Octavio Paz has said, “It suffices for a chained man to close his eyes for him to have the power to make the world explode,” and I, paraphrasing him, add, it would suffice for the white eyelid of the screen to reflect the light proper to it to blow up the universe. But for the moment we can sleep in peace, since the light of cinema is being conveniently meted out and enchained. […] The cinema is a marvelous and dangerous weapon if a free spirit wields it. It’s the finest instrument there is for expressing the world of dreams, of the emotions, of instinct.
–Luis Buñuel, “The Cinema, Instrument of Poetry”
These words were written during Buñuel’s Mexican period, the time in his life when he was making commercial films in his adopted home, under producers who didn’t always let him indulge his oneiric impulses. Despite his frustrations, he directed some gems during his time in Mexico, more than I expected. But then I, like so many, was weaned on studio pablum and can still derive pleasure from the most conventional product. On the other hand, I’ve also been fascinated by Un Chien Andalou for close to a decade now, and I was eager to discover more of the same. So I found the director’s work in the 1950s (mostly standard genre fare, sometimes encumbered by attention-grabbing music) just about as rewarding as his more famous 1970s films (experimental satiric dreamscapes, completely without musical scores). His 1960s output, oddly enough, was ever-so-slightly disappointing, too caught up in delivering a message or a moral to be truly radical but uninterested in telling traditional stories either.
Buñuel’s filmography houses a wealth of psychological insights and a slowly refined philosophy of life. The director stays attuned to the wild subconscious mind with its primitive drives. Animal and insect life is always juxtaposed with humans’ purportedly more civilized actions. Legs, feet and shoes are constant fetish objects in stories where men of all ages keep finding their desires rebuffed and unfulfilled. In a world of repression, the taboo is subversively investigated, from incest to necrophilia. The bourgeoisie, in all its hypocritical refinement, is savaged time and again. Born into a wealthy family and raised as a devout Catholic, Buñuel sought with his first films to shock the established order into reform, or revolution. His last films harbor no such pipe dreams. What the mature Buñuel bequeathed to the world was a series of wondrous, funny, frightening movies that offer as little comfort to the revolutionary as they do safety to the reactionary.
10. Mexican Bus Ride (1952)
A simple narrative skeleton allows Buñuel to pad this 74-minute feature with one bizarre delay and detour after another. Newlywed Oliverio (Esteban Márquez) is sent by his dying mother to find a lawyer who can make some last-minute changes to her will. Along the way, he has to contend with the persistent temptress Raquel (Lilia Prado) and a busload of people with their own needs. The director gets the dream imagery just right here.
9. The Young One (1960)
The second of two films the director made in English, The Young One is an outsider’s view of the American South, an untamed and often vicious place. A black man fleeing a phony rape charge finds himself on private property. His host is a prejudiced beekeeper with an unhealthy attraction to his dead partner’s granddaughter. What follows is a suspenseful negotiation of competing desires, with carefully observed performances and atmosphere.
8. The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955)
This was the most effective satire Buñuel was able to make in Mexico, a story of a wannabe serial killer who can never seem to do the deed because fate keeps stepping in to kill his victims first. A playful excoriation of man’s weakness and sexual shortcomings, the film boasts a delightfully odd organ-heavy score by Jorge Pérez Herrera and some truly weird stuff involving a mannequin.
7. A Woman Without Love (1952)
Buñuel was bored while making this movie and later disavowed it completely. I want it on the record that, on first pass, I chose to rank it above the director’s envelope-pushing 1960s classics — every single one of them. I’m already a little embarrassed about this. But who cares? I found this straightforward melodrama compelling, beautiful and sad. Rosario Granados is terrific in the role of a woman who suffers the consequences of both an affair and her decision to cut it short.
6. Land Without Bread (1933)
A “surrealist documentary,” which is to say unclassifiable — Buñuel presents an anthropological study of poverty-stricken villages cut off from civilization as some kind of doomed horrorscape. It’s a film that probably couldn’t get made today, mostly for ethical reasons, but it possesses a dark fascination and a wicked sense of humor (the malnourished children in school learning about respecting other people’s property). Just about every detail in this is memorable.
5. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
The director emerged in his final decade of filmmaking with the perfect synthesis of ideas and aesthetics. I think the way he organizes the moods in this film might be the key. We remark on how funny it all is, then how strange, then how worrying, then how frightening. And then the cycle renews itself. This is a film in which a character awakens from a dream in which another character awakened from another dream. I have no idea what the thing with the lips on the poster is supposed to be, though.
4. Los Olvidados (1950)
Unique in Buñuel’s career, this riff on Italian neorealism tells a sincere story about the poor in Mexico City’s slums. The recurring image of a club bearing down on a human or animal victim symbolizes the unresolved trauma of the main character, Pedro (Alfonso Mejía), witnessing his friend murder another friend. It’s the kind of trauma, furthermore, that he can’t explain to any of the adults in his life. This movie is romantic and unsentimental, confrontational and withholding. I’ll remember the egg yolk on the lens forever.
3. Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Some of the things that happen in Land Without Bread might technically be more sickening and violent, but there’s no topping the symbolic authority of what Buñuel and Salvador Dalí do to eyes and hands in this concentrated blast of macabre surrealism. The opening scene somehow manages to be both brutalizing and elegant, and the remainder, with its matching dissolves, inexplicable labors, defenestration and gunplay, is at once a minefield of totems and a funny cross-eyed love story.
2. Nazarin (1959)
The director is well-known for his satirical attacks on the Catholic Church in multiple films, but the approach is somewhat different here. Nazarin is all about how ill-fitted a truly Christian life is to the world that exists, even within a culture that claims itself to be Christian. This is a unique perspective on the “holy fool,” and in many ways a welcome one. The vibrant filmmaking is marked by elegant camera movement and rich shading, both visual and thematic.
1. The Phantom of Liberty (1974)
For an artist who seldom repeated himself stylistically, this movie may be his ultimate achievement. Bouncing recklessly from one story to the next, each of which is characterized by a confounding reversal of expectations, Buñuel portrays a world that’s gone off its hinges. The man was supremely confident in his art, had nothing left to prove, but was somehow bolder than ever in his mid-seventies. He takes leave of his film’s biggest stars (Jean-Claude Brialy and Monica Vitti) in the first fifteen minutes and pursues every tangent until its strength is spent. A droller bit of pandemonium you will never see.