Luis Buñuel: A Fanatic of Freedom Luis Buñuel, ‘an iconoclast, moralist and revolutionary,’ is how Peter Flint of the New York Times described the film director in his obituary of him in 1983. When the student, the admirer or whoever watches the films he made and studies his work they will, no doubt, find no logical argument in disregarding this view of him. Before he died, Buñuel knew what his illness was and wrote as much: ‘I’m old,’ he said. If the aim of the artist is to make us challenge ideas of conformity, conventionality, obedience, docility and perceptions about liberty and freedom, then this Spanish-born film director and visionary has succeeded where it is far easier to fail. But that is not it. Buñuel questions our notion of reality and fantasy; rationality and irrationality; of the linear structures of film that is ingrained in all of us; of savagery and a commitment to humanitarian and ethical social dilemmas; the total Kafkaesque absurdity of life and the bourgeoisie mannerisms he poked fun at. We may call him Chekhovian, Beckettian, Freudian, Marxian, an anarchist, neorealist, a polemicist, and much else besides. When we watch a Buñuel film it can have such a powerful trance over our thinking that it may change the way we view the world and its absurdities, he could change our lives forever. That is the true role of the artist. Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), was Buñuel’s first film, co-directed with fellow-surrealist and artist, Salvador Dali: ‘It is love that brings about the transition from pessimism to action: Love, denounced in the bourgeois demonology as the root of all evil. For love demands the sacrifice of every other value: status, family, and honour.’ The year was 1928, the pair were young men. Buñuel was very much a man of the nineteenth century: he was born in 1900, so there was no excuse for him forgetting his age. The film itself is not even sixteen minutes long; Richard Wagner’s, Liebestod, accompanies it with wonderful music from his opera, Tristan and Isolde. When the film premiered in 1929, great artists like Jean Cocteau attended, out of the two men, Dali was disappointed, because one of his chief desires was to shock and repel middle-class bourgeoisie; Buñuel was quite satisfied, for there was time for him to cause outrage and alarm, and some of these films are shocking today, Un Chien Andalou, however, is not one of them, as John Banville has commented. The film then, lacks the narrative structure we see nowadays, it looked complex, obtuse, and some thought, near impossible to comprehend. So, what was the film about? It is helpful to start by asserting that Buñuel’s debut film did not have the traditional linear narrative, and instead, contained, apparently, unrelated scenes, which appear to make little or no sense. The first shot we see in the film is Buñuel himself, and from then on, we see a number of incidents happening, but what are we to make of it? There are two conclusions we can come to: the first is that the film has meaning behind it, containing Freudian quips, symbolism, surrealism and Avant Garde. The second is that it does not mean anything, and it is meaningless. Out of these two interpretations of the film, if that word is permissible under the current context, the former explanation just will not do. It will not do, because, as people in various societies say, they have given the game away. Before the idea of the film was conceived, the two directors of the work were dining at a restaurant. Buñuel recounted a dream he had, and was quite inspired by it. The dream, he told Dali, was this: a cloud, one hanging in the sky of course, as they often do, sliced the moon ‘like a razor slicing through the eyes.’ Next, it was the artist’s turn to re-tell his dream and he did not disappoint. His dream was a little more grotesque: a hand was accompanied with ants climbing on it. So, these ideas both were part of the film. Buñuel’s was in the opening shot and Dali’s some moments after that. Firstly, to turn to the former dream and its dramatisation in the film. As described, a cloud slices the moon in half, then something a little more disturbing, and is the film’s most iconic image. A woman sat on a chair, has an eye sliced, and out it pops; Buñuel claimed he used a goat’s eye. The latter sequence was not just ants climbing on a hand, there is a hole in the hand, tens of ants are climbing out of it, and not only once do we see this. One ought to suggest that because we now know the directors of the film dramatise their dreams into it that perhaps there is no meaning to be drawn from it, but that is not enough evidence of course to make such of claim, for that stinks of shoddy scholarship. Instead, we can get more information from the film makers themselves. Luis Buñuel said the following: ‘Nothing in the film symbolises anything.’ If anything, it was avant-garde. There is no structure, no story, no real narrative, no character development, and no plot. It is the situation with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The play does have a linear narrative of course, but it is just as absurd as Un Chien Andalou, the only difference being Beckett did not give any information out on the play; Buñuel, however, did on his film. In addition, for that we know ‘nothing in the film symbolises anything.’
The next film to come from Buñuel was also in collaboration with Salvador Dali, released in 1930, and banned for thirty-nine years. By this time, however, the two men fell out of favour with one another. The title of the surrealist film was L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age), and like their previous effort, was filmed in France. It was condemned bitterly by the French, and was even branded a Bolshevik quip in an attempt to corrupt the French, and everybody else presumably. There were even pictures of Dali, Buñuel and others hanging; it was becoming impossible to criticise the boorish classes, as it was being made clear. It was not just the censors, critics and the bourgeoisie elites either. The public held vile demonstrations against the so-called perverse mind of Buñuel particularly. This, of course, was early Buñuel, but already, it would become clear why he was to be later on in his career, regarded as a ‘revolutionary, visionary, moralist.’ It did not go down too well with the critics for that matter either, which ought to surprise nobody. He drew on the absurdities of modern life, particularly of the privileged classes we see in this film and the conservative sexual values posed on society. According to Dali and Buñuel, the intention of the film was to reveal the shameless structure of society. Like their previous film, this was a non-linear narrative, but it erupted every bone in the bodies of philistines and the higher classes who live extravagant lives, often at the behest of others. This is Paris lest we forget; and this is how they treat great artists. ‘L’Age, D’Or,’ wrote Henry Miller ‘is the only film I know of which reveals the possibilities of the cinema! It makes its appeal neither to the intellect nor to the heart: it strikes at the solar plexus. It is like kicking a mad dog in the guts. And though it was a valiant kick in the guts, and well-aimed, it was not enough!’ This was a vitriolic attack on the people that Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen dared lament their fury on. The film opens with documentary footage of scorpions fighting each other, and this we must add, acts as a perfect introduction to the film. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader writes: ‘Forsaking consecutive plot, the film is more like an anarchist bomb, starting off as a documentary before assaulting church, state, and society – particularly high society – in the name of eros...Except for his 1932 documentary Las Hurdes, this ferocious act of revolt kept Buñuel virtually unemployed as a director for seventeen years’. It should be evident after watching the film what the plot is, for it is not difficult to follow; whether one follows the subtle jokes and attacks is another matter, but the plot is simple in vignette form. Two lovers are determined to be together despite society's ‘values,’ conventions and so called moral decency, they do not act as we think they should, and there are a number of things that happen, which back in 1930, would be seen as outrageous acts, and by many today, they still are. After the documentary-style opening to the film, or soon afterwards, a man and a woman are seen making love on the beach, fully clothed it must be added, and they can be seen just passionately kissing. When the couple are separated by a mob, and the man carted off with force through the streets by two officers, they struggle to remain lovers due to the bigotry and system of imposed values and stereotypes to which they belong. Buñuel, in particular, ridicules the church’s authority. The film program comes with the following commentary: ‘It is love that brings about the transition from pessimism to action: Love, denounced in the bourgeois demonology as the root of all evil. For love demands the sacrifice of every other value: status, family, and honour.’ As they are dragging the man through the streets, his beloved can be seen with a bandage round one of her fingers, and the passive viewer may fail to recognise this is due to constant masturbation. In classic Buñuelian irony, the man produces a document, which shows he is a delegate, and they let him go. There is some stunning imagery in this film, with very clever vignettes, which can still shock and surprise a contemporary audience. A number of acts are committed that are against the norms of society and are deemed unacceptable and immoral. Some examples of these are when the girl's lover slaps her mother, and she appears excited by this. While outside, a father shoots his own son for no reason, resulting in his death, people indoors look, but seem disinterested; the man is not arrested and there is no great alarm given the shocking act. The couple, at odds with society and its prejudices of various sorts, struggle to be alone and when they are, it is brief. At the very end of the film, there is a scene of people exiting a place of some description, and anybody familiar with Marquis de Sade or specifically with his notorious tale of debauchery, 120 Days of Sodom, will appreciate the homage he pays to him. It shows a number of people departing; one showing a close resemblance to Jesus Christ, the mythical figure represented in the New Testament, and the implication is significant. It is this: that he, possibly Jesus, has been taking part in the most depraved and licentious acts including child rape and even worse.
El Gran Calavera (The Great Madcap) was the great comeback of Buñuel, and alone, for there was to be no Dali. It was his first major film since L’Age d’Or. This was because a very special brand of McCarthyism was directed at the controversial figure. He was sacked in one job on suspicion of being a communist, and his former collaborator, and fellow countrymen, Salvador Dali, did not help matters when he, in his autobiography, accused him of being a communist and an atheist. However, he was no longer working with Dali, because like all great directors, they work alone, and we would find out who was the real artist behind the two previous films over the duration of Buñuel’s career. El Gran Calavera was made in 1949, and was part of his ‘Mexican period.’ He made some twenty-one films there, including Viridiana, El angel Exterminador (The Exterminating Angel) and Nazarin, which are reckoned to be masterpieces, but one must not say these earlier films are second rate, or not worth the time even watching, that is the talk of nonsense. These earlier films then teach us about the human soul: of humanity, humility and benevolence. They are important and have qualities few directors can match. If these films are not his masterpieces, and I shall look at two of them, what must a masterpiece look like? El Gran Calavera may be described as a social experiment and it is interesting for us to observe as the action unfolds, and like all of Buñuel’s films, we never know what may happen next. As the film starts, we are shown a family swimming in riches, more particularly, the protagonist, Ramiro de la Mata. He is a wealthy CEO and gives his money to his family whenever they ask for it; he pays for parties, cars and so on. At the same time, he does not behave as a man in his position should. For he is an indolent drunkard and we are told the reason why. Since his wife died, he has gotten himself into this sorry state and nobody in his family, especially his children, now grown adults, appears interested in this fact, and spend their time being idle, and spending all his money. As this early action in the film dissipates, there is a feeling that the story runs along the same lines as Shakespeare’s of Athens. In the play, a wealthy Athenian, who keeps gives away all his money, ends in drudgery for Timon. At the very end of the play, Alcibiades reads an epitaph of Timon, which the now deceased gentlemen wrote himself, reads:
'Here lies a wretched corse, of wretched soul bereft: Seek not my name: a plague consume you wicked caitiffs left! Here lie I, Timon; who, alive, all living men did hate: Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait.'
Nevertheless, Buñuel fools us once again. Instead, Ramíro’s brother, Gregorio, turns up and appears to show some concern for his younger brother, and sees his family living off his wealth and doing little else. He observes for himself the drunkard he has become, and sees his business slowly withering away, while his employers never work, but comically pretend to. There appears to be little hope for change, but Gregorio comes up with an ingenious plan, which is when the plot develops. Ramíro is poor, having wasted all his money, as Timon did, but that is not true. He is not poor, but the plan is to make him believe he is, so they take him to a poor area, while he is in a drunken stupor, so when he wakes, his family will concoct a story, so he will believe he is poor and change his ways. It starts well but the cunning trick does not quite go according to plan. Ramíro wakes and see his family working in the shack. He cannot bear it. He decides to take his own life, that is the only way he is able to provide money for his family. As this is a light comedy, it goes not quite according to plan. He attempts to jump from a great height, but is stopped from a modest, benign man, Pablo. Pablo knocks him out, and after his family see the suicide letter, they, for few moments, think he is dead. Soon enough, from Pablo, Ramíro is told he has been in this squalid place for just a day; not a year, as he was told. He learns the truth and turns the tables. He has his family working as poor people work, soon enough though he is found out and the moral of the tale is complete. This experiment is interesting, because we have a rich man, and his children and other members of his family live off his wealth, but later live with the poor and understand their struggle. Ramíro’s daughter, Virginia, even marries Pablo. What we have here is a fairy tale and is a far more important film that people give it credit for. There is comedy throughout, and at times, it is hilarious. In the opening scene, for example, Ramíro is in a police cell scratching another man’s legs, believing it to be his own. There are others, his brother, Ladislao, hates working, and when his brother, who now believes he is poor, says he can believe it all, but not Ladislao working; that is something he cannot believe. At the end of the film, we see him working still when there is no need to. It is a light work and it had to be because this was Buñuel’s comeback. It was a nineteen-year wait. He had not matured as a director yet, but when he would, he would infuriate the censors, ‘polite society’ and the church once again.
The 1953 the neorealist film El Bruto (The Brute) was made during Buñuel’s Mexican period. Films such as Viridiana, El ángel exterminador (the Exterminating Angel), Belle De Jour, Le Fantôme de la Liberté (The Phantom of Liberty) and L’Age d’Or are considered some of his masterpieces, while El Brute, as well as others, have languished behind which is regrettable. ‘It is what it is,’ Buñuel said when he was asked if this film was a melodrama. The film has also been referred to as a Marxist film as it is sympathetic to group of people who are being subjected to disgraceful and unfair treatment by the reprobatory practices of Don Andreas. There are strong and powerful themes present and it is clear Buñuel’s talent as a film director were growing. Don Andreas is a slum landlord and we see this at the start of the film. The scene opens, and once again we are fooled. The plot unfolds, and it is quite different to the one we perhaps anticipate. In the opening moments of El Bruto then, Andreas, the businessman, straight away shows his brutality and grotesque anti-human nature. He attends one of his slum properties to evict the poor tenants, and he has no problem in being mean and cruel about the matter. He says to the large throng: ‘The law is the law,’ a few moments later, Don Carmelo, a respected member of the group, says: ‘The law is for rich men, isn’t it? There is nothing we can change about that, but we the poor know how to stick together. Together like this and that is why you won’t be able to throw us off.’ When the landlord sees this, he can only respond by saying, ‘The law is the law and it protects me, because I am the legitimate owner of all this.’ When he leaves, Don Carmelo, reinforces the spirit of the struggle and solidarity, and for them, because they are poor and have little rights, must fight for everything, because they have everything to lose. In sooth, it is a battle against the rich versus poor; the strong versus the weak; the powerful against the powerless. Don Andreas, in the following scene, vents his anger on his wife, albeit one can easily mistake her for his daughter, but she, like him, shows how ruthless and cruel she can be. Don Andreas calls the poor tenants who are fighting back, ‘revolutionary capers.’ He singles Carmelo out, as he knows he is ready to fight for his rights and whatever else, when he tells his wife there are three or four leaders of the group that spur the others on, his wife, Palomo, while snipping flowers, with a gardening tool, snaps of the heads of four flowers, as to symbolise the removal of these four men, Andreas, because he is no longer young, employs the ‘brute’ to take care of this group. El Bruto, or Pedro, reminds one of Lennie Small from Steinbeck’s of Mice and Men. He has the strength of Hercules, as least that is how it seems, and he uses it to the slum landlord’s advantage. Pedro is a simple-thinking man, he even says so himself: ‘I am simple-thinking.’ He is told to attack Carmelo, which is what he does, the only problem is he is so strong, one punch is enough for the man, not well in health, and he dies as a consequence of this. During Pedro’s employment in this ruthless business, the treatment of him by his employee, playing the role of Victor Frankenstein, is striking. He has ‘El Bruto’ living in awful conditions, and exploits him as much as is able to get away with, and soon enough, the creator of the barbarity of Pedro is carried out only to end as Shelley’s great novel does. After the slum tenants have had their home bashed down, Pedro takes a liking to one of the girls; Paloma, cries rape, as she is not able to get her way with the brute of a man, and tells her husband of this. In a struggle, he kills Don Andreas, and in turn is hunted down by the police and killed. Andreas’ father, who looks old enough to be a father of an octogenarian, looks like a grotesque Dickensian character. His son, Don Andreas, treats him with utter malevolence and cruelty, being reduced to a child. In turn, there is no love he shows for his wife or for anybody else. There are two literary elements in the film, or rather characteristics, already mentioned. First, there is the role of Pedro or ‘El Brute,’ as Lennie Small in Steinbeck’s tale. What are their similarities? They are both physically strong men and inflict damage on others when their intentions are not quite what materialises. They are, as Pedro says, ‘simple thinking.’ They are uneducated, show little intelligence, even struggle carrying out basic duties. Nevertheless, most importantly, they are destined to fail, and it will end in tragedy. This will happen, as nothing else is plausible. With Don Andreas himself, he plays the role of Victor Frankenstein: he has created a monster. Moreover, like his father, he treats his monster like a brute, and it becomes clear he obeys him like a slave obeys his master. In another situation, another time perhaps, Pedro may have met someone that would educate him, show him humility, as well as civility, and teach him to become a better person, but this was not the case. One must not blame Pedro for the violence he takes part in, just like nobody must blame the five-year-old child for shooting their mother dead with a pistol. The film is called El Bruto of course, but who is the real brute of the film? We must count Pedro out straight away. It is the case with the protagonist in A Clockwork Orange. It can be argued that it is not Alex that is the real monster of the film, but the dissident writer, Frank Alexander. We are left with two people: the husband and wife. They are both brutes, however, it is up to the onlooker to determine who the real brute is.
Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian film director, named Nazarin as one of his top ten greatest films. It was six years after El Bruto was made, and it was 1959. In addition, like El Bruto, it was a neorealist film. Even more so in fact, because the focus is on the poor and the bedraggled. There are no rich demagogues who spend their time exploiting people who do not have the will and the means to fight back, there is none of that, instead, there is only conflict by the poor against the poor. Being poor, however, is seldom a conscious choice people make. Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, more famously know as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, notoriously said, ‘I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot,’ this sounds like a peculiar thing to say and perhaps it is, but with Nazarin, the protagonist in the film chooses to be poor; indeed, he can have riches if he so chooses; but he chooses another way. Padre Nazario is a Spanish priest living amongst the poor. When the film opens, he has some belongings stolen and it is true he appears disinterested to this fact; it is of little significance to him. We learn he has no money, and when others do give him something, he only gives it away. He has no possessions, his ideal is to help people, which he tries, but often fails or rather, people and humanity in general fail him. Unlike El Bruto there are no rich and wealthy people in this film, there is hopelessness and poverty everywhere we look, and we may call the film a tragedy, but that will not do because one of the unbroken rules of a tragedy is that the hero must die; Nazario does not die. This film says a lot about humility and humanity or rather the lack of it. It is Nazario against the world. Perhaps a little should be said about the priest. He is earnest, solemn, truthful, charitable, compassionate, gullible perhaps, quiet and honest. There are other characters in film and literature that represent his plight: a man, alone, he is fighting to help and save everyone but everyone he encounters are scoundrels, criminals or dishonest rogues. Doctor Stockmann, in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, is beside himself with the public, because he is quite vitriolic concerning the truth, but when he learns few are interested in such things he rants against them. Brutus, Shakespeare’s Brutus, in his tragedy, Julius Caesar, kills Caesar because he is a tyrant and wants to rid Rome of him and his tyranny, one could argue though, his fellow conspirators, including his brother, carried out the act for other reasons: for power, avarice and more. Raskolnikov, in Dostoevsky’s great novel, Crime and Punishment, commits murder twice but justifies the reason for doing so and constantly compares himself to great men like Napoleon. All three men then are quite alone in their habits and moral dilemmas. Nazario however is different. He attempts to perform tasks of a different nature and the further he gets the worse his plight becomes. There are many acts of kindness the priest performs, but one such act is when the prostitute, Andara, comes into his shack and tells him she has murdered another prostitute, she asks for his help, as she is badly injured. He helps her the best he can; knowing by helping her he is putting himself in jeopardy, but things like this remain at the back of his mind, for his prime goal in life is to help people, whoever they may be. That same night there is a warning sent to the priest, telling him the authorities have had a tip off, so the girl, who Nazario has helped the best he can, when she is alone with another girl, sets the place alight, an act of extreme ingratitude, and the good man must flee and find shelter elsewhere. He flees then; he has to, and starts begging in plain clothes, still though, amongst the poor. After it ends in failure yet again, the prostitute and another wretched girl, who now believe him to be some divine saint, and miracle worker, after he saves a young girl, follow him. They follow him, but he never refuses anyone. Later, when he is arrested, having had his failures catch up with him, he is almost beaten senseless in a cell but is saved because, as his saviour says, if the man cannot fight back, you must not carry on. The man then asks him for money and the priest gives him all he has. Then the most important line in the film is said: ‘You’re on the side of good, I’m on the side of evil, but neither of us is of any use for anything.’ When the habitual criminal tells Nazaro this, he is stumped, and for a brief moment is pensive, thinking about the matter; he knows the man is right. Despite all his best efforts, he has achieved little and the world is no better due to his best intentions, everywhere he traverses, it ends in abject failure. One can be cynical, and the film can be summed up in the following words: It teaches us one valuable lesson, that nobody can make the world a better place, no matter how hard we try. This is debatable of course, and in any case, one person cannot change the world, but many people with the same ideas and persuasions can. Nevertheless, Nazario is different. He lives with criminals, thieves, prostitutes, dishonest rogues and the like, and it seems only he is capable of good, and he certainly is. The man is not sanctimonious, judgmental, abusive, selfish, and opinionated, in fact, there is not one negative word we could use to describe the man, or maybe there is: naive perhaps. To do good in a world that is filled with evil, treachery, dishonesty, savagery and barbarity, we must pose the question: what good can it come to? If Marcus Brutus would have seized power in Rome, what would have happened? His colleagues, no doubt, would have committed foul and unpleasant deeds. Raskolnikov, if he had not committed double murder, would only have gone mad due to his level of indifference and apathy to his fellow country folk and Doctor Stockmann, the benevolent lover of truth and enemy of social lies, could never change a great deal.
When the 1960’s came Buñuel was a sexagenarian himself, that is when we can comfortably speak about ‘masterpieces.’ In 1962 was an interesting year. Most famously perhaps was the Cuban Missile Crisis, in the Dominican Republic there was a military coup, Adolf Eichmann was hanged in Israel, Burundi, Algeria and Rwanda gained independence, there was a civil war in Yemen and likewise there were noted cultural occurrences too: Solzhenitsyn publishes One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Bernard Shaw’s play Androcles and the Lion is published, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, William Faulkner's The Reivers, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Marquez published that year also, as did Huxley and others. Also in this year, Buñuel came up with El ángel exterminador. This dark surrealist comedy was hailed by many as his greatest work. The plot need not be complicated, and it is not complicated, but there are obtuse themes in the film, which will be analysed shortly. First the plot: an opulent party has taken place, and as the night wears on, there appears to be something sinister, mysterious, absurd, even spiritual taking place. Nobody seems to be capable of leaving. The guests stay the night and for no real particular reason, and in the morning people are still unable to leave, weeks and months go by and still nobody has left. Later on in the film, we learn of something more. Not only can people not leave, no one can enter either. In the end, everybody leaves together, and Luis Buñuel gives us no indication as to why these strange events happened, and it leaves us guessing just like Pinter, Beckett, Kafka and Camus. This may be considered Buñuel’s greatest film when he made it, which is illuminating, because it was the first film since 1930 where he had complete freedom over his work, at least up to 1962. If people suffer in the film, which they do, then it only reflects Buñuel’s suffering in real life. A little background information on the director is necessary here. According to Professor Marsha Kinder: Wherever he (Buñuel) went, he was forced to adapt to each new context he inhabited: Paris as an international center of modernism in the late 1920s, when the city was drawing experimental artists from all over the world; Hollywood as the heart of filmmaking in 1930, where he observed the conventions for the international sound film being established; Paris in 1936 and New York in 1938 as sites for left-wing activism, where he worked on political documentaries and reedited those by others, until he was ousted by right-wing forces; Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s, where he could make commercial movies in his own language and converse with other leftist Spaniards who had fled Franco’s fascist regime...These various exiles were motivated by virtually all the reasons artists have historically left home: to satisfy curiosity, the desire for fame, or hunger; to find a more stimulating creative environment or better economic opportunities; to escape oblivion, censorship, political persecution, or death. But each successive period intensified his feelings of being an outsider and his yearning for freedom—two emotions that were at their height at the end of his years in Mexico and that became central themes of The Exterminating Angel. Common themes in his films are liberty and freedom, and this film is no exception. It is a curious thing how people cannot leave the party, but there is something even more curious than that: they do not even attempt to leave. Nobody endeavours to leave the place. They do not have the freedom, liberty or free will to do so. These people, and there are many of them, are boxed into a house, a rather large one, it must be admitted, and are not able to escape; they are imprisoned. Soon enough they begin to act like merciless savages. They are not the types we see in Dickens, Zola and Shakespeare. For they are not working-class brutes but of a different nature and class. The people in attendance at this party are not the mob we see in Germinal, Coriolanus, Our Mutual Friend and Julius Caesar, for the people at the party are a different sort. We have men and women presented before us as palatial, extravagant, lavish, grandiose, rich and wealthy. The film then shows the more privileged classes being attacked for their mannerisms, boorish bourgeois lifestyles and pitiful wanton waste they bask in. It is these people that get real protection from the state and it is important they support various policies at state level to protect their own interests. They must lament their vitriol at the jobless lowlife, the worthless immigrant, the poor generally and anybody who is perverse enough not to own property and lavish riches. When the opulent apathetic are attacked, there is total outrage as we saw in L'Âge d'Or and Buñuel payed for his sins. The artist ought to have no boundaries and they must remain free from what everybody else is subject to: indoctrination, propaganda, elements of control, manipulation, and a great deal more. Instead, they must remain as ‘iconoclast, moralist, revolutionary,’ and if people take great offence and outrage at this, the artist is serving their function correctly. It should be made clear; the role of the artist is not to change the world, but to change people’s perception of the world. If just one person’s perception is changed and metamorphosed through such an artist then they ought to hail their work as a success, never mind the nonsense about how well it accumulates gold coins at the box office. It should be made clear these boorish characters in the film are not free, and yet they are not in shackles, neither are they in prison, nor are they repressed by the state. However, despite all their success, riches, brilliance, they are not even free to leave a room, and thus it follows, in that instant in any case, they can have no free will. Their liberty is shackled as is their freedom, but having said that we may say the film is filled with patent absurdities.
Belle de Jour was a 1967 film by Luis Buñuel. Like the last film reviewed the plot is relatively simple, however, there are themes and episodes, which are not linear. There are many aspects of this film that work, and there are three, which I shall discuss first separately, but before that, it is useful to briefly give an outline of the plot. Séverine, played by Catherine Deneuve, is the central character; a bored housewife fantasies about sexual taboos including domination, sadomasochism and rape. She hears stories about the local brothel, and at first, she is intrigued and later becomes a prostitute. She meets a man there she is unable to be rid of. He follows her home one afternoon. He camps outside her home and shoots her husband. He is turn is fatally shot by the police. Séverine then cares for her husband who, so it appears, needs round-the-clock care and attention, as he lacks the capabilities to look after himself due to the shooting. Some moments later, he gets up as if the past events had never happened. The first of the three things to discuss is the setting. Buñuel’s Mexican period was over, and he was back in Paris. The setting is important for the film to work, because if it was set anywhere else it would be quite a different film. We are taken to Paris, which is full of culture, the intelligentsia and so much more besides, not to mention beautiful housewives who decide to become prostitutes. The Parisian streets are beautiful, and the atmosphere adds to the tension in the film. It reminds us of one of Rohmer’s films, and if we listen to Rohmer talk, we learn how difficult it was for him to choose the location and particular setting and buildings for the action to take place in. This is important of course, which is something often the viewer of the film pays little attention to. The second point to make is the bourgeois sexual perversions in the film. Séverine is a classy, sophisticated, beautiful woman who lives a comfortable life. Her sex life however is non-existent, for her husband, Pierre, she is not ready, and he is forever patient and content with this arrangement. His wife, however, has her dark desires and fantasies, and it is in the afternoons that she does the thing respectable, bourgeois married women are not supposed to do. She has sex with strange men for money. She is what dignified, educated, opulent men call ‘whores.’ It is not only Deneuve’s character that takes part in, what some would call sordid activity. The other characters in the film are aware of the practices of the brothels, the men go to them, and the women tolerate them, and the ones that do not, like Séverine, just go and work in them. Buñuel is really unearthing the perversities that furtively perpetuate amongst the more respectable, bourgeois and materialistic sections of society. As Belle de Jour opens, Séverine is in the back of a carriage with Pierre. Soon enough the carriage stops suddenly. Her husband drags her out despite her protestations. The two men in the front take her to a forest, gag her, tie her up and whip her. Her husband says to one of the men, ‘She’s yours.’ Before he says this, he rips her top and bra off. We assume the man will rape her. Nevertheless, this, we learn, is not reality, but one of Séverine’s fantasies, and there are others too. In another scene, with her hands tied once again, has mud thrown over her as her husband watches. While the man buries his spade in the mud and throws it at her, he calls her a series of foul and unpleasant names: pig! Scum! Tramp! Slut! Garbage! Bitch! Old whore! Maggot! In a more controversial scene, she poses as the daughter of a Duke in a coffin, where he appears to be masturbating. In all these elaborate fantasies, she appears to enjoy the experience. These are the dreaming’s of an innocent housewife in bourgeois society. The third and final point to discuss, concerning the three, is the most important of them all: surrealism and Avant Garde. It is difficult to speak about the film without talking about this. I have already mentioned the elaborate fantasies of the heroine of the film. These are clearly not real but exist only in the overworked mind of Séverine. As we watch the film we are unable to differentiate reality from fantasy and anybody who can, it must be said, really misunderstands the film and Buñuel particularly, as Michael Wood, the film and literary critic can testify: Buñuel, on film as distinct from in his interviews, is suggesting that although the imaginary and the real can usually be separated, in Belle de Jour, as in life, the separation is not always easy or even possible, and this sequence is there to remind us of uncertainty, to create a crossover, twilight territory of doubt Buñuel, on film as distinct from in his interviews, is suggesting that although the imaginary and the real can usually be separated, in Belle de Jour as in life, the separation is not always easy or even possible, and this sequence is there to remind us of uncertainty, to create a crossover, twilight territory of doubt. That is the point. If we read Beckett’s iconic play, Waiting for Godot, we are unsure what is real and what has just been dreamt up by the characters on stage. Pozzo, in act one, has perfect eyesight, and lucky, his slave of sorts, is capable of thinking and sharing with others his remarkable ‘thinking,’ yet the next day, in act two, Pozzo is blind and Lucky is ‘dumb,’ so Pozzo tells us. Also in a single night, a tree has lost its leaves, and a young boy appears twice and does not recognise the two bedraggled men from the previous day. In Buñuel’s film, it is even more absurd and Avant Garde. We are left feeling confused. Was her husband really shot? Was he in a wheelchair and condemned to a life where he was reduced to the freedom of a toddler? After the film finishes we have no notion which parts of Belle de Jour are real and which are not. This is how film should be: to have us to think, to confound us, and to examine the linear structure we often see in film, in other words to have the capacity to think for ourselves.
Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty) is, in my view, Buñuel’s greatest film. This is a film that shows an artist that is at the full height of his maturity and the freest, for there are no constraints in this film; none whatsoever. I would like to discuss his 1974 work, focusing on the different non-linear narratives, which appear in his most complete and resplendent work. It is a frustrating masterpiece for many because we are offered an insight into the world of Avant Garde absurdity and Buñuelian surrealism. Scenes are often incomplete, with the unfolding dilemmas unresolved, as we have in our dreams. One vignette shifts to the other; the film can be best described as a dark satire, as it examines the hypocrisy and vulgar nature of the bourgeoisie. It should also be noted the title references Marx’s and Engel’s Communist Manifesto. The film, after all, is about the thing Buñuel cared about most, freedom. Mrs and Mr Foucauld are the parents of a young child. This child is seen in the park with another little girl, and they are approached by a man who wishes to show them pictures, which he does. He gives the children these pictures. The implication and intent are obvious of this episode, or so we think. What are these photographs of? It is true we do not see them, we do not need to, it is clear what they are of. This creepy, macabre and frightening man’s intent is all so clear; he even tells them to show the photographs to their friends but not to any adults. When the child gets home, she tells her mother somebody gave her the pictures, some minutes pass before she looks at them, and she is horrified when she sees them, she is alarmed and flustered and calls her daughter in. She tells her daughter off for accepting them. ‘Disgusting,’ her husband says, ‘but what can be done?’ We finally see the photographs. These ‘obscene’ pictures are just landscape shots. They are famous landmarks including the Arc of Triomphe. Here Buñuel is both attacking and ridiculing the middle-class sections of society. There is another point to this; he is documenting various or particular moral codes, which we think we ought to abide by. He was an atheist, and of course people lack their own judgement for their own morality, so they use the Bible and adopt their morality and base it on their own. That is their moral code, because they are quite clueless about their own moral intentions. The frivolity does not end there either. When Mr Foucauld sleeps, he is visited by a series of people and animals which one would not expect in his lavish, extravagant house, or indeed in anybody else's at this untimely hour. He is first visited by a loitering chicken, then an odd woman with a candle, a postman on a bicycle who throws a letter on the bed, when he sees a doctor about these dreams, he produces a letter the postman gave him, of course, this proves these were not dreams at all, or does it? It is a queer thing for such goings-on to perpetuate. Following that scene, Buñuel does not completely leave the present narrative, as the nurse who was present in the doctor’s surgery, in the next scene drives up to an inn. The most memorable and perhaps amusing episode in this at the inn is again a further attack on religion. The nurse meets with a number of monks, later in the evening they are invited into a room by a man who turns out to be a strange fellow, as does his wife. Along with the nurse, four priests and another fellow is present. The scene ends with the host’s wife whipping her husband’s naked bottom with a whip. The five guests inevitably walk out in disgust. We see, in many of Buñuel's works, the notion as forms of etiquette and acceptability in civilised, bourgeois society. However perverse and taboo the act is perceived, well no matter, after all do individuals not have the freedom and liberty to behave as they wish alone, as well as in front of others? It is clear Buñuel's ridicule of the church once again is directed at their inability to reach the modern world and embrace the behaviours and habits people delight in. For it may be the case, as some would argue, that this very same church has a particular moral code that supersedes everything else’s, and when atheists, agnostics and the like have different ideas about particular behaviours and decency, there is and intolerance of a kind. Again, Buñuel's next scene and story is about a minor character that was in the previous one. We are taken to a military academy school where the man teaching the class is forever being interrupted, while at the same time being made the butt of practical jokes. The professor, in the next scene, visiting some friends with his wife, outlines the most iconic, absurd, famous and Buñuelian scene in the film. There is something unusual about this scene, and it can be quite easy to miss it. It is easy to miss perhaps, because it is somewhat unexpected. Not all these guests at this lavish dinner sit on chairs when seated at the table; no, they, instead, pull their pants down, sit on toilets, and behave as if this was normal etiquette. Sophie, the young child sitting at the table, also with her pants down, says she is hungry, she is admonished straight away, as no eating takes place here, just pompous chattering amongst the important members of bourgeois society. The professor then goes to the bathroom to eat a meal. Just like we saw in El ángel Exterminador and L'Age d'Or, Luis Buñuel is poking fun at the boorish affluent classes. They speak about the awful things like having to come back from Holiday in Spain early because of the smell of food, then the professor goes on about excrement and the amount that is disposed of, and the other guests around the table express their approval of the seriousness of it all. We should recognise they do not speak about the horrors of their own lives but of the futility and infantility of pointless and unimportant issues. Their lives, so it seems, in all their self-aggrandisement, are as trivial as the subjects they discuss and disapprove of. A student from the academy next has his story told. He visits the doctor who diagnoses him with cancer, only to offer him a cigarette immediately after telling him this. When the student arrives home he learns his daughter, Aliette, who is only eight-years-old, is missing from school, or so the child’s parents are told. When they arrive, the teacher explains it is quite impossible that anybody could have left the premises of the school, as they are under strict supervision. In fact, Aliette is not missing at all. She is in the classroom, sitting down. She gets up, approaches her mother and says, ‘I’m here,’ and then she tells her to say down and continues to talk about her missing daughter. They continue speaking about where she is and what could have happened to her. After telling the teacher he will contact the police, Aliette’s father approaches his daughter and tells her to get her coat. When they go to the police station to file a missing person’s complaint, the ‘missing child’ is with them. When the nanny is describing to the police officer about Aliette being missing, she seeks confirmation from the child. The police officer says to the young child, ‘You’ll speak when you’re spoken to.’ As he fills in the missing person’s report, he asks the child questions like: name? Race? Age? Marital status? He even notes down what she is wearing. When the Sergeant is called in to search for her and given the description, he points to the child and says, ‘that’s her,’ and then he is told to get a good look at her, so he is able to search for her. Then a ridiculous exchange takes place about the sergeant's shoes not being polished. Buñuel is mocking or perhaps highlighting the societal norms people adapt to, which of course is a concurrent theme in the film. The parents seldom communicate with each other, despite the fact they believe their daughter is missing. They show no emotion and do not appear to be greatly concerned about the unfolding events. They are calm throughout and seldom raise their voice. Buñuel makes it clear the least important thing in all of this is Aliette herself. The only communication her parents have with her is minimal, in fact her mother only tells her to ‘be quiet,’ her father tells her to ‘get your coat,’ and the nanny, quite absurdly, seeks assurance from her that she was not at fault for her disappearance, only to be told to be kept quiet by the police officer. When the same officer asks if they could pay a ransom, they reply they could, which highlights they are wealthy. Buñuel cleverly portrays the parents as performing their accepted duties in reporting the missing child. The privileged classes, it is true, have children and behave as if they were not children at all but only part of the furniture, no attention is paid to them, they know little about their child, after all they are too busy to be concerned about such a triviality. Nevertheless, when a duty must be performed, for example, their child goes missing, then they must do as polite society demands: pretend you love her and present yourselves as good, decent, moral people. Towards the end of the film Aliette is ‘found,’ even so, her mother and father communicate with each other but not with their daughter, as if she was invisible. The next sequence, in my view, best resembles and depicts Buñuel's idea of freedom, liberty, casting off the chains of indoctrination and conventional boorish provincial life we are told we must abide by. At the same time, there is also another important message Buñuel is making here. We have this thing called ‘liberty,’ well that is good for everybody that have it, but there must be limits, even a madman or madwoman would agree. No person would allow a gang of violent and sociopathic hooligans to terrorise the country, any country. It would be unthinkable for this group, or any group to go around raping women, kidnapping children and murdering men until civilisation has been wiped out. Well, that is what we may call liberty; total and absolute liberty: I can do what I wish and whatever the consequences of my depraved and nefarious actions, well that does not matter so much because I have the liberty to do such a thing and that is not my problem. There has to be restraints of course. ‘The bastards who mistreat animals should be drowned,’ those are the words from the man we meet, who has an eerie look about him. This same man, as far as we are aware, does not mistreat animals, but he takes part in activities, which are even more unsavoury than that. We have to be consistent and say the bird he shoots dead is indeed an animal, so perhaps he believes he should be drowned. He has a particular interest in shooting strangers for no real particular reason. We see him at the top of a building where it would be virtually impossible to spot, shooting, so it would seem, random people. He does this for a certain amount of time until it becomes clear what is in fact going on. He is arrested, charged, and we next see him in court. The man is convicted of ‘first degree murder with premeditation.’ The judge, reading out his sentence, states he is condemned to death. The convicted murderer then has his handcuffs removed, shakes hands with various people in fine dress and uniform. He leaves the court as a free man. We are then given more information surrounding this person and his trial: the trial itself lasted fourteen months and the condemned man – so it would seem – is in fact a poet. Nonetheless, despite the death sentence, has every inch of liberty restored. If we pay close attention to the unfolding events, we see the linear narrative overlapping. The search for the missing girl, so we are informed, is still on. In the final narrative of the film we experience a series of contradictions and absurdities, or rather the police commissioner does. His sister died four years ago but somebody rings him at a public place claiming to be her, when it was not possible of her knowing her whereabouts. She replies correctly to a question she could only know. This police commissioner is arrested for impersonating the police commissioner, and there are other absurdities too. The film sends out a strong statement, which we all are able to comprehend and contemplate: that none of us are able to have liberty. For there is always something, which prevents free will in one way or another and liberty is always restricted. ‘In any society, the artist has a responsibility. His effectiveness is certainly limited, and a painter or writer cannot change the world. However, they can keep an essential margin of non-conformity alive. Thanks to them, the powerful can never affirm that everyone agrees with their acts. That small difference is important.’ Luis Bunuel