My Last Sigh by Luis Bunuel

As with so many books that are magnificent reads, Luis Bunuel’s My Last Sigh (written with the help of Jean-Claude Carriere) is almost impossible to categorize. Certainly it is no autobiography — it is far too chronologically disorganized for that — and it may not quite qualify as a memoir since some chapters are merely ruminations on such things as dreams and how certain alcoholic beverages are conducive to specific activities. Bunuel begins notes near the former that one’s dreams are never of interest to other people and, truth be told, it’s not the most riveting chapter in the book though he does relate how several sequences in his movies had their origins during slumber. And it is typically Bunuelian to begin by noting that a thing is of no interest and proceed at length on the topic anyway. What else might one expect from the man who proclaimed, “I’m still an atheist… thank God!”?

One ends by feeling one has learned absolutely nothing about the man but this is true only because we have been conditioned to expect from such works: a chronological recounting of the writer’s life. In fact we have learned perhaps everything there is to know from what he has chosen to recall, what he has chosen to commit to paper and what he has chosen to invent. The last is more than possible unless one chooses to accept that there were an uncommon amount of open coffins to be peered into in Calanda, Spain, where Bunuel grew up. But be they true or false, the early chapters on his childhood are among the book’s most fascinating — and that’s generally the inverse of most biographies.

Bunuel had quite a varied life and different sections of the book will likely be of interest to disparate people. Bunuel moved to Paris in 1925 with a vague notion of pursuing a career in the arts, possibly through writing. He became involved with the Surrealists and radical Leftist politcs and never quite abandoned the goals of either; certainly his films explore Surrealist imagery even when their central notions aren’t Surreal from the get-go. Most all explore politics in one way or another. Some of his films, such as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie can even be seen as jokes on the audience. These days we primarily remember the Surrealists for their use of dream imagery, such as Salvadore Dali’s melting watches, but their goal was far loftier. It was their intention to change the world by shocking it, and much of their work was in the nature of ephemeral events designed to jolt people out of their established patterns of perception and thinking. Bunuel calls them terrorists who used scandal rather than bullets. (Years later Andre Breton would lament to Bunuel that it had become so difficult to scandalize people; one wonders how he’d view the early 21st Century when scandal is savored rather than recoiled from.) Bunuel’s first film Un Chien Andalou (1929, in collaboration with Dali) was so popular that the Surrealists began to distrust him but he redeemed himself with his second, L’Age d’or (1930) which was withdrawn from public exhibition by the French censor. But film is an expensive medium and Bunuel wouldn’t get the opportunity to make more until after his relocation to Mexico in 1946.

Anyone interested in the arts will relish these chapters and perhaps find it intriguing that there was a time when artists felt it was their duty to be politically involved. We may not have separated church and state in this country but we have certainly divorced art from the state or at least besmirched the idea of any art with political content.

Fans of movies may be more frustrated as Bunuel devotes a mere chapter each to his years in Mexico (1946-61) and France (to 1977) — his most active period as a filmmaker — and the details are scant in each case. “It would be absurd to list and evaluate all these movies”, he writes, “in the first place because that’s not my job, and in the second because I don’t think a life can be confused with a work”. Whether this is another joke on the audience or simple perversity it is perhaps typical of Bunuel to all but ignore the thing for which he will be most remembered.

Then again perhaps he merely wanted to return to his roots as a writer. And what delicious writing this is, thanks in no small part to an elegant translation by Abigail Israel. My Last Sigh may not be a page-turner in the ordinary sense but one is loath to put the volume down and suspend the continued opportunity to luxuriate in the engrossing tales spun by a master raconteur.