Friday, February 6, 2009

Two films by Luis Buñuel

Luis Buñuel was a Spanish-born director who made less than five films in his native country, creating the bulk of his work in France and Mexico, which is where he filmed the latest two offerings from the Criterion Collection, The Exterminating Angel and Simon of the Desert. As a member of the Parisian surrealist group in the 1920’s, Buñuel liked to deal in imagery at once confusing and sometimes shocking – at least two of his films were banned in several countries for their scandalous content.

One of the key goals of the surrealists was not just to shock (though it was a favorite tactic) but to liberate thinking from what they perceived as the shackles that bound people to conventional thought. Buñuel was fond of attacking those institutions – social, governmental, and especially religious – that he felt were particularly responsible for providing and reinforcing those barriers to a freer mode of thinking and expression, of living. So it’s no surprise that many of his films circle around themes of frustration, wherein the protagonists find themselves unable for whatever reasons to satisfy even the simplest desires.

Take for example his 1963 masterpiece The Exterminating Angel. In it, a group of upper class citizens return from the opera to their host’s home for dinner. After dinner, they retire to the drawing room for some entertainment before going home. But no one leaves. Nothing physical prevents them from exiting the drawing room; they find that they simply can’t leave. At first it’s an annoying state of affairs, but as it continues for hours, days, weeks (perhaps months? It’s never made clear exactly how long it goes on) and things become more desperate all their well-bred social graces slowly fall away. They argue and fight, they covet neighbors’ wives, they panic, they commit suicide and attack one another – anything they can think of to survive in the room in which they’re trapped. Buñuel of course never clarifies or explains matters – this is simply a situation that exists and how these people respond in the resulting pressure cooker is what’s interesting, milked for black comedy as much as possible and laced throughout with satiric barbs. It’s possibly the finest realization of satirical wit married to more obscure surrealist free expression out of all of his 36 films.

A close second might be his short film Simon of the Desert that, in only 45 minutes, takes an equally humorous and scathing approach in its satire on religious piety, echoing The Exterminating Angel’s attack on bourgeois morals and manner. When Buñuel’s producer ran out of money halfway through production, the film was done. But the structure of his films, in which a central idea runs through like an endless railroad track on which any number of scenes can appear – getting off at an earlier station than originally intended still leaves us with the satisfaction of the journey we wanted. Here, a saint (Simon, played to pious perfection by Claudio Brook) sits atop a pillar in the desert to bring himself closer to God but true to Buñuel’s satiric form, this sort of strict adherence to dogma has no place in the real world. He performs miracles rated by onlookers as so-so, restores a thief’s severed hands only to have the thief’s first act with his new hands turn out to be the slapping of a boisterous child. While these scenes smack of the sort of disrespect bordering on blasphemy that gave his earlier works Viridiana and L'Age D'or such notoriety, it’s Buñuel’s clinical and intellectual (and secular) interest in the subject that also allows him to dryly and humorously explore the theological end of things. Simon is not merely there as an object to poke fun at for his inability to transform earthly matters, he’s also repeatedly tempted by Satan (in the form of actress Silvia Pinal), who appears and reappears in various guises, bringing us back to Buñuel’s interest in desire and frustration (in this case, self-inflicted). The point of all this is that Simon has bound himself to something that – like the class-bound diners of Angel – prevents him from experiencing his own life, from feeling the full range of his being by cutting himself off with his ascetic existence. When the devil finally takes him in the abrupt finale to a rock and roll club Simon doesn’t seem to be in hell, he merely seems disappointed in how mundane the real world can be, removed from the saintly struggles that gave him a sense of purpose.

Both of these films are high water marks for Buñuel and surrealist cinema in general. Both are being released by the Criterion Collection on Tuesday February 10th and are loaded with extras, including interviews on both DVDs with actress Silvia Pinal, interviews with Luis Buñuel from the 1970’s, critical essays, and more.

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