Buñuel, Luis (1900–1983)

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BUÑUEL, LUIS (1900–1983)


Spanish filmmaker.

Luis Buñuel was born at the turn of the twentieth century in Aragón, Spain, into a well-to-do middle-class family. Even as a child, he was fascinated by the fantastic, spectral quality of motion pictures; in his autobiography, he relates the delight of watching the shadows cast on a sheet hung up to catch the light of a magic lantern. At seventeen, Buñuel went to Madrid and spent the next seven years studying and living at the Residencia de Estudiantes, where he met the playwright and poet Federico García Lorca, the writer Ramón de la Serna, and the painter Salvador Dalí, among others.

Buñuel moved to Paris in 1925, which opened the world of French intellectual life and, importantly, of movies, to him: the motion picture that inspired him to become a filmmaker was Destiny (1921), directed by Fritz Lang. He enrolled in Jean Epstein's acting class and coaxed his way into working on Epstein's films Mauprat (1926) and The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), for which Buñuel is credited as an assistant. In 1929 Buñuel made his first film with Salvador Dalí (1904–1989). The strange and often disjointed images of Un chien andalou (An Andalusian dog) were inspired by Buñuel's and Dalí's dreams, and the seventeen-minute film was a succès de scandale in Paris. Although Buñuel often pointed to Sigmund Freud's theory of the unconscious as a key influence, he rejected the idea that his films were psychoanalytic per se or even rationally analyzable. Nonetheless, Buñuel's cinematic style plays constantly with motifs that resonate with psychoanalytic thought, including repetition, fantasy, dreams, repression, fetishes, and all manner of perversity. In fact, he insistently refused to be characterized as espousing any "school" of thought, referring to himself as a "fanatical antifanatic."

Buñuel's second film, L'âge d'or (1930; The golden age), cemented his affinity with the French surrealists and, along with Un chien andalou, is the film most readily associated with the surrealist movement. Although Dalí is credited as coauthor of the script, he was much less involved in the making of L'âge d'or than he had been with Un chien andalou, and we see many elements in it that would come to be known as distinctly "Buñuelian": a sense of gleeful revolution, an effort to épater les bourgeois (shake up middle-class conventions), fantastic, fragmented, dreamlike imagery, and sudden bursts of violence.

After flirting briefly with a career in Hollywood, Buñuel turned to a quasi-documentary style of film with his depiction of the life of poor rural Spaniards in Land without Bread (1932). Although it departs in many ways from the fragmented aesthetic of surrealism, it is still satirically tongue-in-cheek (the sur-realists called this black humor), since the voice-over narration does not match the images, and the viewer is forced to question its authority. Sound and music are extremely important in Buñuel's films—he often pairs canonical classical music with taboo or perverse scenes. He also frequently uses contrapuntal sound, in which sound and image clash, as opposed to direct sound, which matches the action in the image exactly.

Soon after the end of the Spanish civil war, Buñuel returned to the United States, where he worked for the Museum of Modern Art. As word of his previous films reached the States, however, Buñuel found himself a persona non grata, as he was considered too radical for the sensitive U.S. political atmosphere during the 1940s. Buñuel moved on to Mexico, where he formed a partnership with the producer Óscar Dancigers and began making movies again. In 1950 he released Los olvidados (The Young and the Damned), which trains its eye unswervingly on the poor youth of Mexico City, and which won Buñuel the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival. Like most of Buñuel's films, Los olvidados works to break down the binary opposition between oppressor and victim. There are no victims in the pure sense for Buñuel—only people trying desperately to survive in a malevolent and absurd world.

For the rest of the 1950s, Buñuel remained in Mexico making films with Dancigers. Many appear on the surface to be conventional melodramas. Yet even these films contain characteristically "Buñuelian" elements: for example, in The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), a hilarious send-up of film noirs, we see Buñuel's predilection for putting all the figureheads of authority together—the clergy, the military, and the police—in order to expose their absurdity and thus once again question their authority.

In 1961 Buñuel was invited to return to Spain by General Francisco Franco (1892–1975), who wanted to reinvigorate Spanish art and culture. Rebellious as always, Buñuel took the opportunity to make Viridiana (1961), which was subsequently banned in Spain for blasphemy, despite its worldwide success (it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year). In Viridiana, Buñuel is interested not only in the mysteries and hypocrisies of religion but also in the theatrical nature of power, whether it is located in the church, the government, or the head of a family. Viridiana explores the nature of transgression as well: the patriarch uncle Eduardo kills himself because he believes he has offended Viridiana with his salacious thoughts. This is also the point of Archibaldo de la Cruz, in which the police chief finally tells Archie consolingly that the police cannot arrest a person for wishing someone dead, but only for committing the deed of murder.

After his debacle in Spain, Buñuel began a long and intensely productive collaboration with Jean-Claude Carrière (b. 1931), his screenwriter until Buñuel's death in 1983. Together they made Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), in which bourgeois "normality" is shown as an oppressive, stultifying force, a fragile container for the roiling perversions of humanity. Diary was followed in 1967 by Belle de Jour (his biggest commercial success, starring Catherine Deneuve), a film again concerned with the perverse fantasies hidden beneath the surface of staid bourgeois life. Buñuel's filmmaking lends itself to an auteurist approach: as different in style, genre, geography, and time period as the films are, there are virtually always "signatures" that make them recognizable as Buñuel's. He returned to the dreamlike atmosphere of his earliest films, and as such the late 1960s and early 1970s are known as his second surrealist phase. He seemed to alternate between two of his favorite subjects, religion and the bourgeoisie, in The Milky Way (1969), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and The Phantom of Liberty (1974). There is something hilariously free-spirited and at the same time serious about his critique of the religious and sociocultural edifices that structure our lives, and Buñuel's constant effort to experiment and push the boundaries of what is cinematically possible has made him one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema. In his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), Buñuel uses two different actresses for the same role—he claimed it was a capricious decision on his part, but it brilliantly underlines the ephemeral nature of desire and how difficult it is actually to see another before us.

See alsoCinema; Spain; Surrealism.


Acevedo-Muñoz, Ernesto R. Buñuel and Mexico: The Crisis of National Cinema. Berkeley, Calif., 2003. The only English-language study to date of Buñuel's underrepresented Mexican films.

Buñuel, Luis, with Jean-Claude Carrière. My Last Sigh. Translated by Abigail Israel. New York, 1983. Buñuel's memoir, widely considered one of the finest and most entertaining autobiographies by a filmmaker.

Evans, Peter Williams, and Isabel Santaolalla, eds. Luis Buñuel: New Readings. London, 2004. A collection of essays written by contemporary film scholars from the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States.

Anne M. Kern