“In a world as badly made as ours,” said Luis Bunuel, “there is only one road – rebellion.”
The quote sums up the life and work of the legendary auteur, whose career spanned five decades, three continents, three languages and every genre imaginable. Despite the staggering range, a Bunuel film was instantly recognisable. Or as Ingmar Bergman put it, “Bunuel nearly always made Bunuel films.”
Born to a wealthy Spanish family on February 22, 1900, Bunuel received a strict Jesuit education and grew up in a deeply religious environment. He eventually became disgusted with the hypocrisy of organised religion and it’s economic and social power, spending the rest of life attacking the church, state and the entrenched social order. The external façade of so-called polite society, in his view, caused the repression of natural human desires, leading to societal dysfunction.
Only too aware of the ironies of satirising his own class, Bunuel had an intimate understanding of the neuroses of a middle-class Catholic background. “I am still an atheist, thank god”, he famously replied, when asked about his religious beliefs. He did not dismiss the notion of divinity altogether, but relished subverting the tropes associated with it.
Bunuel’s formal education began at the University of Madrid in 1917, where he studied philosophy. There, he developed close relationships with the poet Federico García Lorca and painter Salvador Dali – friendships that would profoundly mark his life and work.
After his father died in 1925, Bunuel moved to Paris, where he met director Jean Epstein and became his assistant. Following the apprenticeship, Bunuel and Dali directed the silent film Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). That film would launch them into the front ranks of the burgeoning French surrealist movement led by poet Andre Breton.
Un Chien Andalou, written in six days at Dali’s home and financed by Buñuel’s mother, consists of a series of startling images of a Freudian nature, starting with a woman’s eyeball being sliced open with a blade. The film was made with the intent to shock and insult the intellectual bourgeoisie of his youth and Bunuel had filled his pockets with stones to pelt anticipated hecklers at the premiere.
“Our only rule was very simple: no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted” he said in his autobiography. “We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why.”
The film, however, was well received by the bourgeois. Bunuel was determined that his next film would not fail to antagonise. But his 1930 film L’Age d’or (The Golden Age) turned out to be more controversial than he bargained for.
The first scene of the film is a documentary about scorpions. This is followed by a series of vignettes that show a couple being continually thwarted in their attempts to consummate their relationship by the hypocrisy and double standards of family, church, and society.
The premiere was taken over by fascist groups, who hurled ink at the screen, tore up seats, threw bombs in the theatre and vandalised the adjacent art gallery, destroying a number of valuable works. The police banned the film “in the name of public order”. The Vatican threatened the producers with excommunication, because of the film’s blasphemous final scene (which visually links Jesus Christ with the erotic writings of Marquis de Sade). The film was withdrawn from circulation, and not seen again until 1979.
For his next project, surrealist documentary Las Hurdes (1933), Bunuel was back in Spain. Las Hurdes focused on peasant life in Extremadura, one of the country’s poorest states. The director adopted a voyeuristic style in depicting the pathetic living conditions of the locals, discomfiting viewers by making them party to it. The film has been noted for its disorienting juxtaposition of commentary, music and visuals. It was banned by three consecutive Republican administrations and remained banned thereafter.
During the tumultuous period of the Spanish Civil War and World War Two (1934-1946), Bunuel first worked as an employee at Filmfono, a commercial film studio in Spain and, after an unproductive stint in Hollywood, as an artistic director of sorts at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His close friend, celebrated poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, was executed by a firing squad at the outset of the Spanish war. The trauma of this stayed with Bunuel for the rest of his life.
Looking for new opportunities, Bunuel moved to Mexico in 1946 with his family in tow. El Gran Calavera (1949), his first big hit in in that country, has been described as “a hilarious screwball send-up of the Mexican nouveau riche...a wild roller coaster of mistaken identity, sham marriages and misfired suicides”. A year later Bunuel, would renounce his Spanish citizenship to become a naturalised Mexican.
Bunuel had a habit of trawling the shanties and ghettos of Mexico City in search of material and during one such expedition, he came across the story of a 12-year-old boy who had been found dead on a garbage dump. This became the inspiration for his next feature, Los Olvidados (1950), known in English as The Young and the Damned. The film, which eventually bagged the best director prize at Cannes, was seen at the time as an insult to the Mexican nation and sensibilities. There were calls to have Bunuel’s Mexican citizenship revoked.
Los Olvidados tells the story of a gang of street children who raise hell in their impoverished community, at one point brutalising a blind beggar and at another assaulting a cripple who moves around on a dolly, which they throw down a hill.
Film historian Carl J Mora noted that the director had visualised poverty “in a radically different way from the traditional forms of Mexican melodrama”.
“Buñuel’s street children are not ‘ennobled’ by their desperate struggle for survival; they are in fact ruthless predators who are not better than their equally unromanticised victims,” Mora said.
Bunuel made 20 films in Mexico that largely catered to the generic conventions of the studio system, though some of them, like El and Nazarin, pushed the envelope and had flashes of the irreverent style he was known for.
El is a detached and unsentimental portrait of an affluent Mexican who, unhinged by jealousy, threatens to sew shut his wife’s vagina. The film questions the power dynamics between the woman and her paranoid husband, whose suspicions, as it turns out, may have been right all along. “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” said Bunuel of the film.
The 1954 film The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was Bunel’s first colour film and American production. It was financed by United Artists, produced by George Pepper and written by Hugo Butler. Both were emigres from Hollywood who had run afoul of authorities seeking out communists and had taken refuge in Mexico. Bunel teamed up with the duo again for The Young One (1960), his second and last US production. Based on a short story by Peter Mathieson, the film centred on a black man accused of rape who escapes to a remote island, only to confront a racist gamekeeper who considers the island his domain. The gamekeeper is desirous of a young woman in his charge, who in turn is attracted to the black man.
The film was an uncompromising study of racism and sexual desire and received a special mention at Cannes. US critics, unable to deal with its unsentimental treatment of an incendiary subject, savaged the film upon its release. A Harlem newspaper wrote that the director ought to be hung upside down from a lamppost on Fifth Avenue.
In the mid-1950s, Bunuel was invited to work again in France on international co-productions. During this period, he produced what has been called the director’s “revolutionary triptych” – Cela s’appelle l’aurore, La Mort en ce jardin and La Fièvre Monte à El Pao). Each of the three films is overtly, or implicitly, a study of the philosophy and tactics of armed revolution against a right-wing dictatorship.
In 1960, the director returned to another former home, Spain, where he was offered support by a coalition of financiers, including Mexican movie star Silvia Pinal and her producer-husband Gustavo Alatriste. Bunuel and his co-writer Julio Alejandro drafted a preliminary screenplay for Viridiana, in which the titular nun does her utmost to maintain her Catholic principles when her lecherous uncle and a motley group of paupers and reprobates force her to confront the limits of her idealism. The film brims with controversial scenes depicting rape, incest, necrophilia and animal cruelty. The sacrilegious re-enactment of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, too provocative for mainstream audiences, created a massive furore at the time.
Days after being awarded the Palme D’or at Cannes, the film was condemned by the Vatican as an attempt to denigrate not just Catholicism, but Christianity in general. Like L’Age d’or, the notoriety of Viridiana flung Bunuel once again into the spotlight and marked the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with the actor Fernando Rey, who has been called his alter-ego.
Bunuel did not have any trouble finding backers in the fecund period after 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, they form what is called the Bunuelian trilogy.
The Exterminating Angel uses satire and allegory to lay bare the darkest fears and fantasies of the landed gentry. The dinner guests central to its premise are symbols of the ruling class in dictator Francisco Franco’s Spain, according to the late film critic Roger Ebert. “Having set a banquet table for themselves by defeating the workers in the Spanish Civil War, they sit down for a feast, only to find it never ends” said Roger Ebert of the film. “They’re trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac. Increasingly resentful at being shut off from the world outside, they grow mean and restless; their worst tendencies are revealed.”
In Simon of the Desert, the devil tempts a saint by taking the form of a bare-breasted girl singing and showing off her legs. At the end of the film, the saint abandons his ascetic life to hang out in a jazz club.
“Bunuelian” has come to imply dark, often morbid humour highlighting the absurdity in everyday life, creating dissonance by juxtaposing the mundane with the irrational and blurred boundaries between dreams and reality. It conjures incongruous images of farm animals appearing in bourgeois settings, inserts of animals cannibalising each other, and especially, fetishistic shots of feet and legs. In Bunuel’s world, the realms of politics and sexuality are inextricably bound together, showing the interplay between power, suppression of desire and freedom.
The use of insects, in particular, is a theme in many of his films, critics have pointed out, including the death’s head hawkmoth in Un chien andalou, the scorpion scenes in L’Age d’or and the framed tarantula in Phantom of Liberty (1974).
Phantom of Liberty was one of Bunuel’s later collaborations with producer Serge Silberman, a partnership that took the fimmaker’s career into a new phase. Silberman was a Polish émigré in Paris who had previously worked with several renowned directors. The two first worked together on the 1964 film Diary of a Chambermaid, an adaptation of Octavio Mirabeau’s novel of the same name, made originally in French.
A young writer, Jean-Claude Carriere, was chosen to work on the film, partly on the basis of the number of bottles of wine he could consume in one night. Carriere helped the director bring a greater degree of candour and boldness in the treatment of sexual perversion, one of his favorite subjects. They would go on to write 10 scripts together.
The actress, Jeanne Moreau was cast largely because of her mannerisms and body language: the way she walked, ate and conducted herself publicly and in private. She played Celestine, the help in an upper-class French household who both father and son want to sleep with. Like many of his films, Diary of a Chambermaid slyly acknowledged the repressed desires and voyeuristic tendencies of middle-class audiences.
His next project, Belle de Jour (1967), adapted from a Joseph Kessel novel, was about Severine (played by Catherine Denevue), an affluent housewife in a sexless marriage who becomes a part-time prostitute to awaken her dormant sexuality. When she becomes entangled with one of her customers, the young gangster Marcel, her fantasies come to life, but the relationship ultimately leads to the unraveling of her carefully constructed social facade. For research, Bunuel and Carriere are said to have interviewed dozens of prostitutes in the brothels of Madrid. Belle de Jour turned out to be his biggest box office success.
Deneuve went on to play Tristana in the eponymous 1970 film – a morbid romance between an aging pederast and the woman he adopts, mistreats and loses. After her leg is amputated, she returns to him for support, and revenge. “A few great directors have the ability to draw us into their dream world, into their personalities and obsessions and fascinate us with them for a short time” Ebert had said of the film. “This is the highest level of escapism the movies can provide for us – just as our elementary identification with a hero or a heroine was the lowest.”
Among Bunuel’s other notable French works was Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), about a group of well-heeled companions who are continually thwarted in their attempts to eat a meal together. In the dream sequences, he explores their intense fears – not just of being shamed in public, but of being arrested by the authorities and executed by a firing squad. One character’s dream later appears inside another character’s dream as a nested sequence. As the dreams-within-dreams unfold, we realise that Bunuel is also playing tricks on us, as we try to make sense of his narrative.
The film was awarded the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, acerbically described by Bunuel as the verdict of “2,500 idiots, including for example the assistant dress designer of the studio.” Its popularity enabled the 74 year old director to make The Phantom of Liberty, a film that was perhaps closest to his heart and is considered the quintessential Bunuel film.
Bunuel and his long-time friend and collaborator, Carriere, wrote the film by describing their dreams to each other every morning. Watching The Phantom of Liberty is like trying to make sense of a particularly strange dream, as it quickly recedes into the murky depths of the subconscious. It touches on subjects such as incest, mass murder, sadomasochism, fetishism and pedophilia. It’s anti-narrative structure is infused with Bunuel’s typical ribald satirical humour combined with a series of increasingly bizarre and outlandish vignettes designed to challenge the viewer’s pre-conceived ideas about consensual reality.
The politically charged film seems eerily prophetic in its voyeuristic and sensational treatment of terrorists and mass murderers and, more importantly, in the way it foretells the imminent destruction of the world through humankind’s own moronic and suicidal defilement of its natural habitat.
Bunuel’s final film, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), adapted from Pierre Louÿs’s 1898 novel La Femme et le pantin (The Woman and the Puppet) was set in Spain and France against the backdrop of a terrorist insurgency. The film tells the story through a series of flashbacks. Aging Frenchman, Mathieu, played by Fernando Rey, reminisces about his dysfunctional relationship with a sexy 19-year-old Flamenco dancer named Conchita, played interchangeably by two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, possessing very different on-screen personas. Conchita plays a twisted, erotic game, tormenting him with her intimacy, yet denying him what he truly desires.
Bunuel died aged 84 in 1983, his wife and long-time collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere at his side. Confounding expectations to the very end, he chose Mexico as his final resting place, spending his last few weeks discussing theology with a Catholic priest – a symbol of an institution he had mercilessly attacked his whole life.
“Somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether,” noted Bunuel in his autobiography My Last Sigh. That is how Bunuel saw the world and his place in it.