Louis Bunuel

Religion, Sex and Politics

An investigation into the surrealist anarchist

Shaun McDonald


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk

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Cited as “the best director in the world” by Alfred Hitchcock, Bunuel’s work has consistently triggered a storm of debate, from causing scandal in his work with the original enfant terrible, Salvador Dali in his first films ‘Un Chein Andolou’ and ‘L’Age D’or’, through to the sardonic subversion incorporated into his later films. Bunuel has always been a thorn in the side of the bourgeois culture and its ideologies, from reinterpreting passages of the bible, to slicing a woman’s eye open with a razorblade; controversy has always been inseparable from the Bunuel film.  

One of Bunuel’s favourite targets was the hypocrisy of the middle-class, which he often uncompromisingly attacked with savage surrealism, particularly in his earlier films. His first two films were politically loaded with images ranging from a man attempting to drag across a room a piano laden with rotten donkeys and dead priests, a man with insects coming out of his hand, a plough, a giraffe and a bishop being thrown from a bedroom window, a woman sucking the toe of a statue, and an item of religious reliquary being placed on the ground so that an elegant lady could get out of her car. Though these films may seem to some the work of an insane nihilist, Bunuel proved his worth as one of the greatest directors of all time through some of his later work, where Bunuel seemingly came to be more the satirist than the assault man, with a greater cinematic awareness in the games he played with his audience. For example in the famous scene in Belle De Jour where a Chinaman tries to use the contents a buzzing box with a group of prostitutes, they all refuse aghast – we never find out what is in the box. This is typical Bunuel humour, which is also shown in The Phantom of Liberty where a woman unexpectedly tells a priest that she hates Jesus Christ, but before she can explain why she has to go and tend to her farm – we never find out why. 

Bunuel directed thirty-two feature films in a career which spanned six decades. Born in Spain in the year 1900 Bunuel was able to have an excellent education due having a fairly wealthy middle-class family. He excelled at school before going on to obtain a philosophy degree at university. Bunuel started his film career by working as an assistant director to the legendary director Jean Epstein, whilst also writing for various cinema periodicals before joining the surrealist movement in 1929. Bunuel’s iconoclastic views lead to his friendship with Salvador Dali whom he started his film experiments with that same year. His early films stressed the power of montage, which Bunuel called the ‘golden key’ of cinema, in which unrelated objects are fused together in order to evoke a deeper suggestiveness towards their significance. Bunuel later turned to a more ‘classical’ and elegant approach to film making with rich colours often used to present a more naturalistic yet sparse, cold and empty environment in which  the middle-classes lived. This showed Bunuel moving away from the ‘shock tactics’ of his earlier films, to a more accessible style based upon subversion, though Bunuel was still discussing the same issues, just in a different way.  

The characters in Bunuel’s later films are filmed in a more objective and detached manner than in his earlier films. They are filmed without compassion, and appear more as objects in his films rather than the focus of them. This disconnected manner is particularly evident in Belle De Jour where Bunuel fails to give any reason for the actions of Severine, or for the fetishes of her clients, which seemingly have no meaning other than that they are fetishes. This shows Bunuel’s will to be distanced from any constraints of conventional cinematic logic, which traditional Hollywood cinema wilfully imposes. Thus some of Bunuel’s later work is at times almost painfully hilarious to watch, as in ‘The Phantom Of Liberty’ where just before being executed, Spanish prisoners cry out “Down with Freedom!”, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry as Bunuel doesn’t offer any dominant viewpoint for the film, he just presents it, not feeling the need to justify the actions of any of his characters.  

Belle De Jour serves as the archetypal Bunuel film, as well as being one of his most accessible. The film stars Catherine Deneuve, as Severine, a middle-class woman confounded by emptiness, who is chaste in her year long marriage with Pierre (Jean Sorel). Severine is leading a double life – or so it seems – between being a prostitute by day, and being chaste with her husband at night. Bunuel uses these divergent lifestyles to attack the emptiness and constrictions of marriage by juxtaposing it with the antithetical world of the brothel where Severine works.  

In many of Bunuel’s films the conscious and the sub-conscious are blended together in a way to make them indistinguishable from each other. This is seemingly done by Bunuel not only for narrative subversion (notice in Belle De Jour the selling of the New York Herald Tribune echoing Goddard’s A bout de Souffe – the original bible on breaking convention), but also to offer an alternative way of life – a surrealist life. Bunuel commonly spoke of his desire for surrealism to encompass the mainstream and traditional way of life, and that for him “the purpose of surrealism was not to create a new literary, artistic, or even philosophical movement, but to explode the social order, to transform life itself”. Therefore the dream in the Bunuel film comes without the conventional warnings of the blurred focus, or distorted lenses, or other standard tools. In a Bunuel film the dream comes to us as reality, so that the audience is manipulated into a state of mind where they can no longer tell the difference between the two. So when Bunuel cuts through different levels of consciousness we can all of a sudden feel jolted, as we have just entered/exited a dream world which we did not believe we were in. 

No other film maker has caused as much controversy or divided so many opinions as Bunuel. There have been numerous attempts by infuriated individuals to destroy all of the copies and prints of different Bunuel films, and so for that reason alone he must have been doing something right.
 
 
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