[ Movies Index | Metro | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

Belle de Jour

By Richard von Busack

Director Luis Bunuel has been going in and out of style for nearly 70 years, and he seems to be out of style presently. This critical and popular neglect might have actually pleased him. He once wrote that "commemorative ceremonies are not only false but dangerous, as are all statues of famous men."

There hasn't been an important retrospective of his work in the last decade, and he isn't well-represented at video outlets except for a few of his later French pictures. Most moviegoers, if they know of Bunuel at all, know him either as Salvador Dali's surrealist collaborator on Un Chien Andalou  and L'Age d'Or  or as the urbane master of such 1970s comedies as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie  and That Obscure Object of Desire . His trend-setting comedy of sexual repression, Belle de Jour  (1967), unseen except in bootleg prints for years, has at last been re-released in a new print, thanks to the restoration efforts of Martin Scorsese.

Bunuel was Spain's greatest filmmaker, even if he made almost all of his best-known films across Spain's border, in exile from the fascists. He also spent a long period in Mexico busy putting together everything from melodramas to Latin reinterpretations of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe  (1952) and Wuthering Heights (1953).

During this time, Bunuel also made his world-famous Los Olvidados  (1950, The Forgotten Ones ) about the slums of Mexico City. All these films would certainly make for enticing viewing if you could just get to see them. Bunuel stayed in Mexico long enough to become a citizen, but a man like Bunuel would be an exile anywhere, and he later summed up some of his 15-year-long stay there as "scratching his nose, watching flies and living off my mother's money."

If I were teaching film, Bunuel's memoirs, My Last Sigh  (Jonathan Cape, 1984), would be required reading, as instruction on how an artist both comes to terms with, and overcomes, a background of repression. Bunuel was born in the town of Calanda, in Aragon, where, he wrote later "the Middle Ages lasted until World War I."

Church bells told the time, the date and whether someone in the village was dying. Calanda is the place where the Virgin of Pilar, Spain's patron, regrew a leg on an amputee in 1604, an occurrence that was still discussed in Bunuel's youth. (The severed limb turns up in his 1970 film, Tristana. )

Aragon exhibited the medieval differences between poverty and wealth, along with the usual other contrasts--between man and woman, chastity and lasciviousness--all of which Bunuel explored in his films. There for him was first visible "the interminable war between instinct and virtue," as he put it. And he's never taken sides in this war.

A cafe lounger and art student, his decision to become a film director had a whimsical quality; he later wrote that it was as if he told his mother he wanted to join the circus and become a clown.

Borrowing the money from his mother, Bunuel made (with Dali) the short film Un Chien Andalou  (1928), the best-known and most watchable of surrealist films. From its still-shocking opening image of an eyeball being slit with a straight razor to the random series of events, "no idea or image that might lend itself to the rational explanation of any kind would be accepted," as Bunuel described it.

Un Chien Andalou  perfectly demonstrates how film communicates by sheer force of mood and imagery, from slapstick vulgarity to sharp menace. The film communicated well enough to get Bunuel a round-trip to Hollywood, thanks to MGM. "I didn't like it, and I didn't understand the first thing about it ... but somehow I can't get it out of my mind," said the representative who signed him up--the perfect Bunuel review.

If the imagery in a Bunuel film is sometimes opaque, the intention is always clear. Bunuel saw surrealism as a revolutionary movement. Now that surrealism is a dead institution, this notion may be hard to understand.

There's a striking early photograph in Bunuel's memoirs of Dali. Think of Dali's overpriced serigraphs at tourist-trap galleries and then be surprised by seeing him as he was in his youth: formidable, Mohawk-wearing and looking very much like Travis Bickle, Scorsese's antihero from The Taxi Driver .

Surrealism was "a moral movement," Bunuel wrote. Shock was its weapon against "the exploitation of one man by another, colonialist imperialism, religious tyranny--in sum, all of the secret and odious underpinnings of a society that had to be destroyed."

During the Spanish Civil War, Bunuel recalled, a truck load of workers drove 20 kilometers to stage a firing squad on a colossal statue of Jesus. It was a scene, for all its blasphemy and solemn silliness, that could have been in one of his movies.

Bunuel loathed the corruption of the Catholic Church. Still, like a lot of the ex-Catholic faithless, Bunuel wondered over the good that might be entombed under the tons of religious debris. This vein of skepticism runs throughout his life and art.

With luck, Bunuel's work will be as resilient as his enemies: the excesses of organized religion, the evergreen appeal of fascism. Maybe it is low reading levels among today's malcontents, allergic to subtitles, that explains why many young filmmakers haven't discovered this major force in against-the-grain cinema. Perhaps the best thing about Bunuel's movies is that his rebelliousness equaled his pragmatism. This is why his work is in need of reprise: modern movies are starved for both qualities.

[ Movies Central | MetroActive ]

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
Copyright © 1996 Metro Publishing, Inc.