The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: May 28 - June 4, 1998

[Movie Reviews]

| reviews & features | by movie | by theater | by time and neighborhood | film specials | hot links |

The exterminating angel

Luis Buñuel at the Harvard Film Archive

by Steve Vineberg

"THE SUBVERSIVE CHARM OF LUIS BUÑUEL," At the Harvard Film Archive, through June 30.

Belle Du Jour Luis Buñuel was almost always subversive and frequently uproarious, but I'd hesitate to say that he was often charming. His movies are studded with bitter ironies, they can be baffling (in whole or in part), and they devalue most of the elements we resolutely bourgeois viewers tend to look for -- like character, performance, plot, high style, polish. He attacked the Catholic Church over and over (he was raised in Spain by the Jesuits), and his films can sometimes be seen as parables about the repressive Franco regime, but his major target was the middle-class expectations of his audiences. So the appropriate response to many of his movies is probably both amusement and bemusement, a baffled admiration of his refusal to buckle to the demands of popular narrative filmmaking -- baffled because the shrug with which he seems to throw sections of his pictures away (like the final sequences in his superb 1965 short film Simon of the Desert and in the famous Belle de jour two years later) is so much in opposition to his savvy and abilities that it can feel like a slashing of his own canvases. He may be the only great moviemaker who seemed to care so little about technique so much of the time -- and that paradox is, of course, part of the fascination of watching his pictures.

The Harvard Film Archive series, which plays throughout June, is the first major Buñuel retrospective in the Boston area in a long time, and despite its omissions -- The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is conspicuously absent, as are El and Nazarín, and especially his great 1952 adaptation of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe -- the 14 selections provide a rich sampling of Buñuel in all three of his phases and all his forms. He had a very strange career. His early short films -- Un chien andalou and L'âge d'or (double-billed June 12), made with Salvador Dalí, and Las Hurdes (otherwise known as Land Without Bread, June 13) -- are modernist classics; you wouldn't dream of designing a course in the history of world cinema and leaving them out.

The Dalí collaborations, made in 1928 and 1930, are audacious, poker-faced pieces of pure surrealism. In Un chien andalou, a man (played by Buñuel himself) slices a woman's eye with a razor as clouds obscure the moon outside his window -- a scene of gothic horror that's undercut by its utter affectlessness and the hilarious lack of consequence this violent act produces in terms of character or narrative. And in L'âge d'or the loud coupling of a man and woman interrupts a solemn ceremony in a graveyard, where a pair of skeletons (one in a general's hat, one in a cardinal's) are the objects of official obeisance. Although pulled apart, the couple can't keep away from each other; later he crashes her parents' dinner party and, after belting her mother for spilling wine on his boiled shirt, he lures his inamorata to the garden to resume their lovemaking while the other guests applaud a local orchestra made up partially of glaring, violin-playing priests. (L'âge d'or inspired Henry Miller to write an article called "The Golden Age" in which he claimed, "They have called Buñuel everything -- traitor, anarchist, pervert, defamer, iconoclast. But lunatic they dare not call him.")

You'd imagine that these films, and the shocking, unforgettable Las Hurdes -- a 1932 documentary about a mountain region of Spain so poor and backward that its nightmarish reality blurs the line between realism and surrealism -- would have catapulted Buñuel into an astonishing career as an avant-garde artist. But instead he worked as a dubber and a producer, went to Hollywood during the Spanish Civil War to advise on pro-Loyalist pictures -- a project that came to an abrupt end when Franco defeated the Loyalists -- and finally got a job at the Museum of Modern Art. He didn't get back to directing his own movies until he went to Mexico in 1947, and the films he made there, until he moved his operations to France in the mid '60s, are a curious mix. Some are potboilers (like Illusion Travels by Streetcar, June 16 and 17, and his adaptation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights), offering little evidence of his wit, his obsessions, or his cool satirist's style. Others, like The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (June 18 and 19), Viridiana (June 23), The Exterminating Angel (June 19 and 21), and the 45-minute Simon of the Desert (June 13), are distinctive black comedies that no one else could possibly have made, though they're sometimes executed with such carelessness that the experience of watching them tends to be simultaneously invigorating and exasperating. Two (Los olvidados, June 1 and 4, and The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe) are masterpieces.

Finally, in 1967, he began to make his movies in color, with a sudden, unlooked-for visual dazzle and some of the most glamorous actors in Europe (Catherine Deneuve, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, Pierre Clementi, Michel Piccoli, in addition to his favorite actor, the slyly elegant Spaniard Fernando Rey). Except for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the HFA series includes all of these: Belle de jour (June 20 and 21), The Milky Way (June 20), Tristana (June 13 and 14), The Phantom of Liberty (June 12 and 14), and That Obscure Object of Desire (June 27, 28, and 30).

The common element in all these movies except for the potboilers is the unremitting use of irony, though it appears in different forms. In Tristana, the beautiful heroine (Deneuve) deflowered by her aging guardian (Rey) loses her leg to a disease that almost takes her life, and the clump of her wooden leg makes her even more desirable to him. She also becomes a mean, bitter-tongued survivor, like Mattie Silver in Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome. (The film is a rather dull parable, but it's briefly enlivened by these final scenes.) In Simon of the Desert, the saintly Simon (Claudio Brook) stands on a pillar, preaching to the assembled people and performing the occasional miracle to help them out, but they're so used to him that his generosity elicits no gratitude, in fact no response stronger than blasé assessment. A thief whose hands were chopped off as punishment moans that in his debilitated state he can't feed his children; when Simon restores his hands, the first action he takes with them is to shove his curious son. In Los olvidados, a brutal depiction of ghetto life among the children of Mexico City, the ironies are partly Dickensian and partly Marxist. In one scene, we see the delighted faces of children on a merry-go-round; then the camera pulls back to reveal that their entertainment has been purchased by the labor of other children, human pack horses who trudge to make the apparatus move.

Los olvidados is one of the few Buñuels that doesn't contain any of his trademark narrative tricks -- his favorite way of upsetting bourgeois expectations. In The Exterminating Angel, an aristocrat gives a dinner party and for some reason the guests find they can't leave. The end of Belle de jour, a tale of a chic Parisian housewife who takes a day job as a hooker, resolves nothing: it throws the story into an endless cycle, like the end of the great British horror anthology Dead of Night (though for reasons that are a lot less clear than they are in Dead of Night). The joke of The Phantom of Liberty is that there's no throughline and no focal set of characters: each episode leads calmly to another, the anecdotal scenes spelling each other for our attention like vaguely related paintings in an eclectic gallery. That Obscure Object of Desire has the same plot line as the Sternberg-Dietrich The Devil Is a Woman, but for reasons Buñuel never makes clear the beauty who tempts and taunts the protagonist (Fernando Rey) is played by two different -- and extremely different-looking -- actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. The Milky Way has only the tiniest wisp of a frame -- a pilgrimage -- linking its sketches, which alternate between the modern day and the 18th century.

Almost all of these movies display Buñuel's love of surrealist imagery, which never deserted him. A coffin slithers across the desert sand in Simon of the Desert and Satan (in the form of the beautiful Silvia Pinal) steps out of it. A disembodied hand rolls across a plate in The Exterminating Angel. Tristana envisions her seducer's head as the clapper of the town's church bell.

The single surrealist sequence in Los olvidados is the most stunning scene in the film. Pedro (Alfonso Mejía), banished by his mother (Estela Inda), returns home to beg her forgiveness, but she refuses to feed him and sends him away -- mostly because she has begun to sleep with his friend, Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), and her guilt multiplies her battery of resentments against her son. In Pedro's dream, he asks her why she wouldn't give him any meat, and she responds by bringing him a side of raw beef dripping blood while Jaibo materializes from under the bed. Buñuel employs this dream sequence to articulate the horrors of Pedro's existence, and here (as, I think, in all his surrealist images) his artistry works in tandem with his unflinching ironist's gaze and his subversive's fearlessness. The combination can be a heady tonic -- a sharp kick in the ass and a fast, deep gulp of fresh air.

[Movies Footer]