PRINT Summer 1969


Luis Buñuel, The Exterminating Angel, Robinson Crusoe, Los Olvidados, Viridiana, and Belle de Jour

His glee in life is a movie of raped virgins and fallen saints, conceived by a literary old-world director detached from his actors but infatuated with his cock-eyed primitive cynicism. It’s this combination of detachment and the infatuated-with-bitterness viewpoint, added to a flat-footed technique, that produces the piercingly cold images of The Exterminating Angel.

Buñuel reveals a kinship to other moderns: to Godard (the basic feeling that the audience needs educating, and he is just the one to do it), Bresson (they share an absorbed interest in the peasantry and the role of religion in rural life), and the Renoir of Tony and The Lower Depths (what it is like to be poor). Often he seems to be duplicating Renoir, decades later. The same choked, peeling, dank courtyard through which Louie Jouvet walked in Lower Depths, like a halt-footed, bowlegged, giant rooster, is recreated in Nazarin long after Renoir’s version of Gorky’s tale. In Nazarin, the setting is characteristically comicalized with three cruddy whores fighting with caricatured abandon over a set of buttons, suggesting stock company Carmens or Yvette Guilberts painted by a cross-eyed Lautrec. The Spanish workers who try to fix up the estate in Viridiana are brothers to the men who live at Marie’s boardinghouse in Tony. They fit into their village milieu with the same vitality, as natural as animals. Renoir’s Spaniards, less wacky by far than Buñuel’s, are always in the grip of a human passion, either happy or grief-stricken as lovers, when they’re not giving the feeling of hard, conscientious workers.

But more than any other modern, Luis Buñuel is a pariah, locked off by himself, stitching a sort of dank, bitter grotesquerie into a backhandedly charming movie that has an overpowering, haunting involvement with Catholicism. Just as Westbrook Pegler, in his newspaper columns, overpowered his incessant barbs and rancor with a deep love for classy journalism, Buñuel’s anti-church movie just seems to give off the wonder and sweetness of being a member of the fold. His slow cut scene, which stresses a pet Gabrielle Figueroa shot of two sentimental characters standing on a hill with the twilight backlighting them, distressingly suggests the passion plays put on year after year by R.C. parishes the world over: the scenery suggesting the least talented of Murillo’s street scenes, the same costumes worn by the same insurance agent who pridefully and possessively takes his role each Lenten season. These cold movies—the way the shot is framed and the airless edges, flaccid lighting—are redolent of religious calendars and the small booklets on the life of St. Catherine for sale in the back of the church.

From early in his career—a powerful skin shot in which a widow washes her feet while a brash punk, Jaibo (Los Olvidados), languorously leans against the doorway and takes in the act—his characters have suffered a nightmarish lack of privacy in all their domestic setups, with no refuge from gossip, prying eyes, nosiness. No secret can be cherished, no man or woman is allowed to singularize himself for long. The rancor and malice of the neighbors act to break down their resolves. In The Exterminating Angel, his most personal film, the characters exist in an agony of exposure. All his population, even the fashionable professional class in Belle de Jour, or the powerfully rich in Exterminating Angel, bear the poor man’s feeling of being a prey for anyone who wants to harass him.

In these danse-macabre films, it’s shocking to see a character alone, or one, like Catherine Deneuve in Belle, who seems to respect the institution of doors (a wonderfully unexotic hallway and sequence of embarrassed, fearful moves, suggesting the horror of applying for an unwanted job). One of the funniest gimmicks in Nazarin is the stream of odd occupations and types that flows through Padre Nazario’s open window, either to look for money, curse him (“You better clear out, Father”), snoop around, ask him snidely personal questions, bring him tortillas, and eventually burn his room down to get rid of a whore’s stinking perfume (of all the arson in films, this perfume-destroying motive is the silliest).

The central characters, a happy-go-lucky priest on the bum, a saintly figure on a platform in the desert, have a yearning to separate themselves, to live a more exalted life than those around them. They’re fervently idealistic and adore making sacrifices of worldly comfort, while their pals, kinfolk, and enemies conspire to bring them to heel. It’s an expected denouement that a girl sighs, lets down her bunned-up hair and surrenders herself to the mob: “Here I am.”

Most of the stories—they’re about fall guys; it’s Buñuel’s theory that if you try to be good, watch out: if a person wants to spread cheer, wealth, or virtue, the whole community views him as a sore hangnail they have to amputate—have to do with complicity, the fact that everyone is the devil whispering “Do it” in a pal’s ear. A sort of preposterously dry comedy goes on in each shot, having to do with the quick way evil little plots are hatched: people fall into league with one another as often as cowboys jump on and off horses in an Allied Artists Western. Working for his dinner, Padre Nazario gets a chance to put four shovels of dirt into his wheelbarrow before his co-laborers murderously gang up on him for horning in and undercutting their wage rate. Most of the movie seems to be re-telling old anecdotes but all these sudden conspiracies, partnerships, and deals, give the moral-cynical-mocking episodes a ridiculous surprise and wildness. Every Buñuel film has one elegant actor moving at a different pace from the others, and in Viridiana it’s a wonderful maid acted by a stately-modest Spanish Jane Greer (this is an overdue plug for Jane Greer). She lubricates a tedious movie that needs all the mobility it can get by repeatedly dealing herself into the nearest available plot.

Each movie is a long march through small connected events (dragged out distressingly to the last moment: just getting the movie down the wall from a candle to a crucifix takes more time than an old silent comedy), but it is the sinister fact of a Buñuel movie that no one is going anywhere and there is never any release at the end of the film. It’s one snare after another, so that the people get wrapped around themselves in claustrophobic whirlpool patterns.

When it’s good as in Robinson Crusoe where he magically harmonized with a normally outrageous over-actor, Dan O’Herlihy, a Buñuel movie has a heady, haunting effect, like an exquisitely enjoyed meal, the weather of a foreign country, something private and inexpressible: a favorite pornographic book. The musky quality comes from a variety of sources, from the all-round oldness of his lighting and buildings, to the old-fashioned literary quality that flows over each episode: Rabal fishing through his inherited heirlooms, coming across a pearl cross that has a switchblade hidden inside. There’s a lot of the dirty old man, a rotting lasciviousness in all Buñuel films. A man and woman are having a go at each other. He produces a handful of ants, whereupon she retaliates by growing a luxurious patch of hair under the arm.

Los Olvidados, a turgidly heavy tract on hideous childhood, hasn’t enough of the above Dali-ism (he unfortunately gave up the Dali-type line work early on and didn’t revive it until Belle de Jour) but it has a heavy aromatic quality, due to Figueroa’s tiresomely velvet-y photography, an occasionally biting image like the one of two performing dogs with some raunchy band music going on, and another scene where he goes light on the standard leftist tract work: Pedro’s dream of raw meat. Within a wretched Mexican city of slums, hovels, and street fights, reigns an unforgettably repugnant, corrupt to the core bully—with an irritatingly sparse moustache and languid mannerisms—named Jaibo. Like all Buñuel’s villains (Pinto in Nazarin, the eyeless beggar in Viridiana), he flag-waves his evil, terrorizing children, in particular a spunky 12-year old whom he frames with a theft after laying the kid’s mother.

Viridiana is a lush, pretentious Jane Eyre story given a heavy illustrational style and sentimental parasitic characters that are not like Charlotte Bronte at all. The theme, the silliness of virtue, is implanted with a heavy hand, through conventional types like Sylvia Pinal’s Snow White, a pure-minded virgin who tries to create a camp for beggars and ends up being raped by her two most loathsome boarders. She and the syphilitics and unwed mothers who cut her down when the chance comes, seem slow and drugged as though they were compulsory creations. These are explosions of truly independent work: the ferociously dance done by a transvestite beggar, and a perversely experimental stretch where Buñuel varies a church-art impression of beggars praying in the fields with hard factual shots of construction work going on around the outside of the mansion.

Buñuel has always been a man of fits and starts, and his later career veers back and forth, from the preoccupation with so-called iconoclasm that seems very aware of the Yankee moviegoers (a dextrous, competent movie like St. Simon in the Desert, which is all surface), to more poetic work. Belle de Jour is one of his more straightforward films, giving play to his tight, narrow provincial preoccupation with bondage, subservience. Exterminating Angel, a looser, less pretty film than Belle, seems the first occasion on which he doesn’t attach himself to some convention.

In Exterminating Angel, an after-opera party finds itself unable to move out of the sitting room in a Frick Museum-like residence. Very tense, puzzling, sinister, and yet extraordinarily stodgy, this is the least anecdotal Buñuel and the most redolent of the Barrier effect that seems to murmur through his films. Once it is anchored inside the spellbound chamber, the movie becomes increasingly desperate, festering, pockmarked with strange crowdedness, bedding conditions, and particularly with powerful images. A Goya-esque scene of people in soiled, crumpled evening clothes, huddled around a fire built of smashed violins and 18th-century furniture, in the center of an elegant sitting room, and gnawing on mutton bones. A young bellowing bear, who makes a sound like a foghorn scraped against a blackboard, careens around the front hall, climbs a pillar, and swings on a chandelier with hard-to-identify menace. What powers these scenes is a new, more modern, Buñuel esthetic. The moral lesson is no longer encircled and the tone is no longer so obvious: instead of criticizing outward conditions, it points inwards. Excoriation is the point but, as in all Buñuel at his best, the movie goes in a linear, imaginative direction, picking bits of subject matter that have been in his movies before but now seem encrusted with doubt, suspicion, and what amounts to creative self-torture. The same material poked out of other movies as far back as El when the jealous, envy-ridden husband zigzags up an elegant stairway knocking his cane in a tormented way against the stairs and balustrade.

One slant into his limitations is through his cutting, which in each event is delayed to the last possible moment, but produces the only actual movement in the film. In Nazarin, he does as much as he can within the frame but there isn’t much action within any single shot (inept actors talking) and the frame itself becomes an enclosure within which he pays obeisance to a familiar “liberalism” and certain story-telling conventions favored in church art. Until his show of independence in Exterminating Angel and Gaelic works (Belle de Jour, Robinson Crusoe, Diary of a Chambermaid), where he gives rein to an elegance and handsomeness that had been suppressed in consciously “unpretentious, profound” work (Viridiana, etc.) that made him a great favorite in America, he is irritatingly submissive to a moral narrative style. Buñuel translates his material through a leaden pedanticism that hides the narrow, provincial quality of his talent with underlined sentimental evidences of depravity, cruelty that shouldn’t dismay any traditionalists in the church.

In a sort of entertaining old-Buñuel film, strong images occur only as a kind of explosion from the orthodox, sedentary way he moves through slime and crime. This kind of orgasmic burst of poetic styling after socioreligious conventionalism happens in Nazarin when a limpid, goody type, who might be Betty Compson playing Peter Pan, reacts erotically to the intramural fight between two whores. This imaginatively choreographed hallucination, from a weird eyelid fluttering to an orgiastic backbend on the bar floor, has a crushing dynamism compared to Buñuel’s stodgier, normal style with sex: a seduction in an attic crowded with broken furniture. Buñuel typically over-explains the halting, sluggish mystery of this Viridiana scene, with its dirty old man feeling of not really being with it, by capping it with a mattress shot of a cat leaping on a rat. The symbol is as pedantically stitched in as the limply overstated facial work between Rabal and the maid.

The tremendous reputation that has accrued from exotic-ness and religious toned “primitivism” mimics the safe route Buñuel has taken as a celebrity, from working in Franco Spain through a long span as an easily identified leftist. His bizarre film, airless and dank, a lot of perverse, festering plants in it, gives the feeling of a hothouse. The best way to suggest this hothouse is to describe his handling of some of his actors; the princely Hotspurish Rabal, the puzzlingly inexpressive Pinal, whose mystery, like that of the miscast Deneuve in Belle, comes from a clogged effect of a passive surface, a blond beauty who moves like a grandmother. These main characters (there’s a good, more hesitant one playing the transvestite uncle in the Viridiana opening) are blander, cleaner, more straight-up-and-down than the excessively picturesque bit players: Father Nazario’s cell mates, the beggars in Viridiana. Buñuel, who always seems in a dark closet of privacy, like a nobleman sitting back and watching his vassals climb all over each other, hardly directs these conceived-in-sentimentality actors who don’t punch so much as crawl and fester.

However, the fancy people holed up in the music room of Exterminating Angel—professional society types, the women crushed in boned evening gowns, the men a little too old, paunchy Don Juans in opera clothes; the very outfits that would be most insufferable if you were forced to keep them on for two months—literally give off a steam of sweat, ill temper, physical disgust, a remarkable intensity of discomfort that hasn’t been seen before in movies. The standard leftism is nowhere apparent in these shots where Buñuel doesn’t try to gloss his vision and imagination, where he exposes himself in relation to Franco Spain, the Church, whomever he worked for. He seems to admit his stylistic limitations, the past compromises, in powerful images where often three lookalikes are in a strange shot, grousing at each other, sort of escaping cognition. The people lined up in the doorway, staring out as though across a great expanse of empty, messed-up existence, while all types of garbage is piled up outside their escape-less room, suggest that the director has finally departed the obvious, weary, message-laden work that made him more of a commercial-minded director than anyone suggested.

Manny Farber