was divided between the monarchy, the church, the upper classes and the nationalists on one side and the working classes, the peasants and the republicans on the other. Even as a Christian, I can’t resist the anti-clerical attitude of his films, which seems such an integral part of his classical Marxism. It clearly springs from a different and more exotic time and place, when the modern social order and its materialist values were not yet so deeply ingrained.

 

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A colourful exterior in Plaza de Santa Ana.

 

Buñuel’s early surrealist classics Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or  contain many scenes which can still shock. The former has the razor blade slicing a woman’s eye. The latter includes some fully-robed bishops decaying into skeletons, the couple whose loud attempts at sexual coupling in the mud disturb a formal civic ceremony, the gamekeeper who shoots his own son for a minor misdeed, and the debauched nobleman who looks eerily like Jesus Christ.

Lack of commercial support blunted the edge of Buñuel’s individual vision in the subsequent decades and what films he made, often outside Europe, were of different styles and genres. It was later, when he was, amazingly, in his 60s and 70s, that his work consistently regained that original bite.

 

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Buñuel knew Toledo well, and shot his film “Tristana” there.

 

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A medieval door in Toledo.

 

In Viridiana, the title character is a former nun who practises the Franciscan ideals of charity towards a group of beggars.  Yet, they respond shabbily to her kindness. They take over the best part of the house for their evening meal one day when Viridiana and her cousin Jorge are out. At the end of the meal they pose together for a photograph in an irreverent spoof of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper and dance to the accompaniment of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. When Viridiana and Jorge return earlier than expected, he is knocked unconscious and tied up while she is assaulted.

Two scenes at the end emphasise Viridiana’s rejection of her previous religious life. The crown of thorns which she kept as a novice is finally burned, and she is shown playing cards with Jorge and his new lover to the accompaniment of jaunty popular music, in contrast to the religious music which accompanied the opening credits.

In  The Exterminating Angel, the Catholic Church is targeted less fiercely than the rich and selfish middle-classes. Servants leave a dinner party prematurely, and, as if in consequence, the guests are not able to leave the house when the evening is over. Nobody outside can get in, even the civic authorities and the army, although there is clearly no physical impediment. Food runs out, deteriorating hygiene is complained about, a pipe in the wall is broken to provide drinking water.  One of the guests collapses and dies, one engaged couple commit suicide. Finally the servants return outside, and the guests are able to regain the will and energy to leave.  They attend Mass to give thanks for their release but now the priest and the congregation fall prey to the same inertia, even while outside  the army are quelling a disorder by gunfire.

In  The Phantom of Liberty, a collection of loosely connected scenes mock the civic and religious authorities and the professional middle-classes in their expensive homes and clothes. A group of monks lead prayers for a young women’s ill father and then play cards with her using religious medals as chips while carrying on an irreverent discussion about the church’s attitude to sainthood. Some trainee police officers behave like school pupils in front of their lecturer, scrawling graffiti on the board before he comes in and pinning a paper figure to the back of his jacket. Party guests openly sit on toilets and talk about excrement and defecation but are coy about discussing food.  A child is reported as missing and becomes the subject of an official police investigation although she is still in the room.  A man arbitrarily shoots passers-by from the top of a city tower block, and then in court, when he is convicted and sentenced to death, he and everyone around him react as if he has been acquitted by congratulating him, chatting amiably and requesting his autograph. A police commissioner excuses himself from the police station for an important appointment which turns out instead to be a game of dominoes in a bar, and he is later arrested for breaking into a mausoleum and for desecrating a grave.

Buñuel’s critical acclaim was boosted by The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1972. He enjoyed the highest production standards for his later films, despite their illogical narratives and challenging perspectives on human behaviour. Today, in contrast, it is annoyingly hard to see many of his films. Long ago, BBC2 did screen Belle De Jour, the story of a married woman’s sexual peccadilloes and fantasies which influenced a later internet and TV project, but it is long overdue rescreening. Nor have I ever seen either that aforementioned Oscar-winner or the final That Obscure Object of Desire. The Milky Way, about two tramps journeying symbolically to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela, sounds enticing, too. 

The nearest equivalent of  Buñuel in today’s cinema is possibly his Spanish compatriot  Pedro Almadóvar. It’s certainly not an exact match: Almadóvar rarely shows  Buñuel’s scabrous ferocity. As we were saying at the start, times have changed.

 

 

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