The Scandalous Charm of Luis Buñuel

Gavin Millar

Luis Buñuel, the Spanish film-maker who died last month, was the same age as the century. One of the many paradoxes of his career is that, despite his unwavering determination to shock and provoke, he ended his life revered by the public he professed to abhor: the great mass of the comfortable bourgeoisie. A further paradox may be that we cannot be sure whether this pleased or distressed him. If we take his frequent pronouncements at their face value (always a dangerous thing to do with him), then his artistic life must be accounted a complete failure – in his eyes. When he and Dali unleashed Un Chien Andalou in 1929 on an astonished Paris public, it was not meant as a calling card for the various anarchist and surrealist groups to pick up – even if they did so. Still less was it intended as a contribution to avant-gardism – abstract aesthetic trifling with which Buñuel had no patience. He wanted it to be, as he wrote in December 1929 in La Révolution Surréaliste, No 12, ‘a desperate and passionate appeal to murder’. Back in Madrid, at a showing to the Cineclub, he told the audience: ‘I do not want the film to please you, but to offend you. I would be sorry if you were to enjoy it.’

It is possible, but not reasonable, in the face of the evidence over fifty years, to take that as a youthful squib. It would be impertinent and patronising to one of the century’s most single-minded and independent artists to gloss it over as a ‘typical Buñuelian joke’ – a formula applied with irritating frequency to many of his most subversive gestures. Wit there is, certainly. But it has often proved too easy a refuge for critics, especially liberal, humane Anglo-Saxon ones – enabling them to shelter from the passion and the loathing which is equally present. It is no accident that his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire, ends with a huge terrorist explosion in which, as far as we can tell, all the protagonists perish, along with many ‘innocents’; and there is a strong suggestion that the explosion is intended to encompass the audience too.

He was quite clear about the aims of the Surrealist movement which he was happy and flattered to be invited to join by Breton himself after the screening of Un Chien Andalou. As far as he was concerned, its aims were not principally artistic. He says they were all supporters of a certain concept of revolution, and that their weapons were not primarily guns, but scandal. The crimes he hoped to expose with that included religious tyranny, colonialist imperialism, exploitation of any kind by man against man (– or indeed beast, for Buñuel, an entomology student, saw no particular hierarchy in the orders of creation, and was depressed by attempts to impose one). Those crimes are the ‘secret and odious underpinnings of a system that had to be destroyed’. This is no proud boast of a barricade-building student. It is the maturest of reflections: there are others like them in his autobiography, written in the last years and entitled, with characteristic black humour, My Last Breath (to be published here by Cape in the new year). ‘The real purpose of Surrealism,’ he writes, ‘was not to create a new literary, artistic or even philosophical movement, but to explode the social order, to transform life itself.’

He confesses that it failed in its essential aims. After all, it had a daunting programme, if you call to mind its targets: ‘Morality – middle-class morality, that is – is for me immoral. One must fight it. It is a morality founded on our most unjust social institutions – religion, fatherland, family culture – everything that people call the pillars of society.’ Not that Buñuel could ever have been classified as a Marxist. He leaned towards anarchy too much to become entangled in conventional party-politicking. He felt that those Surrealists who succumbed to traditional politics in order to fight the social order were simply feeble reformists who had betrayed the movement’s ideals. He was familiar with Picasso, though it would be an exaggeration to say they were friends. He mistrusted his vanity and exhibitionism and hated what he saw as the crude sentimentality of the painting Guernica (which he helped to hang, though he would have preferred to blow it up). He hated the painting for bringing politics into art. So this business of exploding the social order via art, albeit scandalous art, is more complex, clearly, than we had thought. Surely there must be a thin line somewhere, visible to Buñuel, but invisible to the casual stroller in galleries, or mere browser in libraries, or, after 1929 especially, unwary patron of the Ursulines or the Cineclub de Madrid, a line which divides revolutionary art from self-indulgent political gesturing? Wisely, Buñuel managed to steer clear of any of the more violent Surrealist events himself. While he was shooting L’Age d’Or, the lads went on a rumble one night to turn over a night-club which had intrepidly named itself after Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror, a work they revered. The place was wrecked, Aragon sustained a knife-wound, there were arrests. Buñuel wasn’t there, excused duties on account of being a métèque, a bloody foreigner and émigré and so unable to tangle with the police for fear of deportation.

But then he was capable of aggressive and anti-social acts on a more domestic platform. After the singing of some rather strident patriotic songs at a Christmas party in Hollywood Buñuel and two friends set about destroying the Christmas tree and stomping on the presents. As an attack on religious and nationalist sentimentality it must have carried a muffled message. But then all Buñuel’s acts of terrorism, social or artistic, had something of the absurd, grotesque or burlesque about them. His sense of humour and his plain common sense militated constantly against what he must have apprehended as the sheer blundering ineffectualness of most terrorist activity. A week later, Chaplin, who had been at the Christmas party, asked them all to his house and provided another tree which he invited Buñuel to defoliate before dinner, so that they could get it over with.

At least half of the impact of Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or must in any case have been – and still remains – its appeal to the unconscious, rather than its subversion of the social order. L’Age d’Or admittedly is more pointedly class-conscious (and we should perhaps give more weight to Buñuel’s unexamined condemnation always of ‘middle-class’, morality: which middle-class? And wasn’t it easier to define in Madrid in 1928 than, say, in Paris in 1977, the time of Obscure Object?). One can fondly imagine the reactions of the assembled officialdom at the first screening, as the foundations of the Church of Rome are laid in a mortar of merde, while Gaston Modot and Lya Lys couple ecstatically in the mud, ignorant of dignity and dignitaries alike; or when murderous scorpions turn into the founding fathers of Christianity, or the bishops are tossed out of the window, or Christ is seen emerging from a de Sade castle, or elegant guests dismiss the murder of the gamekeeper’s son by his father as just another low-life fracas. Dali thought of the film (with which he had less to do than he claims) as an exposure of the shameful mechanisms of contemporary society. But Buñuel was quite clear that for him it was an exaltation of amour fou, the irrational passion which tries (but fails) to unite two creatures and which is, for him, inevitably and implacably opposed to all social forms. The battle lines, as early as L’Age d‘or, seem to be drawn for Buñuel between instinct and institution, the latter being social man’s more or less clumsy attempts to tame and order the former. When Modot knocks over a blind man in a lover’s rush to get into a taxi, or kicks a dog out of the way, we have to decide if Buñuel is condoning the activity – like throwing bishops out of windows – or pointing out that sexual repression inevitably leads to this kind of violence, the social violence breeding personal cruelty.

There are those critics who will smile condescendingly and assure you that the great anarchist and student of de Sade was obsessed with an even more violent vision: ‘passion, mystification, black humour, the insult and the call of the abyss’, as he himself put it. And it is true that the dark side of the subconscious mind he regarded as a truer guide to feeling – and indeed action – than the rational one. Hence his hatred of hypocritical professions of virtue. And it is equally true that he makes statements that are difficult to fit into most schemes of personal morality: ‘I should find burning down a museum more enticing than opening a cultural centre or a hospital.’ He doesn’t, on the other hand, go on to say that he would find burning down a cultural centre, or indeed a hospital, enticing. Buñuel was aware of the paradox which he spent his life trying to illuminate: a tragic one, but equally a comic one, because of its absurdity. If social forms inevitably mask, hypocritically and deceitfully, true motives, and if the dark places of the unconscious mind are where we must look for the real driving forces of human action – the egoism of amour fou being one formulation of them – then we are presented with an insoluble dilemma: either to condone social hypocrisy or give rein to the destructive personal fulfilment of desire. One way lies bad faith; the other, death. He always claimed an intuitive apprehension, giving due credit to Freud, that sexual fulfilment and death were closely identified.

That Buñuel’s work expresses a witty, perverse, confusing, absurd vision should not detract from its seriousness. The attack on inadequate moral gestures, as in Nazarin, or Los Olvidados, or Tristana, or Viridiana – or that ‘typically Buñuelian joke’ Simon del Deserto – is certainly not an attack on morality. The Christ-like Nazarin is found wanting for his refusal to commit himself to life. We must look for God in man, not up a pillar, or in the sky, says Buñuel. Nazarin’s refusal to consider the lilies of the field, expecting alms because of his virtue and God’s goodness, is a crime. When his moral vacuum is revealed to him the shock is profound. A peasant woman offers him a pineapple at the end of the film. He accepts it now, not with complacency, but with dismay and astonishment – not because of his saintliness, but because of his worthlessness. A search for comforting black and white in Los Olvidados will be in vain. The oppressed are as capable of oppression as any tyrant. Indeed, their own oppression encourages them to it. Selective pity is sentimental bad faith: Jorge buys an exhausted dog from a farmer in Viridiana, failing to notice an equally exhausted creature tied behind his master’s cart trotting past in the other direction. General pity, on the other hand, is fruitless and self-indulgent. Buñuel is wryly aware of his own weaknesses here: he was so distressed at the shooting of this scene that he bought the dogs a shopful of the best meat. And Dali records that after slicing the dead animal’s eye in Un Chien Andalou, Buñuel was sick.

Personal tenderness, but an attitude of fierce public aggression. Buñuel, caught on the horns of his dilemma, resorts increasingly to playful insolence rather than physical confrontation, sly subversion sooner than bald acts of revolt. His last great trilogy, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), The Phantom of Liberty (1974) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), is packed with caprice and cheek. It is as though he has taken the joke in Belle de Jour – the Japanese in the brothel whose mysterious box so fascinates part-time prostitute Catherine Deneuve – and extemporised on it for three films. That obscure object of desire is pursued with passionate intensity, as Modot and Lys pursued theirs, but with perennial lack of success. What’s more, no one can identify what it is. No one knows what is in the box – least of all Buñuel. They only know it is infinitely desirable. In Discreet Charm the ostensible object is a dinner party – a social form intended to tame and ritualise appetite. But it is constantly interrupted and frustrated by the irruption of less tameable manifestations – desire and death. Buñuel had concluded as early as L’Age d’Or that the liberty the Surrealists sought was in some sense a phantom. We were all in thrall, if not to authority or institution, then certainly to appetite and desire. The Phantom of Liberty (while playing with the idea of interruption to the extent of frustrating all notions of narrative continuity) is a roster of examples in which humanity clings to any subterfuge, blindness or distortion, in order to deny the truth of its own nature. A father and mother listen while their ‘missing’ daughter gives a description of herself to the attentive police inspector. Shades of the gamekeeper’s son, but a subject for wry and affectionate regret rather than violent offence. The Obscure Object is the virginity of Conchita, sought so relentlessly by the aging Mathieu, even past the point where he knows it is lost, even beyond the replacement of one identity by another: Conchita is played by two actresses. Since Mathieu scarcely seems to notice, neither do we. The force of amour fou transcends even personal identity. That is our tragedy and the universe’s absurd joke. To what end, therefore, the terrorist explosions which creep nearer and nearer throughout the film, like unregarded background music – unregarded until it is too late and they explode in our faces, ending the film, and with it, the career of Luis Buñuel?

To what end? Is the explosion his last word, his final dismissal of ostrich-like homo sapiens (the image with which he ended The Phantom of Liberty)? Or is it simply his last joke? He confesses that Surrealism failed to transform life in anything but surface matters. It left a permanent place on the shelves and the walls for Eluard, Aragon, Ernst – and, we may say, on the screen for Buñuel. The aspect of Surrealism that has stayed with him, he says, is ‘a clear and inviolate moral exigency’. And what of the ‘desperate and passionate appeal to murder’, what of the conclusive bomb? Would he throw it? He admires, he admits, some anarchist terrorists, but is aware of the ‘profound abyss between reality and my imagination – not exactly an unusual discrepancy’. It is that abyss, in other hands simply a black pit of pessimism and cynicism, which Buñuel turned into a fruitful and profound country entirely his own. The abyss, the discrepancy, were the springboard of his moral exigency, his wisdom and his wit. Driven this way and that by a violent tenderness for all creation, from scorpions down to man, he so hated our treatment of each other, and our self-deceit in disguising it, that he suspected the only way of curing us was killing us.