Mexico City, Mexico
Summary of Luis Buñuel
Luis Buñuel pioneered Surrealist cinema, becoming the filmmaker who most successfully achieved the movement's goals of liberation from linear, logical narrative. Unlike many Surrealist films by other directors, such as Man Ray or Hans Richter, Buñuel is never "artsy" or stylized: there is an urgent, shocking, and visceral quality to his films - even at their most absurd moments. Buñuel went on to create harsh, unconventional realist films as well, but even in this mode his films contain startling juxtapositions of the real and the surreal. All of his major films, from Un Chien Andalou (1929) to That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), explore the torment and complexity of the human sexual need through uncompromising imagery. His films resist and criticize facile societal or religious solutions to the problems of human existence - his work at various times was derided with equal vehemence by the Catholic Church, Fascist Spain, and the Mexican Communist Party.
- Surrealism broke new ground in literature through the practice of automatic writing, and in painting, it achieved startling but static dream-like images. Buñuel realized that the medium of film could go beyond painting and actually portray the disjointed visual narratives of human dreams in action. His first two Surrealist films capture the absence of moral filtering, the lack of will and logic that characterize the oneiric (dreaming) state, as if Buñuel had managed to place his camera inside actual dreams and record them.
- Buñuel's images of violence or cruelty are very successful at assaulting the viewer's complaisance, destroying comforting assumptions about existence and reality, and awakening the most basic and hidden fears lodged in the subconscious mind.
- His films provoke not only intellectual and emotional responses, but powerfully affect the viewer physically through repellent images of insects, bodily waste, decaying carcasses, amputation, and other shocking desecrations of human body parts. They involve and interact with the viewer in a way that is the hallmark of postmodernist art (many, many years later).
Biography of Luis Buñuel
Buñuel was born into a wealthy and devout Catholic family in Calanda, Spain. It was a place of deep faith, where many literally believed in 'The Miracle of Calanda', in which an amputee had his leg restored by the Virgin Mary. Buñuel's strict Jesuit education equated sex with sin, a connection that, once made, ran deep and never left him. Buñuel also saw the divide between rich and poor, noting that poor children would stare open-mouthed at their luxurious home. By sixteen, he had doubts about the logic of the Bible, seeing the impossible conflict between human desire and the Church's taboos, and how this forced people into hypocrisy and self-deception.
Important Art by Luis Buñuel
This silent short film, inspired by the dreams of Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, fulfills the Surrealist goal of achieving the pure automatism of the dream state, liberated from the constraints of reason, logic, traditional narrative, and temporal unity.
Un Chien Andalou shocks at multiple levels, showing acts of irrational physical violence, raw sexual desire, rotting animal carcasses, insects, and a complete violation of the fundamental rules of logical plot. In his Poetics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had written that a work of literature or drama must consist of actions that arise logically out of each other, as well as preserve a unity of time and place. These rules of plot structure had dominated Western literature and theatre for centuries. But from the beginning, as they worked on their script at Dalí's home in Cadaques, Buñuel and Dalí agreed that nothing about the film could have a rational explanation. The resulting film has no narrative or linear logic. Skipping arbitrarily through time, "eight years later" and "sixteen years earlier," the film mocks and subverts the "title cards" that were used in silent movies to fill in temporal and narrative breaks.
There is no core narrative, although, if there is a constant at all in the film, it is an agonizing sense of sexual desire and sexual failure. Several of the film's images are among the most disturbing ever produced in the history of cinema: a razor slicing through a passive woman's eyeball, ants crawling out of an open wound on a hand, a woman's armpit hair turning into a man's beard, and many more. In the final scene, the romantic image of a happy couple cuts to an image of the same man and woman buried in the sand, the positions of their bodies or inclined heads reminiscent of Jean-François Millet's famous painting of 1859, The Angelus.
Both Buñuel and Dalí dismissed any attempts at analysis or rational meaning. Dalí wrote that the film "consists of a simple notation of facts... enigmatic, incoherent, irrational, absurd, inexplicable." In anticipation of a riot at the premiere in Paris, Buñuel filled his pocket with rocks to hurl at protesters - he later expressed his disappointment that a film aimed at offending the bourgeoisie was actually applauded by it.
Buñuel's second collaboration with Salvador Dalí pushed the boundaries of decency even further. This film attacked the institutions that were considered the pillars of society: church, state, and family. The Surrealist combination of sex, violence, and truly bizarre images, made for confrontational viewing. Mocking the serious tone of documentaries, the film references the mating habits of scorpions, and features hapless bandits played by fellow Surrealists such as Max Ernst. In retelling a tale from the Marquis de Sade, the film's final episode casts Jesus Christ as the leader of the band of sexual libertines who have kidnapped and tortured young women in a castle. The film mercilessly mocks the clergy, shows the disrespectful manhandling of an ostensorium (one of the most sacred objects in the Catholic Church, the vessel that holds the Eucharistic host) as well as female scalps nailed to a cross. Other disturbing scenes include a father who shoots his little son for a ridiculously minor infraction, and the handsome lover in the film who beats up an old woman for spilling a drop of sherry on his suit. Outrageous as these scenes are, the characters seem to act as in a dream, without the restraints of reason. (Who has not committed terrible acts in their dreams?) A particularly strange scene, full of both a regressive, infantile orality, and outright cannibalism, shows the handsome lover and the young woman he desires sucking each other's fingers ecstatically instead of engaging in traditional coitus, and we discover at the end of the scene that the young woman has actually eaten most of the man's fingers; he caresses her with the almost fingerless stump of his hand. When he is called away, she resorts to sucking the toes of a classical statue in the garden.
If a continuous theme or narrative can be found in this film it is this couple's crazed desire for sex, which is persistently thwarted by absurd interruptions and petty annoyances. As in Un Chien Andalou, there is a nightmarish atmosphere of sexual desire, frustration, and failure. Buñuel achieved his aim to provoke: the crowd at the premiere rioted, destroying an exhibition of Surrealist paintings in the lobby. Le Figaro raged that the film was "obscene, disgusting and tasteless." The anti-Catholic themes were so upsetting that Dalí - who became a devout Catholic later in his life - refused to work with Buñuel again, and the Vicomte de Noailles, who had financed the project, was threatened with excommunication. The film was subsequently banned until 1979.
This film portrays the slums of Mexico City, where a group of street children live a life of murder, violence, poverty, and despair. Buñuel wanted to expose the reality of life here, and used Surrealist techniques to shock the audience - at one point an egg hits the camera and runs down the lens, breaking the fourth wall (thereby crossing the line between image and viewer, reminding us that we are watching a fictional story.) Other shocking scenes, reminiscent of L'Age D'Or, include the brutalizing of a blind man by the children as well as their destruction of a legless man's makeshift cart. The film reflects the Surrealist interest in pointing out the hypocrisy of accepted morality as well as the unrestrained actions of a group which, though brutal, is free from the controls of rationality. It explores the themes of sin and guilt, and in a stunning dream-sequence uses the techniques of superimposition and slow-motion to show the unconscious: chicken feathers fall as a mother walks holding a lump of rotten meat.
Buñuel screened this film first in Paris for his old Surrealist friends in the same cinema that had premiered L'Age d'Or twenty years earlier. The Surrealists loved his unsparing exposure of life's essential amorality - an issue that had always been at the heart of the Surrealist philosophy. It was shown at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival, where the accompanying brochure held praise from Andre Breton, and a poetic tribute from the Surrealist Jacques Prevert. Here, he was awarded the prize for Best Director. The film caused outrage in Mexico, however, where it was considered an insult to the country, to the point that Buñuel's Mexican citizenship was almost revoked. The Mexican poet and intellectual, Octavio Paz, defended the film passionately.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Luis Buñuel
- The World of Luis Buñuel: Essays in Criticism (1978)Our PickBy Joan Mellen
- Surrealism and CinemaBy Michael Richardson
- Companion to Spanish Surrealism (2004)By Robert Havard
- My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Buñuel Paperback -2003Our PickBy Luis Buñuel