BUNUEL’S “UN CHIEN ANDALOU” (1929)

“Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms.”–Luis Bunuel

Although Un Chien Andalou (1929) is believed to be one of the first intentionally Surrealist films, its iconoclastic milieu is predominantly subservient to the sovereign elements of systematic realism.

 

True to surrealist tenets, the film’s naturalistic texture is the quintessential ingredient in its theatrical absurdity. In this sense, Surrealist film is antithetical to Expressionist film. For instance, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) utilized distorted set designs to convey dream worlds. In direct contrast, Luis Bunuel conveys the phantasmagoric reveries here through expressive, primarily organic compositions.

In “Sculpting in Time,” Andrei Tarkovsky  locates the pulse of Buñuel’s texture:

The driving force of his films is always anti-conformism. His protest—furious, uncompromising and harsh—is expressed above all in the sensuous texture of the film, and is emotionally infectious. The protest is not calculated. Bunuel’s work is deeply rooted in the classical culture of Spain, born on one hand of a deep love for country, and on the other of his seething hatred for lifeless structures, for the brutal, milking dry of brains. The field of vision, narrowed by hatred and disdain, takes in only that which is alive with human sympathy, the divine spark, ordinary human suffering, which has steeped into the hot, stony Spanish earth.

Andalou‘s cinematography is classic, elegant and traditional. Again, Buñuel utilizes minimalistic compositions (i.e. point of view) to frame complex psychological acts of voyeurism. Buñuel often stated that he was completely uninterested in the aesthetics of filmmaking. While that flamboyant claim might be suspect, this deliberate choice astutely serves his Surrealist agenda.


Extreme close-ups (like the still shocking opening sequence) are utilized only when absolutely necessary. Much of the camerawork is rudimentary and unobtrusive. This allows the viewer to engage with the dialectic thrust between the film’s protagonists and its symbology.

The editing further validates Buñuel’s claim of disinterest in aesthetics. Freudian affiliations, naturally, abound. Dissolves are employed merely to inspire emotional tension. The ants in the stigmatic palm are weaved into a woman’s armpit, followed by the image of a sea urchin. The result is shrewdly discomforting and challenging film poetry. Through editing, Buñuel propels the viewer into an idiosyncratic subconscious mirage.

As a silent film, Un Chien Andalou thinks differently than sound film. ( Charlie Chaplin, when asked near the end of his life, why he felt he was one of the extreme few silent filmmakers who survived the transition to sound, answered: “I suppose because I realized silent film was a different art form.”) This is clear in the use of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” as a soundtrack and a subtext (the music was conceptually there from the beginning, although the sound was only added later). Shot in two weeks on a meager budget financed by his mother, Buñuel could hardly afford a score. However, his choice of music and its context in relation to the film was influential in the “non-writing” of the piece.

Buñuel was an erudite cultural omnivore who raided different art forms to enhance his own art. He was well aware of “Tristan”’s impact and influence. “Tristan und Isolde” boldly introduced dissonance to opera, and the world reacted. Isolde’s “Liebestod,” taking place after the death of Tristan, synthesizes the preceding dissonance through her own transcendental, sensual death.

Buñuel filters this potentially incandescent vignette through a natural, highly lit filter. This serves as a compelling visual counterpart to the narrative context supplied by the usage of Wagner.

Buñuel’s aural editing, again, reveals a psychological rather than an aesthetic choice. Isolde’s immolation gives way to bawdy brothel music. Bunuel’s editing style parallels the traditional rhythmic continuity editing prevalent in the period. Low angles, overhead shots, et. al., employed conservatively, symbolize the relationship between the highly stylized performances and the participatory camera work. Melot’s murder of his friend Tristan is also mirrored by the shooting of Andalou‘s protagonist, rendering Buñuels claim the film was merely a catalog of random absurdities as highly suspect.

Buñuel’s predilection for not so subtle swipes at clerical hypocrisy is already present in this, his first film. He would continue taking such shots throughout his body of work, of course. Some have confused this with anti-religiosity. With a Jesuit education, Buñuel was well-equipped to shock and delighted in doing so, as did Alfred Hitchcock in a slightly more conventional way. (Hitchcock also received a Jesuit education).

Buñuel’s shocking religious imagery here involves a dead jackass and two priests. With dangling cigarette, Buñuel sharpens his razor for the bourgeoisie. Sergei Eisentstein saw Un Chien Andalou as the disintegration of bourgeois consciousness, and Buñuel hoped bourgeois audiences would prove that point by rioting in reaction to the film. They didn’t riot, and naturally, this inspired Buñuel to surpass this clerical mockery in L’ Age d’Or (1930). The government of Spain reacted with banishment.

Salvador Dali, the co-writer who was in some quarters credited as co-director, claimed, after the fact, to have been a more prominent force in the production. While Dali did repeat the infamous eye slicing in the dream sequence he composed for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), Un Chien Andalou is more characteristic of Buñuel’s oeuvre.

BUNUEL’S SIMON OF THE DESERT (1956)

Simon of the Desert (Bunuel)  Criterion

“Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms”-Luis Bunuel.

Simon of the Desert (1965 dir.Luis Bunuel)  Silvia Pinal

Simon of the Desert (1965) was Buñuel’s final Mexican film before moving to France. His Mexican period is often considered a repository of “anti-religious” films, although a more apt description might be “anti-ecclesiastical.”  This 45-minute pilgrimage is an incomplete work (due to haphazard funding), but even in its truncated state, it is a shockingly substantial work.

Simon of the Desert (Luis Bunuel)Claudio Brook  Silvia Pinal

The ascetic fifteenth century Saint Simon Stylites (Claudio Brook) has spent his life atop a pillar in order to get closer to God. A wealthy patron has an even larger pillar built for the holy man and so, after six years, six months, and six days, Simon, reluctantly, comes down from atop his ivory tower, albeit briefly, to “move up” in the world. Detached irony abounds. As in Nazarin, Buñuel presents a religious figure as a fool, but a stubbornly determined fool to be identified with and admired, with detachment.

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BUNUEL’S NAZARIN (1959)

Nazarin (1959 dir. Luis Bunuel) poster

Luis Bunuel‘s self-imposed exile in Mexico from 1946-1964 yielded a fruitful harvest, and his films from this period are, arguably, his most organic and economically composed.  The director listed Nazarin, based off the Benito Perez Galdos novel, as a film he felt much affection for, and that affection extended to the character Father Nazario (Francisco Rabal).  Buñuel’s paternal attachment to this child/film was sincere enough that when the film failed to win the Prix de l’Office Catholique (Catholic Film Prize), he could express a sense of relief.

Nazarin (Luis Bunuel)

The saturnine Fr. Nazario lives in a phantasmagoric haze, imagining that he is following the commandment of Christ to “take up one’s cross,” but only disaster lies in the stations Nazrio visits.  Nazario does not build his house on rock, but on mud.  He keeps company with a menagerie of freaks: beggars, thieves, whores, and a dwarf.  Nazario refrains from bolting his door, despite the fact that his mob plunders his abode daily.  He is relieved of all possessions, save his Sunday best and crucifix.  Thank God for that.  He befriends the suicidal Beatriz (Marga Lopez), whose self destructiveness is birthed from her incessant need for the abusive man who regularly deserts her.

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BUNUEL’S VIRIDIANA (1961)

Viridiana (1961) Palme D' or

Viridiana (1961) has quite a reputation among film critics and historians, often being listed as one of Luis Bunuel‘s best efforts. It is certainly among the most heterodox offerings in his considerable canon.

VIRIDIANA (1961 Bunuel) poster

Viridiana marked Buñuel‘s return to his native Spain after a twenty-five year absence. With the fascist Franco still in power, Buñuel was severely criticized and accused of making his bed with the enemy, but the filmmaker’s critics should have known better. Buñuel had an ulterior motive, with a predictably incendiary opus tucked securely in his Surrealist vest pocket.

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BUNUEL’S EULOGY FOR THE RATIONALISTS

Luis Buñuel`s self-imposed exile in Mexico from 1946-1964 yielded a fruitful harvest, and his films from this period are, arguably, his most organic and economically composed. The director listed Nazarin, based off the Benito Perez Galdos novel, as a film he felt much affection for, and that affection extended to the character Father Nazario (Francisco Rabal). Buñuel’s paternal attachment to this child/film was sincere enough that when the film failed to win the Prix de l’Office Catholique (Catholic Film Prize), he could express a sense of relief.

The saturnine Fr. Nazario lives in a phantasmagoric haze, imagining that he is following the commandment of Christ to “take up one’s cross,” but only disaster lies in the stations Nazrio visits. Nazario does not build his house on rock, but on mud. He keeps company with a menagerie of freaks: beggars, thieves, whores, and a dwarf. Nazario refrains from bolting his door, despite the fact that his mob plunders his abode daily. He is relieved of all possessions, save his Sunday best and crucifix. Thank God for that. He befriends the suicidal Beatriz (Marga Lopez), whose self destructiveness is birthed from her incessant need for the abusive man who regularly deserts her.

Nazario provides shelter to Beatriz’ homely prostitute sister, Andara (Rita Macedo) after she is wounded in a knife fight. Andara has killed her rival and is hiding from local authorities. The local Church learns of the living arrangement and accuses Nazario of improprieties. Beatriz and Andara become Nazario’s Mary and Martha, but the paradox of the priest’s hypocrisy is that he pragmatically shuns Andara’s imaginative qualities, labeling it a “sickness.” Yet, Bunuel invests this setup with an inviting sense of irony. Nazario is himself the product of a delusional priestly calling. Imagining himself to be an imitation of Christ, Nazario projects a disdain for his own welfare that is not self-contempt, but rather the publican advertising his asceticism.

In this, Nazario is a bland, literal-minded interpreter of Christ’ personality. He is unable to comprehend and assimilate the Jesus’ quixotic “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, that which is born of the spirit is spirit,” synthesized with the value of the messianic claim of gifted joy, abundantly imparted.

Nazario’s provision of sanctuary for his female disciples results in a house fire. The loss of asylum and the sanction of the Church catapults the threesome into agnostic stations as they are pursued by the law. A young village girl is believed to be healed by Nazario, despite the fact that medicine had been administered to the child before Nazario’s arrival. The three wayfarers come upon another village, ravaged with the plague. Nazario seeks to assist a dying woman (in a scene clearly patterned after de Sade’s Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man), who refuses the priest’s impassioned and persistent offer to administer extremes unction. Rather, her dying desire is for the touch of her husband. Much to his confusion and exasperation, Nazario’s priestly function is rendered impotent.

Nazario’s offer to join a road crew and work only for food creates a labor dispute which ends with the workers killing their foreman. Beatriz’ mother accuses her daughter of carnal love for the priest. Hysterical, Beatriz denies it, collapsing in a frenzy. Of course, her fervent denial masks truth, which she belatedly realizes, rejecting her savior in favor of her abusive boyfriend.

Caught and imprisoned, Nazario encounters the two thieves on the side of his symbolic cross. The unrepentant thief beats him. The penitent thief confounds Nazario, telling him, “You are a good man. I am evil, yet neither of us are of any use to the world.” The wanderer, freed from prison, is offered a choice in the form of manna. Nazario’s hesitant decision justifies Bunuel’s placid sympathy for the impoverished padre.

Buñuel once said that if proof of the existence of God was available, then his own approach to art and life would remain unaltered. Simultaneously, if God were proved a complete myth, the aesthetic qualities of Buñuel’s existential letters remain the same. Buñuel’s messages are neither Christian, nor atheist, but a synthesis. He categorically denies the agendas of the agnostic, the seeker, the devout, and even the Surrealists in Nazarin.

There is reason Orson Welles astutely claimed that Buñuel was the most religious of all filmmakers. There is a story (most likely apocryphal–not that it matters), that a male acquaintance “caught” the famous atheist philosopher Martin Heidegger genuflecting before an icon. Called out, Heidegger responded, “a rationalist like yourself would not understand.” That quote could serve as a segue into Nazarin.

ST.LUIS

Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms”-Luis Buñuel.

Simon of the Desert (1965) was Buñuel’s final Mexican film before moving to France. His Mexican period is often considered a repository of “anti-religious” films, although a more apt description might be “anti-ecclesiastical.” This 45-minute pilgrimage is an incomplete work (due to haphazard funding), but even in its truncated state, it is a shockingly substantial work.

The ascetic fifteenth century Saint Simon Stylites (Claudio Brook) has spent his life atop a pillar in order to get closer to God. A wealthy patron has an even larger pillar built for the holy man and so, after six years, six months, and six days, Simon, reluctantly, comes down from atop his ivory tower, albeit briefly, to “move up” in the world. Detached irony abounds. As in Nazarin, Buñuel presents a religious figure as a fool, but a stubbornly determined fool to be identified with and admired, with detachment.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote an amusing observation about Christ and the Lazarus story. In his take on the narrative, Vonnegut imagined that, Lazarus’ resurrection, it was the recent corpse, not Christ, who became the celebrity with the crowd. Leave it for the masses to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. But, what Vonnegut was expressing was the inevitable chasm between prophet and audience.

Buñuel also emphasizes contrasts. Simon’s audience does not desire holiness. They crave tinseled parody only because they do not know the difference. A handless man is resorted and immediately begins using his hand to slap an inquisitive child. Bunuel’s integrity and convictions astutely critique, not the faith itself, but the contemporary adherents to the faith, who, with their short attention spans, pedestrian tastes, poverties of intelligence and of aesthetics, are rendered consumers of spectacle as sacrament. Bunuel’s shift from the religious to the bourgeoisie was a natural development, seen flowering here.

The devil is, naturally, a woman, and Silvia Pinal agreeably fleshes her out. She takes turns as a Catholic school girl, an androgynous messiah who performs a Janet Jackson-style wardrobe malfunction for the unfazed celibate, and finally as a mini-skirted Peter Pan, whisking Saint Wendy away from his Tower of Babel to a modern discotheque.

As with all of late Bunuel, he is no mere repeater of old narratives here. As St. Luis (and only a seasoned saint could be this irreverent), he spins a new parable, one that is organically textured and startling in its improvised finale. Bunuel was no hypocrite, and the unexpected loss of cash flow inspired a quixotic bleakness and an unequaled sense of purpose.