Reviews

Death in the Garden

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.


Death in the Garden

Director: Luis Buñuel
Cast: Georges Marchal, Simone Signoret, Michel Piccoli, Charles Vanel, Michéle Girardon, Tito Junco.
Distributor: Transflux Films
US Release Date: 2009-10-27

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.

7
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.