(1900 - 1983)
Three Key Films: Un Chien Andalou (1929), Los Olvidados (1950), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise (1972)
Underrated: Illusion Travels by Streetcar (1954). Not revelatory by any means, Illusion flattens out in sections and admittedly doesn’t live up to that fantastic title. But it’s quite fun nonetheless, and despite the noticeable detachment that Buñuel seems to have with the material, the film is refreshingly cheerful. Plot? Two friends romp through Mexico City as they take a streetcar for a last ride. Foibles and satire ensue.
Unforgettable: The eyeball-slicing is the one that everyone remembers, and the gorgeous tones of Belle de Jour shouldn’t be overlooked. But it’s a later image in Un Chien Andalou that’s just as striking: the girl left alone with her shadow as all the other shadows scatter away, and that same girl soon lying limp on the street like a fly caught in a concrete spider web.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise (1972)
The Legend: That crotchety old man shouldn’t fool anyone: Spain’s finest filmmaker was farcically compelled by humanity’s blemishes and particulars—he just filtered them through stinging humor and outlandish narrative. And while Luis Buñuel is remembered for the lingering threats of violence or frank sexual encounter in his films, his aesthetic was so loosely-confined that he was never exploitative; there’s a casual sensuality to even his most seemingly-mundane scenes.
Born at the start of the 20th century, Buñuel was able to witness (and take part in) the changes that were carried through that century’s premier art form. Un Chien Andalou, needs little explanation to cinephiles: made with one Salvador Dalí, it remains a quintessential example of 1920s Parisian decadence, standing as the first great cinematic immersion into full-blown surrealism.
Buñuel cast satiric barbs toward the European class structure and particularly toward Catholicism, an understandable result of being an artist in pre-WWII Spain. Yet his films never lost their astute sense of pace, compounded through strangely mesmerizing imagery (a mountain goat tumbling to its death in Tierra Sin Pan, the disturbingly direct framing of a merry-go-round in Los Olvidados). The people in his films behave both fluidly and mechanically, which is beneficial: as in dreams, subjects function through a playful ambience of de-tuned normality.
This oeuvre peaked (in my view) with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise. Released as America’s films entered their last golden age, Bourgeoise was an eccentric comedown from the turbulent France of the late ‘60s, providing characters who seem culled from past work and somehow managing to warmly espouse their quirks and cleverly jibe them simultaneously. Like an engrossing dream, you accept it against your ‘better’ judgment, left with images and scenes that you recall with the fondness of an old friend.
Buñuel embraced counterculturalism with a knowing, satisfied ease, and his run from 1961 through his breezy farewell in 1977 stands as a high point for both surrealism and for the rejection—cinematic or otherwise—of established systems and aesthetics. Rigidity and perversity were still present, but used expansively, exuding an assured love of film—and, crucially, of filmmaking.
It’s a shame that the eyeball scene in Un Chien Andalou has been trivialized as a depraved pass-along phrase (thanks, Frank Black). Sure, it’s visceral, but Buñuel compels us to look beyond repulsion or confusion, to ask ourselves if these are truly our only reactions; he was a subverter of form who stands for any medium’s boundary-breaking. One’s accepted view of the world stands on the edge of being warped—or eviscerated—at any point. “L’art pour le bien de l’art,” as I’m sure the man said. Nathan Wisnicki