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.’

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