Five movies to understand Luis Buñuel’s genius

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Anti-bourgeois, anti-clerical, anti-fascist, stateless: Luis Buñuel was one of the most original cinematographic personalities of the entire twentieth century. The popularity of the Spanish filmmaker is, however, often “limited” to his iconic surrealist period. However, Buñuel has directed more than 30 movies between Mexico, Spain and France (he couldn’t live in his country because of Franco’s repressive dictatorship). In this article we will understand, as far as possible, the genius and the unruliness of this rebellious filmmaker through a small analyses of five movies.

Warning: The list is not a ranking (the films are ordered by release date) and those listed are not necessarily his best films (such kind of article wouldn’t be in Auralcrave style). The following films are simply the five works that we believe as more emblematic of the Buñuelian style.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Directed by Luis Buñuel on a screenplay by the same Buñuel and Salvador Dali. This already should make clear the artistic importance of Un Chien Andalou, which we can undoubtedly defined as the manifesto of surrealism. Surrealism was an avant-garde movement founded by Andrè Breton and other former members of the Dadaist movement. Its main characteristics were: the reduction of rational barriers through the indefinite flow of the unconscious, a dreamy atmosphere, the use of grotesque as a key to understand reality, the liberation of the individual from the social chains. The movement wanted to induce the viewer or the reader to look at reality with different eyes.

The invitation of Luis Buñuel to “Open Your Eyes”

Symbol of the new point of view is certainly the creepy opening scene of Un Chien Andalou, where the same Buñuel, after watching the moon, cut with a razor a girl’s eye. From there onwards, the unconscious is unleashed in the “narration” of the romance between two young persons (Eros is the fundamental theme of the movement). The montage doesn’t correlate anything in the narration: the images follow each other without any apparent logical sense, because the links are made only based on the ratio of dreams (for example, you pass from the hair of the girl’s armpit to sea urchins).

The film is full of symbolisms (for example the boy who drags the priests, the piano and the donkeys in order to reach her beloved can be understood as an allegory of the weight of social conventions), however trying to decipher the message of Buñuel and Dali would be reductive. So we recommend the reader to look the whole movie, which you can find below. The duration is only 20 minutes: this time Netflix can wait.

Viridiana (1961)

After years of exile, Buñuel finally returns to his Spain: will he submit the production of his movie to the laws of the Francoist censorship? Of course, absolutely not. Viridiana is perhaps Buñuel’s most blasphemous movie .

Already only in this scene we can understand why the film was not very welcome by the censorship: Don Jaime rapes his nephew Viridiana (who was ready to go to the convent), because she reminds him of his deceased wife. The “poor” Don Jaime will later commit suicide because of the obvious refusal of the nephew to marry. Viridiana, now rich thanks to his uncle’s inheritance, will change his life. The renewed image of Jesus Christ (yes, she is a woman) will open his new immense home to the poor and the misfits. But the holiness in the cynical modern world is impossible: after rosaries recited in the dirt, between noises of broken rocks and wood cut, the beggars enter the “new” House of the Lords and, during a kind of orgy, destroy everything.

We have to mention the iconic reproduction of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci with the poor and the misfits instead of the Apostles. You can notice that the part of Jesus is taken by the blind, symbol of those who are slammed here and there, in the total mercy of the events, from a history which is greater than him.

Buñuel’s Last Supper

After the incident, Viridiana’s crown of thorns will be symbolically burnt out and the young woman will no longer enter in the convent, but in the hall of the bourgeois son of his uncle, Jorge. On the other hand Jorge himself “knew since he saw her the first time, that Viridiana would have played cards with him.”

The film was awarded at the Cannes Festival in 1961, and obviously Franco and the Vatican were not very happy about it.

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

Despite the international recognition, Buñuel is forced to leave Europe again to move away from Franco’s dictatorship. He returns to his beloved Mexico. Here the freedom of the Director is certainly greater, amnd from this new experience comes The Exterminating Angel.

In a large villa the representatives of Mexico City good society are reunited. Everything seems to flow normally, until the first diners decide to leave: no one, for unexplained reasons, manages to leave the house.

Buñuel staging is realistic, but the environments seems to be the model of the world itself: we talk about magic realism. The same acting plays on this level: the feulleiton plots are in fact depicted in an explicitly alienated way. The characters appear to us as dummies with overly expressive faces.

The fall of the persons forced into the living room rises to the emblem of the fall of the whole bourgeoisie: there are those who let go their sexual instincts, those who start taking drugs, those who seek an answer in prayers and those who invokes the sacrifice of the host. Everything is highly symbolic, just like the fact that the diners will be able to leave the house only returning to the precise initial positions of the dinner: the eternal return of absolute time in itself, an escape that actually represents the impossibility to leave the world of the bourgeoisie.

Now you will ask: where is the criticism towards religion? Of course there is: at the end of the film the protagonists meet in the church to celebrate another bourgeois rite, the mess: no one will be able to leave the great door of the church, while outside the revolution is coming.

Belle de Jour (1967)

Buñuel decides to return to France, his artistic homeland at the time of surrealism. Here he directs the movie that turned Catherine Deneuve into a myth: Belle De Jour. She is the wife of a wealthy bourgeois, but she lives a kind of sexual block, and she decides to “cure” it in the most unusual way possible: prostituting herself. Obviously prostitution is not carried out on the streets, but in a pimp’s house. So the director can reach two birds with one stone, destroying in one shot the bourgeois respectability and the myth of the house as a place of family and stability.

Results images for Bunuel Bella by day
Dream, nightmare or reality? The prostitution in Belle De Jour

Buñuel is incredibly desecrating: the woman has a symbolic need to be dominated by the male, to feel mistreated and overwhelmed, but this is the grotesque exaggeration of the real disguised condition of women in bourgeois society. There isn’t a real difference between implicit psychological submission given by social conventions and the violence of prostitution, which is only an effect.

The filmmaker also has the merit of launching the beautiful and damned Pierre Clementi, as a neurotic gangster who falls in love with the prostitute. The man will be the crazy element of the hidden Deneuve’s plots and will explode, revealing the deceits: blinded by jealousy, he sends Deneuve’s husband in a deep coma.

The final scene is emblematic. Here the protagonist is perfectly at ease with her husband in a comatose state: if earlier we were conviced to feel good while immobilized by social conventions and sex blocks, then why can’t you feel good now, when you are really and physically paralyzed?

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

Maybe The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (one of the last films made by the Spanish master) is really the most typical Buñuel’s movie. Let’s start from an assumption: The director now is old, he no longer own the revolutionary load of Viridiana. Now his gaze is more purely grotesque, it’s the gaze of a person who is aware that the world cannot change, or anyway he’s unable to do that. So the tone is more disenchanted and the criticism makes room for the grotesque, against a society that now is in an inexorable decline, that has no end.

The plot is very simple and follows The Exterminating Angel for certain suggestions: six bourgeois (two couples, a brother and a sister) try to organize a dinner, but for one reason or another they can never do that. If the main characteristic of the surrealist Buñuel has always been the invasion of the dream in everyday life, here (just the opposite as Belle De Jour) there is no separation between the two levels. It’s in fact deliberately very difficult to distinguish the dreams from reality. What’s really happening? The diplomat shoots a bourgeois friend during a dinner, or he rapes a revolutionary? The priest is really shooting a dying man who confessed to have killed his father, or he offers to take care of the lawn of one of the two couples?

In the end, it doesn’t really matter, because the director’s goal is to show what is behind the logic of desire: how the bourgeoisie is moved by instinctive desires that are mechanically repressed, but that sooner or later burst, in the form of a dream or in the form of treacheries, illegal activities and much more.

In the end the bourgeoisie walks, as they walked throughout the whole movie. They walk with no goal, continuing to indulge their own fall, being too blind to notice it. Like the return to the initial positions in The Exterminating Angel, like the noise of the buggy in the beginning and the end of Belle De Jour, the aimless walk of the bourgeoisie is the expression of a suffocating society, with no exit.

Buñuel was a provocator, of course, but above all a great artist and an immense director: a man who has had the courage to show us what no one says, what no one has the courage to admit, with a superb irony. And who knows if, after the Award for the best foreign language film for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Buñuel did burst in a huge laugh. In fact he was rewarded by the same bourgeoisie he mocked throughout his whole career, that apparently didn’t notice anything.

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