Thursday, 2 June 2016


In 1928 Spanish director Luis Bunuel launched his challenging career as a film-maker with the infamous Surrealist short Un Chien Andalou. It was full of the themes that had obsessed Bunuel since childhood – and by collaborating with artist Salvador Dali ensured that its bizarre symbolic imagery deliberately made no concession to commonplace narrative logic.

Luis Bunuel was the eldest son of seven, born into a wealthy family in the small Aragon town of Calanda in Spain. His father Leonardo had inherited a fortune and rather than being a role model of the hard work ethic spent his days as a gentleman of leisure. Luis was similarly indulged by his mother who regarded her oldest boy as a saint, displaying a portrait of him on a makeshift altar of paintings of popes.

Bunuel’s character was hugely influenced by his environment - a closed, isolated community with a rigid hierarchy and strong Catholic faith maintaining a status quo of respect between peasant and landowner. Religion permeated all aspects of Bunuel’s life and he developed an ambivalent relationship with it and all forms of authority throughout his life. He went to a Jesuit college, a branch of the faith notorious for its strictness of discipline. There, the Brothers’ merciless views on abstinence crystallised in him an inextricable link between the forbidden ‘voluptuous’ pleasure of sex mixed with death.

Anthony Wall’s excellent BBC Arena documentary The Life and Times of Don Luis Bunuel (1984) features extracts from his autobiography read by Paul Scofield and revealing archive interview films. When asked what made him choose film as his medium of expression, he replied “Sheer bad luck” because he considered himself a lousy painter and writer. The weapon of choice Bunuel felt comfortable with was the filmed visual image. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he added: “Acting is a profession for layabouts. I’d have liked that…A nuisance but it’s well-paid”.

Bunuel studied insect science at the University of Madrid, which became a life-long fascination and shows up within the imagery of his films. His student years were a pivotal point of inspiration in his life, introducing him to his long-time friend and creative partner Salvador Dali from whom he became inseparable. He also became heavily immersed in the Surrealist movement, via such luminaries as Man Ray, amongst whom he would fraternise at La Coupole and other celebrated venues for the artistic café society set. Although the Surrealists were at face value a group of radical café intellectuals, they were not simply poseurs or aiming for artistic posterity in their work. They wanted to change the society around them, which they despised for its colonial imperialism and oppressive religious tyranny. Even though Bunuel was only involved with them for roughly three years, their mission statement added energy and purpose to his own expression.

After university Bunuel went to Paris to pursue the literature and arts scene. By now, cinema possessed him as a future career. His mother had already been horrified by this decision. Like many (including some professional actors as we have seen), she regarded movies snobbishly as something for the common-folk. In Paris, he drenched himself in the latest films – watching three a day. He loved the Hollywood comedy shorts of such performers as Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but it was the work of director Fritz Lang that had the most profound effect upon him, in particular Destiny (see my review of 3/1/2016). Whilst in the city, he became apprenticed to influential French director and critic Jean Epstein which taught him much about form and technology as assistant to his cameraman.

Jean-Claude Carriere, later co-writer on many of Bunuel’s films, recalled in the Arena documentary that the director had always greatly respected the power of imagination. Bunuel made a point of training himself to allow uninterrupted daily time for flights of fancy and would obey wherever they took him creatively. This free-associative philosophy is very clear even in his first film. In fact, Un Chien Andalou came about through the most unstructured of free-form imagination - dreams recounted by himself and Dali in conversation one day. Bunuel dreamt of a knife cutting an eye. Dali imagined his hand crawling with ants. Such images became famous “irrational elements” in the final movie. Bunuel and Dali concocted a script together in seven days, which is easier to believe when you consider the ethos that guided their writing: “Refuse any image that could have a rational meaning”. Theirs was a truly democratic collaboration. Any image that impressed them for whatever reason was in. If neither liked a particular idea, out it went.
Un Chien Andalou was shot in Paris - financed, despite her earlier protestations, with money from Bunuel’s mother, the cinematography provided by Albert Duverger and Jimmy Berliet. The film is an oddly upbeat, bracing ride despite being heavy with dark symbolism. This is in part because ever since its premiere at La Coupole, it has always been presented matched to a soundtrack of spirited Argentine tangos and the opera Tristan Und Isolde (played on phonograph records behind the screen when first shown). The opening is a brutal, literal eye-opener as a man (played by Bunuel) sharpens a straight razor, gazes up at thin clouds crossing the moon and imitates this by slicing open the eyeball of a young woman (Simone Mareul). If it’s any remote consolation, the hairy face used for the victim is actually a donkey, (presumably already expired, bless him).
From here, the chain of events is tenuously linked in much the same way as dream logic jumps – the title cards alone indicate this in going at one point from ‘Il était un fois’ (once upon a time) to suddenly ‘sixteen years ago’ with no responsibility to show the effect of time’s passage. A young man (Pierre Batcheff) dressed in a nun’s habit and wimple with an ornate box around his neck cycles down a street and collapses, to the horror of the young woman from scene one. He appears dead. She lays out his garments and props on the bed in a ritual design. He re-appears at the door, his hand crawling with ants, recalling Dali’s dream and Bunuel’s fascination with insectoid life in an insert effect shot skilfully achieved. A young woman on the street below pokes at a severed hand with a stick, drawing a crowd till a Gendarme arrives and puts it into her box, striped like that of the young man now, in the apartment above. Somehow this, culminating in her being run over, turns him on as he watches events from the window, inflaming his desire to grasp at his partner’s breasts and buttocks while a close-up of his face portrays an upward expression of yearning reminiscent of Christ on the Cross (appealing to God)?. It’s far too tempting a proposition to analyse the meaning of some of the imagery on offer rather than letting it wash over one like hallucinogenic waves. His perverse passion next manifests itself in an image that neatly combines the director’s interwoven feelings about sex and religious oppression, as the man tries to drag himself across the room toward her whilst being harnessed to two grand pianos topped with dead donkeys, one of them bleeding gorily from one eye (having donated it in the first scene?) with a pair of bemused priests pulled behind for good measure.
The young man’s hand is trapped through a door, teeming with more ants - naturally. The door-bell rings, cutting amusingly to disembodied hands shaking a cocktail shaker – possibly symbolising merry opportunity - your guess is as good as mine. This introduces us to a slightly shady man in a Fedora (Batcheff again) who divests the protagonist of his ‘costume’ gear and throws them out of the window. He forces the hero to stand in the corner like a naughty schoolboy in class, the comparison all the more inviting as he is made to hold out text books in each hand. I suspect here Bunuel was raging against the cruelty of his Jesuit teachers as the hero’s props turn into pistols and he shoots the bullying doppelganger. His double then materialises in a forest clearing, attended to and then carried away by local men.
Marueil, back in her apartment, witnesses a death’s-head moth on a wall, a close-up hammering home its significance. We then return to normal obscure service by Batcheff in the room with her, wiping his mouth away to replace it nightmarishly with her armpit (a part of the anatomy repeatedly referenced in the film). She then appears on a beach with a third young man, with whom she discovers the washed-up remnants of Batcheff’s nun outfit and striped trinket box on the shore. The couple walk away, canoodling - but a happy ending is thwarted by the stark final image, ‘Au Printemps’ (In Spring), showing them buried to their upper torsos in the sand like disturbing shop mannequins.
At a pacey two-reels (21 minutes) Un Chien Andalou is a madcap and enjoyably daffy roller-coaster of Freudian cheese-dreams and a great concentrated example of Surrealism, early Bunuel and Dali (transplanted into film as the artist would later do with dream visions for Hitchcock in Spellbound). Dali wasn’t the only one of the twosome to go to Hollywood. The American movie capital thrilled Bunuel as a life-long fan of their works and he jumped at the chance of a highly unusual six-month contract offered by M-G-M that allowed him to study the departments of editing, writing and ‘studios’. His sabbatical sadly did not translate into immediate directing contracts, yet later on yielded his Hollywood projects Robinson Crusoe the first American film released in Eastmancolor in 1954 and The Young One (1960).

Bunuel’s place in movie history was to be assured though with such European classics as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and That Obscure Object of Desire in 1977.

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