Charles Vanel as Castin in Death in the Garden (1956) (© the Pratt Family Collection / IMDB)

Right in the Eye: Luis Buñuel’s ‘Death in the Garden’ and ‘The Milky Way’

Luis Buñuel's melodramas of survival, 'Death in the Garden' and 'The Milky Way', carry on the director's proclivity for poking his characters -- and his filmgoers -- right in the eye.

Death in the Garden
Luis Buñuel
Kino Lorber
23 Jul 2019 (US)
The Milky Way
Luis Buñuel
Kino Lorber
23 Jul 2019 (US)

New on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber are Death in the Garden (La mort en ce jardin, 1956) and The Milky Way (La voie lactée, 1969), two films from Luis Buñuel, one of the more sadly under-represented of cinema’s great artists on Blu-ray.

Buñuel created a splash with two Surrealist collaborations with Salvador Dali, the short
Un Chien Andalou (1928) and the feature L’Age d’Or (1930), the latter promptly banned for blasphemy and withheld from general release for decades. As persona non grata in France and in Spain, which would soon be under the regime of General Franco, Buñuel lived for a while in the US and then moved to Mexico, where he began directing features.

Aside from the harsh neo-realism of
Los Olvidados (1950), which attracted international attention, Buñuel made a string of fascinating middle-class melodramas: comedies, crime films, women’s films, dramas of obsession. All of them are good and some very good indeed. Before long he attracted international co-productions from France and the United States.

By the Point of a Nibbed Pen: Death in the Garden (La mort en ce jardin)

The second of his French co-productions is
Death in the Garden, shot in Mexico but made in French with French actors, forecasting that his last spate of films would all be French. As critic Tony Rayns observes in a bonus interview, this film is the second of Buñuel’s three French co-productions that all share a backdrop of a totalitarian militarist society, the others being This Is Called Dawn (1956) and Fever Mounts at El Pao (1959).

This Blu-ray marks my third viewing of
Death in the Garden, the first having been in a Paris theatre, a factoid you can be sure I love dropping. The film easily encompasses several viewings because it’s so elusive and always seems like two evenly divided movies, one type of film metamorphosing disorientingly into another.


Film Strip by joseph_alban (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Although based on a novel by Belgian writer José-André Lacour, the film’s first half seems partly inspired by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), an international hit that took the film world by storm a few years earlier. Both films are melodramas of survival featuring a motley cast of characters stuck somewhere in Latin America. Both films star Charles Vanel, while the casting in Buñuel’s film includes a couple of additional similarities to Clouzot’s film.

The rough-and-ready anti-hero played by Georges Marchal seems conceived to resemble Yves Montand in Clouzot’s film, down to the unshaven stubble and exposed chest. His sexual link with Simone Signoret’s character, Djin, solidifies him as a Montand substitute, for Montand and Signoret were publicly associated during this period. Meanwhile, the mute, mousy ingenue, María Castin, played by Michèle Girardon in Buñuel’s film, bears at least a passing resemblance to Véra Clouzot in the earlier film.

The setting is an unnamed South American country run by a military government and bordering Brazil. An international crew of diamond prospectors faces eviction by the government, and this leads to violent confrontation and insurrection with shooting in the streets. Halfway through this complicated set-up, a handful of characters flee on a boat and head into the jungle, where the second half of the film will be set.

As PopMatters writer Scott Jordan Harris pointed out in a review of the previous DVD release, “Death in the Garden” (19 Nov 2009) most commentaries skip over the first half of the movie as if it’s mere prelude to the second half, and describe it as a tale of survival in the jungle. If we pause to resist that impulse, we see that the first half is a complex vision of often unpleasant people, or at least highly flawed ones, getting in each other’s way as part of a ruthless struggle of power and survival that’s just as deadly as living in the jungle. As a social microcosm of ambiguous observation, it could easily be the work of Otto Preminger or someone else working on a moral canvas that reaches beyond its provincial setting.

Almost by default, because movies are supposed to have brawny two-fisted heroes, the “hero” is the merciless Chark (pronounced “shark”) played by Marchal in extra-scuzzy Montand mode. A classic “stranger in town” is first glimpsed flipping us the bird. He’s not one of the prospectors but a suspected bank robber who thinks nothing of committing violence, whether it’s blowing up a building or, in a queasy throwaway, poking a nibbed pen into the eye of a shrieking guard. Now that’s the filmmaker who didn’t mind razoring an eyeball in Un Chien Andalou! His whole career has been devoted, in one manner or another, to poking something in the viewer’s eye.


Simone Signoret as Djin and Georges Marchal as Chark in Death in the Garden (© the Pratt Family Collection / IMDB)

The film pairs Chark sexually (no point in saying “romantically”) with another hard-bitten looker-after-herself, the town prostitute Djin (Signoret), whose name evokes Arabian Nights spirits of ambiguous loyalties. After having sex with Chark, she shops him to the corrupt authorities to confiscate his perhaps stolen money, all while measuring her chances for marriage with a successful prospector. That’s the besotted Castin (Vanel), a dumpy middle-aged man with a lovely deaf-mute daughter, Maria (Girardon).

The Castins are basically good people trying to navigate a wicked world that doesn’t leave them uncontaminated, while a professionally good person is Father Lizardi (Michel Piccoli in his first of several Buñuel films), a Catholic priest intending to minister to an Amazon tribe. Lizardi is among the most fascinatingly complex and multi-sided characters in the screenplay.

For example, he unsuccessfully tries to persuade the hot-headed prospectors against violence, his Cassandra-like warnings proving correct. I don’t believe this is a matter of preaching meekness and submission, for he has no trouble standing up to Chark and saying he’s not afraid of him, but of his grasp of realpolitik. However, he prefers not to see that the Church is in bed with a northern oil refinery that follows in the wake of Christianizing missionaries. When he falls under a false public impression of having professionally visited the prostitute, he keeps mum in order to protect Castin. One of the tricks of his characterization is that he continually rises as a man in the viewer’s eyes to the degree that he falls as a priest.

These are the merry crew who find themselves in the jungle along with Chenko (Tito Junco), Djin’s unscrupulous partner in mercenary schemes, as Buñuel observes their cross-purposes with sly attention to detail amid the lush Eastmancolor photography of Jorge Stahl Jr. and Edward Fitzgerald’s production design, with idiomatic yet unobtrusive music by Paul Misraki.


Georges Marchal as Chark and Francisco Reiguera as Shopkeeper in Death in the Garden (© the Pratt Family Collection / IMDB)

Since critics talk about the jungle portion as the most Buñuelian part of the picture — not least because of a twist that comes literally out of the blue, and because we’d rather leave discovery of the film’s surprises to the viewer — we’ll stop here except for two remarks. The first is that the film’s “garden” deliberately evokes Eden in a scene with a serpent, only to show that Chark is capable of opportunely disposing of its “evil” and also that falling for its temptations (of food) proves fruitless. In that scene, Buñuel evokes the ants of Un Chien Andalou. The second observation is the highly ironic use of civilization’s flotsam as both salvation and trap, but you’ll have to watch the film to know what we mean.

Buñuel’s writers include Luis Alcoriza, who worked on many of his scripts and would become a prolific director. To understand his importance on Buñuel’s Mexican period, look at a film scripted by Alcoriza, Rogelio A. González’s The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales (1960), which comes across as a wonderful fugitive Buñuel film that Buñuel never made.

Also on the script is linguistically playful Raymond Queneau, probably most famous for the novel that Louis Malle filmed as Zazie in the Metro (1960). Sharing a dialogue credit is illustrious Russian-French dramatist Gabriel Arout, so this thing is fueled by high-powered writers. Another curious connection to French cinema is that the primary editor is Marguerite Renoir, longtime lover of Jean Renoir, whose surname she took without benefit of marriage.

Producer Oscar Dancigers was responsible for some of Buñuel’s greatest Mexican films, including Los Olvidados, El (1953), Wuthering Heights (1954) and the US co-production Robinson Crusoe (1954), the latter of which is cannily linked to Death in the Garden by Samm Deighan’s commentary track. Dancigers and Buñuel followed with another French co-production, Fever Mounts at El Pao (1959). Several of these titles are crying out for Blu-ray. Indeed, every film Buñuel made deserves it.

Spit and Mud in Your Eye: The Milky Way (La voie lactée)

That brings us to The Milky Way, the first in Buñuel’s trilogy of surreal sketch films produced in France by Serge Silberman. The other two would be The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974). It’s difficult to describe these extraordinary films except to say that it’s as if the sketch comedy of Ernie Kovacs or Sid Caesar were made by someone especially interested in religious, political, and sexual themes and aiming more for intellectual wit than laugh-out-loud comedy.

The “Milky Way” refers not to the galaxy but to a road of holy pilgrimage leading to a Spanish reliquary of St. James. The main characters are two vagabonds, the older Pierre Dupont (Paul Frankeur) and younger Jean Duval (Laurent Terzieff), whose presence evokes a battery of figures in French literature from Guy de Maupassant’s 1887 novel Pierre et Jean to the hapless duo in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot (1953).

A film even more restless and peripatetic than Death in the Garden, The Milky Way finds its heroes encountering a number of religious figures or digressing into reveries and anecdotes, with special attention to the topic of heresies against Catholic dogma (including the changeable nature of that dogma) and the paradoxes of free will, the Holy Trinity, Jesus the divine vs. Jesus the human, and the nature of the Virgin Mary.

To that end, at various points we meet Jesus (Bernard Verley), the Virgin Mary (Édith Scob), the Angel of Death or perhaps the Devil (Pierre Clémenti), and the Marquis de Sade (none other than Piccoli again). As Deighan points out in the commentary on Death in the Garden, Sade is among Buñuel’s recurring influences. He made his mark (along with Jesus) in the final segment of L’Age d’Or and became one of the main sources of Nazarín (1959), and a mild sado-masochistic element exists in the relations of Death in the Garden. The Devil was also no stranger to Buñuel, being a major player in Simon of the Desert (1965) and perhaps showing up in disguise elsewhere.


Paul Frankeur as Pierre Clémenti in The Milky Way (IMDB)

And here’s Georges Marchal, anti-hero of Death in the Garden, turning up as the Jesuit who engages in a duel with a Jansenist (Jean Piat) in which they debate matters of doctrine while clashing swords. Also in the picture are François Maistre, Claude Cerval, Denis Manuel, Daniel Pilon, Claudio Brook, Delphine Seyrig and Buñuel’s crucial co-writer during this era, Jean-Claude Carrière.

A typical anecdote involves the headwaiter (Julien Bertheau) of a fancy restaurant who calmly engages in historical and philosophical disquisitions on the nature of Christ with the rest of the help and with well-dressed customers, then peremptorily chases the two beggars off the premises. That’s how much he knows about Christ, Buñuel seems to be saying in his cool manner.

Throughout the journey, figures of authority and dignity who treat the pair badly are contrasted with humbler people who treat them better, a point made by critic Peter Evans in a bonus interview. The unfairness, randomness and capriciousness of punishment and fate, how it refuses the dogmatic rules set down for it by religion or art, remains one of the filmmaker’s consistent topics. While “divine retribution” was shaped by the personal in the disturbing ending of Death in the Garden, The Milky Way is perhaps scarier because its ways are more unfathomable.

The final anecdote, in which two blind men seek succor from Jesus, once again indulges Buñuel’s tendency to stick things in people’s eyes — in this case, spittle and mud. As the new trailer emphasizes, the act of spitting in the eye echoes the earlier scene when Jean spits upon the menu of the hoity-toity restaurant.


Julien Bertheau (r) as Richard ‘maître d’hôtel’ (IMDB)

Not only is Buñuel’s film about paradox, it exists as one, or several. Made by a self-avowed atheist yet scrupulously researched and respectful of its subject, this is a film that could only be made by a recovering Catholic and perhaps appeals most directly to Catholics, yet its exploration of schisms and stubborn faith remains relevant, as Carrière declares in a bonus interview. Another paradox is that the story seems light as a feather while addressing serious issues quite densely. It’s playful and serious in ways that cannot be separated.

It’s tempting to imagine that Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which debuted on the BBC in October 1969, owed something to The Milky Way. Nick Pinkerton’s commentary suggests the idea, and the booklet makes the comparison to Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983), though we must also admit that Monty Python’s most direct antecedents are BBC sketch shows with some of the same cast, At Last the 1948 Show (1967) and Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69), not to mention the radio series The Goon Show (1951-60). Still, a nod is as good as a wink, nudge nudge.

Like Buñuel’s other works, this movie lends itself to multiple viewings because, while seemingly transparent and direct in its effects, it never clears up its mysteries. Among all filmmakers who could be described as intellectual teasers, Buñuel is among the very simplest yet most confounding. The mysteries that concern him are life itself and ways we choose to live it and think about it. These topics fascinated him endlessly and that bemused fascination is what comes through clearly.

People who own the 2009 Microcinema DVD of Death in the Garden should hang onto it because the extras are different, and you can’t really have too much Buñuel on your shelves.