sexta-feira, 22 de março de 2013
Luis Bunuel and the Snares of Desire by Michael Richardson
If the surrealists themselves seem largely agreed that Bunuel is the quintessential surrealist film maker, so too do critics, a few dissenting or sceptical voices notwithstanding. The main point of contention has been whether his whole body of work should be considered within the context of surrealism, or only his first two or three films. If the latter is the case, then what relation exists between his early surrealism and the concerns of his later films?
In researching Bunuel’s involvement in the murky world of French and Spanish communism in the thirties, for instance, Paul Hammond (1999, 2004) has introduced a note of caution about Bunuel’s commitment to surrealism. He locates a certain cynicism in Bunuel’s attitude and argues that his resignation’ from the Surrealist Group in 1932 was more significant than it has been generally regarded.
The question of authorship is of some significance here because, more than most major directors, Bunuel always relied upon collaborators to realise his vision. We know, of course, that Un Chien Andalou was as much Dali s work as it was Bunuel’s. Petr Kral (1981b) has also clearly shown how Dali’s influence remained pervasive in L’Age d’or, even if he was not directly involved in the film making. Paul Hammond (1997) has gone further, arguing that the latter film was essentially a collaboration of the Surrealist Group, no doubt made coherent by Bunuel, but in the ensemble of which he was but one voice among many. There equally seems little doubt about the collaborative nature of Las Hurdes, the third of Bunuel’s early films, in which Pierre Unik’s contribution was probably as important as Bunuel’s own.
A passport into surrealism rather than a surrealist work in itself, Un Chien Andalou became part of surrealist mythology. As is well known, however, the surrealists - and Bunuel himself - were ambivalent about the reception accorded to the film, seen as part of the avant-garde they despised; a passionate call to murder’ had been domesticated.
The remarkable convergence of two minds that Un Chien Andalou represented was carried over into L’Age d’or but extended to reveal a collective accomplishment. Here I see no reason to dissent from Hammond’s view that L’Age d’or has to be seen as a collective effort of the Surrealist Group, in which Bunuel’s voice is probably dominant, but not determining. Bunuel asserted as much himself. Speaking of L’Age d’or he said, in conversation with Max Aub: ‘My ideas are clearly visible. Not mine, the ideas of the Surrealist Group are clearly visible’ (quoted in Hammond, 1997: 42).
While there can be no doubt that L’Age d’or is the key film of surrealism, it does not follow that it provides a model by which the work in film of other surrealists can be judged. On the contrary, in fact: L’Age d’or was the result of a unique set of circumstances unlikely ever to have been repeated. The fortunate configuration that made the film possible was that a young ambitious film maker appeared in surrealism at a time when a wealthy sponsor associated with the surrealists, the Vicomte de Noailles, wished to support film as a vanity project. The role of Marie Laure de Noailles was crucial for acting as a mediator between her husband and the surrealists. Bunuel’s first three films were the result of such objective chance: Un Chien Andalou having been financed by his mother, Las Hurdes by an anarchist friend who happened to win the lottery. Few, if any, film makers have started with such generous and indulgent producers. None, I would venture, have ever used their patrons’ generosity in so devastating a way.
We can glean the extent to which L’Age d’or was a surrealist project from the manifesto the surrealists wrote to accompany the film’s first screening. This is not a document written as a comment or commentary. It does not appear to be a reaction to the film, but something coterminous with it; it is a programmatic extension of the themes the film treated.
This text, written by Breton, Crevel, Éluard, Aragon and Thirion, bears witness to debates taking place in the Surrealist Group at the time. This is not to say that the film is simply an application of surrealist principles to the cinema. Far from it: the fascination of the film comes from the extent to which surrealist concerns were transfigured onto film, via the intermediary of Bunuel, of course, but still in a way that emerged from the collaborative effort of the surrealists as a group.
In this respect it is difficult entirely to accept Petr Kral’s (1981b) assertion that there is no essential difference between the two early films, that L’Age d’or is simply a continuation of Un Chien Andalou. Kral is undoubtedly right to insist on the fact that the thematic of the earlier film was carried over into L’Age d’or, and that the two films are equally brilliant. However, it is surely the case that they provide a counterpoint to one another rather being than two halves of a single assignment. Linda Williams (1981) sees Un Chien Andalou as ‘psychological’, while L’Age d’or is anthropological’, which is a useful, if provisional, starting point. But L’Age d’or is still a thematically richer and more disturbing film than Un Chien Andalou.
L’Age d’or was made at a key moment in surrealist history. The period of the surrealists’ most direct political involvement, which caused wide dissention within the group and provided the backdrop to the crisis’ of 1929, it was also the time that they most intensely confronted questions of personal morality and explored the intricate webs of sexuality and love (indicated by the Recherches sur la sexualite’ and the Enquete sur l’amour’ which appeared in the final issue of La Revolution surrealiste that same year). L’Age d’or has to be seen against the background of these explorations.
The film has often been seen as a love story founded in rage (although Linda Williams  reminds us that the love story is only present in two of the film’s five distinct sections). And it is in this rage that it presents us with the exemplary surrealist text. As the accompanying surrealist manifesto has it, the film brings us the gift of violence’: the lead characters struggle to overcome the obstacles placed in the way of the realisation of their love. Yet, at the same time, as Petr Kral points out, the film is less about love and desire as about their frustration and the obstacles they encounter’ (1981b: 47). And this frustration is not simply social; it is also contained within the lovers themselves. Love’, indeed, is even revealed through separation, if one accepts the proposition of the surrealists’ manifesto: one of the culminating points of this film’s purity seems to us crystallised by the image of the heroine in her room, when the power of the mind succeeds in sublimating a particularly baroque situation into a poetic element of the purest nobility and solitariness’ (in Hammond, 2000: 200).
The couple are thus not simply suffused with the power of love; they are also victims of it. We should here remember, too, that they remain bound by their class background. Even as their love induces their revolt, the mores of their class remain entrenched within them. The man is, after all, a politician, and his behaviour may at times even bring to mind the arrogance we see frequently in politicians who think they are above the law (as a class, we might reflect, few people have less respect for the law than politicians). His attitude may even remind us of numerous politicians whose careers have been destroyed through their inability to control their sexual appetites. In fact, while his behaviour may provoke an immediately scandalous reaction, this is soon forgotten and in the end is largely tolerated it in much the same way as the lies and indiscretions of politicians today scandalise us while generally being indulged. In L’Age d’or the man, having been arrested, is released purely on the basis of his political authority, and, although he is reproved for slapping the hostess at the party, the police are not called and he is not even actually thrown out, merely disowned’ by polite society, to the extent that when he surreptitiously returns to the salon, the initially disapproving looks he receives almost immediately turn to indifference.
Yet, if we are right in seeing L’Age d’or as a uniquely collective effort, how do we situate Bunuel the film maker in relation to it and - by extension - to surrealism?
In strict terms, the film represents Bunuel’s only substantial contribution to surrealism. Aside from a few largely inconsequential writings, he produced nothing else during the period in which he was directly associated with the surrealists. We might question the extent to which Bunuel saw even L’Age d’or as more than a stepping stone in his career as a film maker. When the scandal of the film broke, he was not in Paris but in Hollywood and seems to have been more embarrassed than thrilled by the commotion it had generated. In fact he appears to have shown greater solidarity with the plight of his sponsor, the Vicomte de Noailles, than with the surrealists’ efforts in support of the film. Ironically, given his latter disavowal of the film, it was actually Dali who was most active in defending it at the time. Even in his autobiography, Bunuel tells us virtually nothing about the film itself, confining himself to recounting details about its filming. In fact he claims that he has never seen the film again and I am incapable today of saying what I think about it’ (1982: 141). A curious reticence, given the resonance the film had, in terms both of Bunuel’s career, and of the history of surrealism.
In any event, the ideas Bunuel was considering for future productions were not continuations of the incendiary cinema L’Age d’or represented but attempts to integrate his own vision within a commercial framework. They were, in fact, projects much like the sort of films he was later to make in Mexico: The Duchess of Alba and Goya and his (or rather Pierre Unik s) adaptation of Wuthering Heights (which he actually did later make, although using a different script). It appears that Bunuel re-worked L’Age d’or into a more acceptable form. Completed in 1934 as In the Icy Waters of Egotistical Calculation, this new version apparently pleased the Vicomte de Noailles, but it was still banned by the censors and virtually no one else ever saw it. It is difficult to see how any re-working of the film could have been anything but a betrayal but, since it no longer exists, we cannot know this for certain. However, that Bunuel was prepared even to consider reediting the film tends to indicate that he did not regard it as sacrosanct (although it should be said that Bunuel himself claimed to have done no more than change the title in a futile attempt to elude the censors [see Colina and Perez-Turrent, 1981: 14]).
This might cause us to question the extent of Bunuel’s commitment to surrealism, even at the time he was actively involved with it. Paul Hammond (1999, 2004), at least, has cast doubt on it. Despite his later avowal of fundamental, if not total, adherence to surrealist principles, Hammond argues that Bunuel had in reality abandoned surrealism by 1932 for Stalinism for the same opportunist reasons as his friend Aragon and only subsequently re-made himself as a surrealist, dissembling the extent of his break with surrealism in order to legitimate his later career.
Some of Hammond’s evidence is circumstantial and his conclusions are debatable, but he does show that Bunuel was less than frank about the extent of his involvement with communism, arguing that he remained sympathetic to Stalinism even into the sixties. In this respect, Hammond finds Bunuel’s resignation letter’ from surrealism, sent to Breton on 6 May 1932, epochal’. Personally I don’t find it so. It seems on the contrary to be an honest exposition of a dilemma. Bunuel recognises an incompatibility between membership of the Communist Party and participation in surrealist activities. There is no dissembling here, no attempt to play both ends against the middle, as Aragon and later Eluard tried to do. Defining his priorities, Bunuel decided that communism was more important to him than surrealism. Yet, he seems unequivocal that this does not mean a rejection of surrealism:
My separation from your activity does not imply the complete abandonment of ALL your conceptions, but only those that TODAY are opposed to the acceptance of surrealism by the PC, and which, I emphasise, are of a formal and passing nature. For instance, in the matter of poetics, there can be no question of my having any other conceptions than yours even as it is impossible for me today to maintain a closed’ conception of poetry standing above the class struggle (Thirard, 2000: 64).
Whatever doubts we may have about his commitment, in this respect there was certainly something elemental about Bunuel’s involvement with surrealism. Those three years Bunuel spent in the Surrealist Group appear to have been determining for him, providing him with a framework within which he could think through issues that were of concern to him and realise himself as a film maker. It should therefore not be a matter of evaluating whether or not this or that film provides evidence of Bunuel’s surrealism, but of being aware of how the contagious atmosphere which surrealism generated (which problematises any clear assigning of individual authorship) underlies and provides us with a greater understanding of the films. Bunuel’s career was a process of maturation, and we ought arguably to see the early films not as statements of surrealist intent made by Bunuel as a young man to which he remained (or did not remain) true, but rather as a prelude to a film career which engaged, often in a problematic way, with ideas as he experienced them at the time of his active involvement in the Surrealist Group. Rather than Bunuel’s contribution to surrealism being confined to his first two or three films, it is only when he finds his own voice, in the films from the fifties, starting with Los Olvidados, that Bunuel really engages with surrealism. In L’Age d’or, I think, what we see is Bunuel articulating ideas that were collectively present within the environment of surrealism.
In considering Bunuel’s contribution, Paul Hammond comes to a somewhat perplexing conclusion: Surrealism’s sinuous sublations over half a century frequently got the best out of those who were drawn to the movement, but it also consumed them, drove them away, and what they subsequently achieved was an extramural “sort of” surrealism adulterated by alien influences’ (2004: 24). Presumably Hammond sees Bunuel’s later films as part of this ersatz sort of’ surrealism. But what does this mean? Can surrealism really be isolated in this way from what surrounds it? Is there a pure surrealism and then various degrees of its adulteration? How is one to make such a distinction?
The guests trapped in the mansion in The Exterminating Angel belong to a world in which they, like Hegel’s masters, retain mastery, but from whose living sources they are detached and who are thereby made listless. Left to themselves, the servants having abandoned them to their fate, their lack of spiritual resources is cruelly exposed. All they retain are rules of etiquette that define their position in society but which dominate them to such an extent that they have neither the will nor the spontaneity to respond to a situation that is out of the ordinary. Their lives are determined by rules which estrange them from their human needs. Instead of living as they would like, they are constrained to perform meaningless rituals which they impose upon themselves in order to maintain their privileged status in their own eyes. Their acquaintances are established not on the basis of friendship but through the need to be seen in the right company; in modern parlance, they need to network’. They are therefore respectful when necessary, gossipy when they get the chance, but always within a framework imposed upon them by the social circle they cultivate. At the same time they are oblivious to all that is going on around them and incapable of making deep friendships: everything exists for them at a superficial level.
The theme of the shipwreck is central to Bunuel’s work as something people impose upon themselves in their inability to communicate effectively with others.
As a kind of companion piece to The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was seen by many critics as a sign of Bunuel mellowing in old age and revealing him as having become tolerant of bourgeois mores. Dig just a little below the surface, however, and we find something altogether more disturbing, a sugar-coated pill laced with poison. Where in The Exterminating Angel, the company were trapped by their own lack of imagination, in The Discreet Charm they are condemned to a form of eternal return in which, as Robert Benayoun said, they are under a curse worthy of their ridiculous smallmindedness: they never manage to sit down around a table together without something annoying happening to discomfort, irritate or abuse them’ (1973: 20).
The real barb in The Discreet Charm is the way Bunuel lulls us into an acceptance of death as a state of existence (Benayoun points out that there are seventeen corpses in the film). The discreet charm’ of the bourgeoisie lies not in any critique the film may offer of the characters in the film but in our identification with them: their hypocrisies are ours, as are their deaths’.
We know of course that eating is a feature of many of Bunuel’s films and the sharing of food is often imbued with meaning. The most famous ‘meal’ in Bunuel’s films - the scene in The Phantom of Liberty when the company excrete together, but eat alone - is not so much a reversal of social norms as a failure of social congress, a collective return, one might think, to the anal stage. This reflects a persistent theme throughout Bunuel’s work: an inability (on the part of the bourgeoisie in particular, but this extends to all parts of capitalist society) to consecrate anything.
The theme of an abandoned freedom is taken further in The Phantom of Liberty, a profound meditation on the elusiveness of freedom, which can be grasped only, as the title alerts us, in phantom’ form. Given the extent to which the rhetoric of freedom’ has been abused in recent political discourse, this perhaps has even greater resonance now than it did in the seventies. The ‘phantom’ is announced by the opening scenes of the film set against the backdrop of the revolutionary wars in Spain, in which the ‘freedom’ the French claim to be bringing to Spain can only be imposed with the gun, to which the Spanish prefer their own constraints. Long live chains’, the cry of the Spanish loyalists at the time, would be echoed a century later by ‘Long Live Death’, the banner under which Franco would define his revolt and rally his troops against the Republican government. The denial of freedom - or at least the ambivalence of its claims
For the surrealists, the great guarantor of freedom is love, a love nevertheless laden with trip-wires. In 1929, Bunuel’s response to the question Do you believe in the victory of admirable love over sordid life, or of sordid life over admirable love?’ was an emphatic, I don’t know’ (La Revolution surrealiste, issue 12: 71). This response is explored in Bunuel’s films. Love serves as a disruptive force, but his lovers rarely achieve consummation; when they do (in Un Chien Andalou and Wuthering Heights), it is only in death. Bunuel s version of Wuthering Heights is interesting for the fact that Bunuel ignores the amour fou detailed in the early part of Emily Bronte’s novel to concentrate on the section in which she denies her love for Heathcliff. In Bunuels film it is only when Catalina is dying that she admits (or perhaps even recognises) her love for Alejandro, and only in the scene upon which the film ends, when Alejandro desecrates Catalina’s tomb to find death at the hands of Ricardo (whom he perceives in a vision to be Catalina), are they finally united. This ending, with its echoes of the final scene of Un Chien Andalou, is as ambivalent as it is sublime, the filmic equivalent of the I don’t know’ with which Bunuel answered the surrealist enquiry about the triumph of love. These two examples aside, love is decidedly elusive throughout Bunuel’s films. Even if it may be given powerful expression in L’Age d’or, it is a love that, as already noted, overwhelms rather than allows the lovers to realise themselves.
Rather than trying to explain’ this scene, I think we need to take it as a starting point for considering the nature of desire as the red thread that runs through Bunuels work as a whole, where it is treated with an almost anthropological precision. For Bunuel, it seems, it was a thread that was attached to a cask of dynamite. Few if any of his characters succeed in detaching this cord from its deadly accessory; the most they can do is to prevent it from combusting. Almost all of Bunuel’s characters are condemned to solitude. They may experience the ferment of mad love, but it - and this is where Bunuel probably differs from most other surrealists - never takes them out of their solitary state, even momentarily. Those characters who have a sense of purpose or self-certainty (Nazarin,Viridiana, Simon) are revealed as deluded precisely because they have denied desire and the possibility of love, but their liberation’ does not promise them a better life as such; it merely enables them to live in society.
The culmination of Bunuels career, and the film in which he most profoundly addressed the problematic of solitude and desire, is That Obscure Object of Desire. If Bunuel’s last film is an almost perfect summation of his work, bringing the themes that concerned him full circle (I see no reason to dissent from the oft-made point that the final image of the film acts as a dialectical counterpoint to the opening image of Un Chien Andalou), it is also the film that elucidates his attitude towards love and the inevitability of human solitude, against which it is at once a protest and a verification.
One of the strangest moments in the film occurs when Conchita and Mathieu are discussing their future, and she wants to know whether he will still love her when she is old. Given the difference in their ages, we know that there is no likelihood of Mathieu even being alive when Conchita reaches old age, yet this is presented as a perfectly reasonable demand. This brings attention to the fantastic nature of their relationship: is Conchita being ironic, an irony that Mathieu, in his self-absorption, fails to pick up? Or is it further evidence that Conchita in fact does not exist but is solely a projection of Mathieu’s desire, a desire that functions in disregard for the objective conditions of his life?
What is apparent is that reciprocity - central to Hegel’s phenomenology of human becoming - is absent from this relationship. Mathieu can respond to Conchita only as prize or a commodity, to be bought or won, but she can never be accepted for what she is, so that, instead of a processes of becoming, what we witness is essentially a play of mirrors in which any resolution is impossible: the object of desire must remain always elusive because it has no tangible existence, even if it is even physically present. The master and slave dialectic is once more not far away: Mathieu is an absolute master, having the means to do whatever he wants, but what he really wants is still denied to him; in fact, he wants it precisely because it is denied to him.
- something that is almost a constant in Bunuel’s work - that amour fou is an impossible force which, rather than bringing two people together, forces them to confront their essential solitude without allowing them to resolve the lack it entails.2 This lack is as much social as it is sexual, and lies in the fact that people are divided within themselves as well as from one another. Mathieu, in a sense, is a man in love but unable to love. Or perhaps that he needs to love, but is not able to see the object of love, which remains a mirage. Conchita is neither here nor there; she is everywhere and nowhere.
The tragic sense of life this implies is an important, and generally unremarked upon, aspect of surrealism (we shall encounter it again, if differently configured, in the work of Prevert, Borowczyk and Svankmajer). In his films, Bunuel portrays a troubling world of conflict and disassociation, yet there is no evil in this world, or if there is it lies within the textures of people’s relations with one another rather than inhering in anything or anyone. His surrealism is anthropological: he observes but he does not condemn. People are alone, and to surmount their loneliness they sometimes do terrible things, to themselves as well as to others. Their spite or malice is always, however, reactive: there is no originating malevolence. What is most troubling is that there seems to be no remedy for this condition. Bunuel offers no comfort but, more than this, his characters rarely if ever experience any resolution of their conflicts. Being at the mercy of their phantoms is a fact of human existence.
Bunuel’s communism’ is thus not political but anthropological: it is tied to a dialectic of solitude and the human need for others, in the recognition that this dialectic is at the heart of the existential problem of living in society. Throughout his work, as much as authority may be challenged, Bunuel does not appear to recognise any alternative it. To this extent and the fact that he considered industrialised capitalism to be such a perverse form of social organisation that an alternative to it needed to be found, one might give credence to Paul Hammond’s assertion of a certain Stalinism’ in his thought. Far from seeing this as a something for denunciation, or as evidence of an abandonment of surrealism, however, it would surely be more fruitful to see it as an engagement with a fundamentally surrealist problematic: how to reconcile human freedom with the need to function within society, how to forge personal identity in harmony with others, how, in a word, to engage with love’ (as the realisation of the surrealist supreme point) in a society in which love is outlawed.
In denying temporal logic, since the reprobates are dressed in clothes of an earlier age, the scene confirms the collapsing of time apparent elsewhere in the film (again, the mutability of time is a theme Bunuel will often return to in his later work), but it does not entitle us to disregard what it manifestly states. We must therefore see the two events as independent of one another but correlated. They are linked principally by a sense of transgression of social norms, but also by the fact that the characters are representatives of the class that maintains these norms. Is not what we see revealed here the contradiction inherent within social organisation? The hero and heroine of L’Age d’or, like Sade’s reprobates, are ultimately trapped within their social class. As we have seen, love overcomes them, impels their rebellion, but ultimately does not transform them: it merely leaves them unfulfilled.
Although the examination of the bourgeoisie in these films seems to me far from simplistic, the anti-clericalism is not outdated and the eroticism far from banal, what perhaps is outdated is that by centring the films on these themes as he did, Bunuel showed himself to be constrained by personal interests founded in the period of his youth. Having become an internationally renowned auteur, he fell prey to the lures of the ‘art cinema’ circuit, creating this cul-de-sac Forshage speaks of, not so much in terms of the films themselves as in the fact that they have come to be subsumed, in a reified way, by surrealism.
Forshage’s comments alert us to the fact that Bunuel’s surrealism begins and ends in the early 1930s. As rich as it was, his sensibility was set in time, and Bunuel himself may have been commenting on this fact in the scene of The Phantom of Liberty which appears to relate not so much to what Breton invoked as the ‘simplest surrealist act’ as to the impermeability of society to it. Having randomly killed several people in the street, a man is brought to trial and found guilty and sentenced to death. Following the verdict, his handcuffs are removed, everyone shakes his hand and he walks into the street a free man. The ‘death’ society deals out for committing this act is recuperation: it congratulates the perpetrator and incorporates his actions into the structure of society. This scene might even be his final comment on the reception accorded Un Chien Andalou, that ‘impassioned call for murder’ which the ‘imbecilic crowd’ found beautiful, but one that implicates his later films as well. In considering Bunuel’s films in relation to surrealism, therefore, we should be careful not identify them too casually with a general surrealist attitude or as the sole or principal examples of surrealist’ film making. They belong to a specific historical moment of surrealism constituted by the experience of Bunuel’s own life. In order to be fully appreciated, they need also be seen in terms of how they went beyond their immediate context to enter the eternal’ surrealism constituted by what preceded them and what came after them.
In: Surrealism and Cinema. Oxford, 2006, pp. 27-44.