Staying up late: Some thoughts on Luis Bunuel, to coincide with the retrospective at the Spanish Film Festival.

17 May


I have been on a Luis Bunuel bender for what seems like many days but before now had not realised just how incredibly prolific this Spanish filmmaker was. Not to mention completely and wonderfully outrageous!

Anyone who studied art or drama or English at even high school level knows about the surrealist movement. But how many of Bunuel’s films have you actually seen?

BunuelLuis oldI’m not going to go into the biographical details of how the man divided his time between Spain, Mexico and France. Or a chronology of his films. That’s what Wikipedia is for. Ok, he was born 22 February 1900 and died 29 July 1983. I’m just going to talk a bit about his incredibly diverse body of work in the general terms reserved for a bog entry (sorry, I meant blog) on a Friday night.

A major influence on cinema, Bunuel’s films nearly always disrupt narrative convention in their efforts to mine the unconscious and hold it up against reality’s representation through social rituals. Like when you’re at a dinner party politely enduring the arrogant stranger next to you while outside on the street their shiny BMW convertible turns into a crocodile.

Bunuel depicts the characters’ inner worlds through dreamlike archetypes and complex symbolism, but in doing so he goes beyond the personal: he explores the hypocrisy of bourgeois values and examines the nature of class conflict.

Milky way

Milky way

It is this social commentary throughout his films that sets Bunuel apart from other surrealist filmmakers. His ongoing interest in themes of death and the stages preceding it (ie illness, misery and poverty), his belief in social rebellion and abhorrence of oppression, and his exaggeration of reality rather than distortion of it, allow us to define him as a realist as much as a surrealist filmmaker.

Bunuel’s obsession with catholic dogma and rituals is a prominent theme as is his preoccupation with fetishistic sexuality, obviously a by-product of a strict religious upbringing (what a burden but it makes for great creative material). As he once stated, “sex without sin is like

Milky way

Milky way

eggs without salt”. I know there’s some of you out there who are going to use this line in the future, it’s such gold. In fact you might just use it today.

Bunuel’s films give us a  unique aesthetic experience, despite the fact that they are technically relatively simple and stylistically unadorned. They are often peopled with aristocratic women and tall moustached men who exude a touch of the palace syndrome. They swan about in mink stoles and

Belle de jour

Belle de jour

dinner suits in aristocratic mansions where French chandeliers weigh more than the mortar, or the morals. There are Hitchcockian blonde (but ascetic, that’s what makes them more appealing) nuns straight out of a sort of literary erotic fantasy 101 and women being stylish and elusive in the way only European women can. Or they are devils and brides in disguise. Or smartly suited soldiers. Ok, so there’s a lot of films starring toothless peasants and dehumanised industrial workers, too.

But Bunuel always moves beyond these often beautiful surfaces to reveal the underlying social decay and contradictory social mores. The bizarre, circus -like scenarios that evolve in Bunuel films are part of a brilliant dark satire on humanity’s fundamental absurdity. And the more seriously it takes itself, the more ripe it is for a kicking.

Bunuel injects irrational logic into the recognisable structures of daily life, and the consequences are a civilised society undone. By the time you’re finished with one of his films, the idea that we’re somehow evolved seems rather silly.

Bunuel -el Angel exterminadorBunuel also subverts the limitations of gender stereotypes – is there anything this man couldn’t do? I heard he also dabbled in cross-dressing, just for starters. While many of Bunuel’s female characters may use their sexuality to control men, they continue to oppose patriarchal control with feminine consciousness. Watch some of his films and you’ll see what I mean. I can’t stop thinking about those delicate stockinged legs…

Since we were teenagers we’ve been wanting to liberate our consciousness! And god knows we’ve tried every way how.

This week my nocturnal fantasies have been overrun by new and welcome additions, such as a dinner party that’s invaded by an army of Spanish soldiers who are chased away by lamb who take me to a barn where I act out an eroticised version of ‘My life as a Spanish milk maid, by Luis Bunuel’.

“Life is amusing and strange”, Bunuel once observed. And no other filmmaker captured that wonderful duality quite like he did. I thank him in my dreams.

un chien andalou

un chien andalou

The Spanish Film Festival is on now and runs until the 24th of May at the Palace Cinema Como and the Kino Melbourne and from the 20th in Brisbane and Perth. {link}

See also:

Fantastic feature article in slant ‘The savage poetry of Luis Bunuel’ {link}

Banned film L’age d’or

37 minute doco on Bunuel

By Anna Sl(oops)utton..


4 Responses to “Staying up late: Some thoughts on Luis Bunuel, to coincide with the retrospective at the Spanish Film Festival.”

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    he has nice lips

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