In the opening “scene” of his autobiography, My Last Sigh, in the chapter titled “Memory,” Spanish/Mexican/French filmmaker Luis Buñuel recounts visiting his aging mother, who lived with his brothers in Saragasso, Spain. He writes:
I watched the way she read magazines, turning the pages carefully, one by one, from the first to the last. When she finished, I’d take the magazine from her, then give it back, only to see her leaf through it again, slowly, page by page …. She didn’t know who we were, or who she was. I’d walk into her room, kiss her, and sit with her awhile. Sometimes I’d leave, then turn around and walk back in again. She greeted me with the same smile and invited me to sit down — as if she were seeing me for the first time. She didn’t remember my name.
In many ways, “memory” lies at the core of Buñuel’s work, with its ever-shifting interplay of memory, imagination and identify in an oft-times blurry intersection of cinematic Brownian motion. It is a key element of the literary/cinematic movement with which this filmmaker is most identified, from the first of his 32 films, Un Chien Andalou (a collaboration with painter Salvador Dali) in 1929, to That Obscure Object of Desire in 1977, nearly 50 years later.
This idea of blurred identity in his last film was perhaps by accident (or, according to friend and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, by deliberate intent), part of the very structure of this swan song to movies. The film stars Fernando Rey as an older man obsessed with the sexual pursuit of a young woman. The director originally cast Maria Schneider (of The Last Tango in Paris and The Passenger) as the young woman, Conchita, but it is said that she and Buñuel clashed over her uneven performance (a result of her drug use). Eventually, she was replaced by two actresses who shared the role, Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina.
Buñuel had joined the Parisian Surrealist movement only after completing Un Chien Andalou (and with the mediation of his friend Man Ray), but Carrière has said that if you understand anything about Buñuel’s childhood in the village of Calanda, in Spain’s Teruel province, with its near medieval obsessions with the darker and sanguine elements of Roman Catholicism, you will realize that the director’s work is not surreal, but instead “just Spanish.”
From age 8 to 15, Buñuel studied at a local Jesuit school that was ruled with iron discipline. It is perhaps little wonder that his mature life and work were informed by a fierce anti-clerical aesthetic and a resistance to institutional authority. In an irony totally in harmony with the director’s ethos, his movies are, nevertheless, suffused with themes of sin and forgiveness, and present sexual obsession and perversion alongside self-flagellating chastity. The music of the words of the Marquis de Sade and St. Thomas Aquinas both resonate deeply in Buñuel’s dissonant soul. In Mexico City, one of his closest friends among a group of artists and intellectuals who regularly gathered to talk and drink as a literary/political “peña” was, not surprisingly, the Dominican priest Julian Pablo.
Buñuel became a major star of the European avant-garde in the late 1920s and was lured to Hollywood by MGM a few years later, only to be unceremoniously kicked off a Greta Garbo set. Despite the influx of European-cinema exiles in L.A., it was evident to the director that there was no place for him in this glitzy universe — which was, ironically, a tinseled cousin to the Surrealist enclaves of the Left Bank. He began what was to become a 15-year artistic exile and dry spell as a filmmaker.
During World War II, Buñuel did find temporary professional shelter at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Iris Barry, founder of the museum’s film library, gave him a job re-editing a number of documentaries, such as an abridged version of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a Surrealist “cauchemar” beyond the wildest imaginings of Tristan Tzara, Max Ernst or André Breton. In 1942, his erstwhile friend Dali, now an opportunistic turncoat from Surrealism, published his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali.
The flamboyant, narcissistic Dali exposed his prior filmmaking partner as an atheist and a communist. Archbishop Spellman, the powerful leader of New York’s Catholic community, asked Barry how she could continue to support a man like Buñuel. (MoMA itself was under fire from a conservative Hollywood trade paper for alleged communist sympathies.) Buñuel was forced to resign his museum position.
He landed again in Hollywood as a dubbing director at Warner Bros. and tried to fund several of his projects. He also worked with producer friend Denise Tual to secure rights for a film version of Las Casa de Bernarda Alba, a play by his dear friend Federico Garcia Lorca, a martyr of the Spanish Civil War. Lorca’s family refused.
Buñuel went to Mexico, where he at first struggled but eventually settled for the rest of his life. He became a Mexican citizen, though his late films were made in France. He directed 22 films in Mexico, seven with the great cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, the focus of a recent exhibition that made stops in Los Angeles and New York. (Figueroa and the exhibition were the subject of this post.)
In 1950, nearly forgotten in the depths of European Surrealism’s past, Buñuel exploded onto the international-cinema scene anew at age 52 with Los Olvidados, winning the best director award at Cannes. Throughout the 1950s, film after film by Buñuel garnered recognition at Cannes and other festivals. In 1961, his scatological and irreverent movie Viridiana won the coveted Cannes Palme d’Or. A co-production of Mexico and Spain, it was his triumphant return to Spain from self-exile, but Franco was not pleased with the iconoclastic film, which dared to parody Leonardo da VInci’s The Last Supper as an orgy of indigents and fools.
There was renewed appreciation of Buñuel’s artistry among critics in Italy, Germany and France — and even in the United States, where his film Tristana received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Feature in 1970. Two years later, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie won the Academy Award in that same category.
In 1977, That Obscure Object of Desire was nominated by the Academy for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Adapted Screenplay. (Buñuel shared the latter nomination with Carrière, who received an honorary Oscar for his career achievements last year.) The film lost in both categories.
Buñuel’s lifelong obsession with cinema, even as reflected in his major Hollywood film, 1952’s Robinson Crusoe (reportedly the first movie photographed with Kodak’s single-strand Eastman color negative), represented an uneasy dance between Surrealist art and studio commerce. His singular themes and obsessions attack establishment mores; he is always biting the hand that feeds him. That he was able to be such a maverick is testament to many larger truths embodied in his restless disruption of the comfortable ethos of the bourgeoisie — a disruption lurking just below the seemingly benign surface of what we call “civilization.” Buñuel’s movies embody the spirit of the trickster, a truth-sayer who nimbly defies convention via his jocund persona.
In his review of My Last Sigh in The New York Review of Books, Michael Woods recounts Buñuel’s anecdote about the Oscar nomination for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie:
When the question of an Oscar came up for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Buñuel, straight-faced, told a group of Mexican reporters that everything would be all right, he had paid the $25,000 he had been asked for. “Americans may have their faults,” he said, “but they are men of their word.” Banner headlines in Mexico, scandal in Los Angeles, floods of telexes. Buñuel explains that it was a joke, calm returns. Three weeks pass, and the film receives an Oscar. Buñuel remarks to his friends, “Americans may have their faults, but they are men of their word.”
In February 1984, the BBC series Arena aired a feature-length documentary by Anthony Wall titled The Life and Times of Don Luis Buñuel. This absorbing film looks behind the curtain to show us not just the creator of internationally revered movies, but the simple peasant who takes profound delight in the small pleasures of daily life, such as making a martini or seeing a row of cigarettes lined up in a silver box like a rank of soldiers.
The film tracks Buñuel’s life from his youth in Calanda to his “peña” bar rendezvous with old friends in Mexico City. The narration is by actor Paul Scofield, who reads from My Last Sigh, which the director freely admitted was the work of Carrière more than himself.
The film concludes with a sly Surrealist anecdote: Buñuel states that he intends to leave his legacy not to his beloved wife and children, but to a solemnly summoned Nelson Rockefeller.
He then admits that, of course, he is just joking.