MADRID – Honored with a special retrospective at Cannes this year marking a century since his birth, Luis Bunuel was really born in the Middle Ages, in Calanda, Spain, a village on the dry plain of Aragon where, the late Spanish helmer claimed, “Medieval times lasted until the first world war.”
He lived most of his life in exile, from 1925 to 1934 in Paris, where he found his artistic cause, surrealism; after Spain’s Civil War (1936-1939), he resided in the U.S.; and in Mexico since 1946. A Republican sympathizer, he dare not step foot in Spain until 1960.
Exile weighed heavily on Bunuel. His films are full of journeys, by cart, tram and train. Perhaps he never moved with the times. He clung to memories, emotions, places and traditions fast disappearing in his native land. No other major director is so unblushingly personal in his references, so dog loyal to youthful experience.
While the Western World took a sexual shine to Brigitte Bardot in the ’60s, the Jesuit-educated Bunuel was still carrying a torch for the Virgin Mary. Beyond a winsome youth poking phallically at a hand in Bunuel’s surrealist work “The Andalusian Dog” (1929), homosexuals hardly figure in his films. When a fellow student proclaimed that Lorca was gay, Bunuel took him out with a right hook.
Bunuel’s main target, the Catholic Church, is now a paper tiger. His main inspiration, Freud, is hardly recommended for specialists, let alone bedside reading. And the pontiff of provocation shocks no more.
Showcased at this Cannes Intl. Film Festival, “Viridiana” (1961) enraged Spain’s right by its anti-parable of a prim novice who sets up a home for beggars but ends up in a menage a trois. That’s nothing. In Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother,” Penelope Cruz plays a nun performing charity work who carries the child of a semitransexual with AIDS.
So where lies Bunuel’s achievement, his enduring legacy?
He was deeply concerned with social justice, to the point, as his friend Max Aub pointed out, of sacrificing truth. When he couldn’t find a goat obliging enough to tumble down a cliff for his surreal rural documentary “Land Without Bread” (1932), he climbed up and shot one himself. The smoke of Bunuel’s rifle can still be seen frame right.
He felt a deep compassion for the poor but never viewed them with dewy-eyed idealism. He had the Spanish sharp sense, hardened by centuries of robbed illusions, of the difference between “what is” and “what should be.” A scene in “Viridiana” has a motley bunch of beggars freezing for a photo in poses reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” It is not just meant to shock, but also point out the immense gulf between religious representations of human possibilities (embodied in Christ and his disciples) and the more frequent reality (embodied in lecherous, murderous, blind and crippled beggars).
In the last count, Bunuel’s claim to greatness remains equivalent to that of Hitchcock or Lang. All three transformed Freud’s marketing of the subconscious into mainstream entertainment.
Bunuel’s films insistently bring forth unconscious desires and their impediments. In “An Andalusian Dog,” the fey male lover wades toward his love, pulled back by the paraphernalia of a bourgeois civilization that had reached its sell-by date: a piano, two friars, various rotting asses.
Time and again, Bunuel brilliantly plumbs the dismal shafts of hapless male desire. Men can experience more pleasure in feeling desire than exploring the individuality of their love objects. So in his swan song, “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977), Bunuel took this literally, casting two actresses — Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina — in the same role as debauchee Fernando Rey’s love interest.
Bunuel could be equally telling charting female desire. “The Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964) may seem slight. But it is a disturbing film, too, in its depiction of a woman who feels sexually attracted toward a child murderer but then settles for social respectability, marrying a stodgy army captain.
Most auteurs suggest an archetypal image of themselves. For Bunuel, it is that of the director at a bar, one or three martinis for the better, holding forth, bolt eyes burning, developing some outrageous anecdote or theory.
Few cynics exude such joie de vivre. He was a superb raconteur, one of the world’s greatest humorists, his films often a series of gags. In Mexico, Bunuel was at the height of his creative powers, and the nadir of commercial possibilities.
Yet when given enough rope, he made superb films such as “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz” (1955). Its traumatized hero, Archie, is a budding serial killer, but his first would-be victim tumbles down an elevator shaft, his second commits suicide, his last is murdered at a wedding. Archie confesses his murderous designs to the police — who explain that people cannot be convicted for their thoughts.
“Long live chains!” a captain cries before his Goya-esque execution in “The Phantom of Liberty” (1974). For Bunuel, no social model, however revolutionary, offered total liberty. As he admitted, surrealism lost its war to change the world. But it won one battle: opening up a final frontier, the vast perplexing galaxies of the human mind.