Luis Buñuel made so many masterpieces in his near 50-year career that those films of his that are merely very good tend to be overlooked. Death in the Garden is just such a film, and so it is a delight to discover it has been given such a well-appointed release on DVD.
Introducing Death in the Garden as a Buñuel film, however, is effectively a misrepresentation: there is little, if not nothing, in the film’s opening hour to suggest that this is the work of the same savage surrealist who created the better known Belle de Jour, Un Chien Andalou or Virdiana. The synopsis on the back cover of this DVD begins:
Amid a revolution in a South American mining outpost, a band of ill-starred fugitives… are forced to flee for their lives into the jungle. Starving, exhausted, and stripped of their old identities, they wander desperately lured by one deceptive promise of salvation after another.
Most summaries of Death in the Garden begin the same way, essentially starting over halfway through the story. The aforementioned fugitives do not actually flee into the jungle until over 50 into this 100-minute movie. For the majority of its running time, the film is a spirited and uncomplicated adventure movie about the anger felt by a group of diamond prospectors — at new laws being imposed by the military government of an unspecified South American nation — and the unlikely uprising to which this leads.
Charles Vanel is Castin, an ageing miner who hopes to escape to Paris with his wealth, his childlike, deaf-mute daughter (Michéle Girardon) and Djin (Simone Signoret), the hard-hearted whore he wants to make his wife. Michel Piccoli is Father Lizzardi, a priest so pious he is almost an automaton, and Georges Marchal is Chark, an angry adventurer who is probably an outlaw and certainly unsavoury. Their stories become entwined as the diamond miners’ uprising erupts and, through a combination of chance and design, they flee their unnamed town together.
What counts against this portion of the film is that — though well made — it has little intellectual resonance, and that it could have been overseen by any clever and competent director. The second portion, however, is unmistakably imprinted with the identity of Buñuel, and so it is unsurprising that discussion of Death in the Garden generally begins with it.
Such discussions, though, do the film a disservice. While its first half is unlikely ever to invite the rigorous readings that can be made of its second, it has a profound influence upon how we approach that second section of the movie. The opening 50-minutes instill in viewers the kind of vital interest we have in the fate of the characters that is routine in a romantic melodrama, or a Western winding up to its shootout. To create characters whose fates are both allegorical and as basically fascinating as a soap opera storyline is one of the highest aims of all fiction. Death in the Garden achieves this, and does so largely because of the investment viewers make in the five main characters in the film’s underappreciated first half.
As the better-appreciated second half begins, and the film transitions from a film directed by Buñuel into a Buñuel film, those lead characters, through circumstances it would spoil too much of the plot to elaborate upon, are driven into the rainforest by a pack of pursuing policeman. The Eastmancolor cinematography, which so often seems a poor substitute for Technicolour, is inspired here, suggesting the smothering homogeneity of the jungle, thus evoking the decay corroding the characters whose struggles are set against it. The sound, too, is remarkable; expertly and innovatively capturing the oppressive and alien soundscape of a jungle.
As his characters trudge towards death, Buñuel surprises his audience with the film’s only true splashes of Surrealism. This first is simply showy – the jarring images and sounds of a Paris street abruptly appears, as Castin, abandoning a dream, tosses a Parisian postcard into a campfire – but the second is astonishing. As Buñuel expert Victor Fuentes says in his excellent half-hour interview on this DVD:
… (A)ll of a sudden there’s a Buñuelian spectacle: a plane appears carrying the artefacts of our consumer society… after so much hardship, the jungle turns into a boureoise salon with all the goodies of consumer society. In The Exterminating Angel we see the salon transformed into the jungle…
In Death in the Garden we see the jungle transformed into the salon — and the sudden comfort and avarice this brings the characters stuns us. For the second time, we lose our sense of where the film is heading and are forced to reassess the way we engage with it.
Fuentes’s interview is probably the standout among the admirable extras here. Another scholar, Ernesto R. Acevedo-Munoz, contributes an audio commentary and there is a second half-hour interview, with Michel Piccoli. The DVD’s unusually stylish booklet contains an essay on Simone Signoret by Susan Hayward and one on Buñuel by his son, Juan-Luis. If these are often too generally-focused and don’t deal specifically with Death in the Garden as much as we might like, it is a very slight criticism of a very impressive release.
Impressive as it is, though, the DVD cannot be recommended to all. To viewers who aren’t thoroughly versed in Buñuel’s work, there must be at least eight of his films more worthy of their attention than this. To anyone who has seen his several classics, however, and wants to experience more than the very cream of the Mexican master’s oeuvre, Death in the Garden is an ideal purchase.