Laughing All the Way to the Grave

An uncanny resemblance to Freud: Luis Buñuel (far left) on the set of 'Belle de jour'
Miramax Films

Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) loved scrambled eggs and chorizo, West Side Story, tarantulas preserved under glass, Gothic chapels with catacombs, snowy weather, the company of elderly priests, and, above all, the ice-cold martini. He loathed national anthems, crowds numbering more than six, onscreen kisses, late dinners, From Here to Eternity ("militaristic and xenophobic," he called it), the American spirit of "cooperation," warm climates, sentimental displays, and the works of Picasso, Borges, and even his close friend García Lorca--anything the Western world would describe as "consummately Latin." No Spaniard since Cervantes--who didn't impress Buñuel either--was so pan-European, so "universal" in his approach as this pioneering surrealist filmmaker. The concerns of Buñuel's late period--generally considered his greatest--were thought in their day to have been endearingly quaint and academic: The films focused on extreme religious dogmatism and terrorist violence.

It tingles me to imagine Buñuel having lived to see the era of The Passion of the Christ and Al Qaeda cells. (An unfinished project by Buñuel and his longtime scenarist Jean-Claude Carrière detailed life in such an organization.) Recalling his many films denounced from pulpit and parliament floor, one can imagine the cruel jokes Buñuel would've played on the innocent courage of New York firefighters, the naïveté of London subway riders, the desire of Tel Aviv nightclubbers to finish their drinks--senseless, unforgivable, hilarious jokes. Although Buñuel is known largely today as a figure from a film studies course, he was at one time advertised on a movie marquee as "The Cruelest Director in the World!" (That would have deeply hurt his feelings.) Oak Street's "The Brutal Beauty of Luis Buñuel" (Sundays through October 30) offers some understanding of why Buñuel is the most consistently timely and least forgotten of great 20th-century European filmmakers. As Carrière has remarked, Buñuel is that rare great artist who never went into "purgatory": His films never became stale or out of date. "Brutal Beauty" tells us why.

The period of signal importance in Buñuel's career comes between 1932--the year of his harrowing ethnographic documentary "Land Without Bread" (screening September 11)--and 1947, when he directed the low-budget Mexican feature En el Viejo Tampico. Buñuel, who would pick up steam again with the juvenile-criminal masterpiece Los Olvidados in 1950, essentially got to sit out the '30s and '40s. When the director resumed his career with various low-budget producers in Mexico, his newfound style--a mix of cinema-vérité coarseness and Freudian blasphemy--both spoke the secrets of the 1950s and anticipated their expression by at least a decade. Though Buñuel marked time with quasi-commercial features such as the undistinguished Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (September 18), he dazzled the world-cinema scene with shockers including the sublime El (a.k.a. That Strange Passion)--a scabrous, still-terrifying melodrama of insane jealousy that predates and tops the late films of Hitchcock and the entire oeuvre of Brian De Palma.


Unlike other filmmakers of the period who stirred scandal, Buñuel directed movies that remain powerfully upsetting to this day. I still recall the fiasco of taking a college date to see Buñuel's Viridiana--and discovering afterward that the auteur's concentrated dose of primal Freudian imagery had the same effect on her as four hours of repressed-memory analysis on the shrink's couch. Only a few years ago, at an L.A. silent-movie palace, an audience of a thousand screamed in horror at El as if padlocked inside a Wes Craven triple-bill. But after the honors he received in this middle period, Buñuel, liberated by relatively large budgets, drastically changed his style. The late phase of the master's work--what we consider, along with his early surrealist films, to be "Luis Buñuel"--has a lordly, gliding serenity. I take great pleasure in Buñuel's The Milky Way (October 9), in which he addresses matters of Catholic dogma as if compiling some Laurence Sterne-style encyclopedia of archaic churchly facts. But the most universally accepted of the late works is The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (October 16), in which the director proves that the nature of reality is flimsy, provisional, and manmade, whereas the greatness of the dry martini is iron-clad and eternal.

Following a group of well-tailored, mannerly bourgeois as they trudge from pillar to post in search of a decent place to eat dinner, Discreet Charm compiles eerie campfire ghost stories, smutty sight gags, teasingly unfinished anecdotes, and errant smudges of political satire. The author whom Buñuel loved above all others was de Sade, and one can see in this film the director's affection for the ornamental, elegant language with which the Marquis enumerated unspeakable horrors. Pastel-colored and genteel, Discreet Charm anticipates the American trend toward foreign films that detail sunny Mediterranean locales and fine dining--except that Buñuel's version cannibalizes both characters and audience. (By the way: Is the comic doc The Aristocrats not a sort of meta-version of an anecdote in a late Buñuel movie?)

The greatest of all Buñuel's films, however, stands at the crossroads between brutalism and mannerism, between his middle- and late-period styles. Belle de jour (October 2) must've been conceived by its producers as an opportunity for the maestro to detour into the fashionable high-class smut of the time. Severine (Catherine Deneuve) is a young Parisian wife who's bored with her nice-guy husband and tantalized by gossipy whispers of a pricy whorehouse where the ladies of the evening work by day. Buñuel strews the fallen matron's path to rack and ruin with inscrutable gags and pregnant hunks of foreshadowing that almost literally define Freud's "uncanny." Shot in a pearly, immaculate style, with hair, makeup, clothing, and bibelots styled right down to the molecule (eat your heart out, Michael Mann!), Belle de jour is both clear as a bell and as unknowable as an ancient ruin--a winkingly chauvinist paean to the Mysteries of Womankind that extends into an ode to the mystery of human experience. The unimpeachable concreteness of the movie's visual form, combined with Deneuve's rigorously blank performance, creates a perfect Sadean reworking of the enigmas Buñuel saw carved on the interiors of the Saragossan churches of his boyhood.

You'll find none of Ingmar Bergman's self-important breast-beating or Fellini's bombast and schmaltz in these movies. Indeed, it is the almost ugly plainness of Buñuel's style that has kept him in currency all these decades--but also, more important, the films' nonpartisan nature. In his opposition to every form of sentiment, to delusion, tribalism, and the romanticizing of one's superior position, Buñuel leaves himself, and us, free to indulge openly in what he does espouse: laughter, morbid eroticism, and indulgent sensuality. Yes, it's likely that your car will be bombed, your house flooded with rain, your kneecaps blown off by some acronym-sporting death squad you've never heard of. Till then, lick the last drops of bitters and gin off the melting ice cubes at the bottom of your glass.

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