In 1972, Alfred Hitchcock declared Luis Buñuel to be 'the best director in the world', while Ingmar Bergman praised the consistency of his vision by averring that 'Buñuel nearly always made Buñuel films'. But what was a 'Buñuel film', as the wandering Spaniard started out producing Surrealist provocations in Paris during 'les années folles' before finding an unexpected postwar niche in Mexican cinema. Once back in Europe in the early 1960s, he followed a scathing reproach to his homeland with a series of deceptively playful satires made in France.
Some would question claims he was an auteur by pointing out that he invariably wrote his screenplays with such trusted collaborators as Luis Alcoriza, Julio Alejandro and Jean-Claude Carrière. But Buñuel frequently exposed religious hypocrisy, patriarchal oppression and bourgeois complacency, as he sought to make good on his maxim, 'In a world as badly made as ours, there is only one road - rebellion.' Yet, while he could be angry, Buñuel remained an enigmatic contrarian, who could joke in all sincerity towards the end of his life: 'I am still an atheist, thank God.'
A Child of the Middle Ages
The oldest of Leonardo Buñuel and Maria Portholés's seven children, Luis Buñuel was born on 22 February 1900 in the small town of Calanda in the mountainous Teruel region of Aragon in eastern Spain. He would claim in his autobiography, My Last Breath (1983), that he had spent his first four years in a backwater in which 'the Middle Ages lasted until World War I'. In 1905, however, the family relocated to Zaragoza, where the devout Buñuel was educated by the Jesuits at the Colegio del Salvador before a crisis of faith at 16 fostered a burning sense of injustice at what he perceived to be the Catholic Church's abuse of its status, wealth and power.
A talented boxer, hypnotist and violinist, the young Buñuel enjoyed giving shadow shows using a magic lantern. But, apart from a love of the slapstick films of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd (many of which can be rented from Cinema Paradiso), Buñuel wasn't much of a cineaste at the University of Madrid, where he studied philosophy and forged a close friendship with poet Federico García Lorca and painter Salvador Dalí, while living in the Residencia de Estudiantes. They became key members of the Surrealist avant-garde group known as La Generación del 27 and this phase of Buñuel's life was dramatised by Paul Morrison in Little Ashes (2008), which starred Matthew McNulty as Buñuel, Javier Beltrán as Lorca and Robert Pattinson as Dalí.
Three years later, Adrien de Van played Buñuel in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (2011), which sought to recapture the spirit of the City of Lights during the Jazz Age. Buñuel left Madrid for the French capital following the death of his father in 1925 and found a job as a secretary at the International Society of Intellectual Cooperation. However, he became hooked on cinema after seeing Fritz Lang's Destiny (1921) and got his chance to work in film through Jean Epstein, who had made his reputation with visually innovative pictures like Coeur fidèle (1923), which were hailed by critics as being the cinematic equivalent of Impressionism.
In addition to playing a smuggler in Jacques Feyder's Carmen (1926), Buñuel also served as Epstein's assistant on Mauprat (1926) and La Chute de la Maison Usher (1928), the latter being a fantasy on the Edgar Allan Poe story that has since been remade as The Fall of the House of Usher by Ivan Barnett in Britain in 1950 and Roger Corman in Hollywood in 1960. However, following Mario Nalpas's Josephine Baker vehicle, La Sirène des Tropiques, Buñuel turned down the chance to work on Abel Gance's Napoleon (both 1927) in order to review the latest releases for La Gaceta Literaria and Les Cahiers d'Art.
A Desperate Impassioned Call to Murder
The thought of making films had occurred to Buñuel, however, and he worked on a screenplay for Los Caprichos with the Surrealist writer Ramón Gómez de la Serna. However, he was also still in touch with Dalí and, borrowing money from his mother, Buñuel embarked upon a 17-minute silent onslaught of images and ideas that critic Roger Ebert would later call 'the most famous short film ever made'. Written in a week and drawing on the co-directors' dreams, Un Chien Andalou (1929) consciously departed from Epstein's brand of cinema in seeking to avoid any content that 'that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind'. They hoped it would shock the Parisian intelligentsia and Buñuel went to the premiere at the Studio des Ursulines with stones in his pockets in case a riot broke out. But, with Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Le Corbusier and Surrealist leader André Breton in audience, the film proved a succès d'estime.
Suitably impressed, the Vicomte de Noailles commissioned a follow-up for his Studio 28 cinema. However, Buñuel and Dalí fell out during the writing of what was originally to be called La Bête andalouse, as the former wanted to attack the rising tide of Fascism across Europe, while the latter sought to attack Catholicism. As a consequence, Dalí stayed away from the filming of L'Age d'Or (1930), which vaguely chronicled the efforts of Gaston Modot and Lya Lys to consummate their relationship in the face of 'wretched humanitarian ideals, patriotism and the other poor mechanisms of reality'. However, the political content and a visual link between Jesus Christ and the Marquis de Sade prompted the League of Patriots and the Anti-Jewish Youth Group to attack the venue, while the Vatican threatened to excommunicate De Noailles and his wife for encouraging blasphemy.
Naturally, Buñuel was delighted with the reaction, although it persuaded De Noailles to delay the release of Jean Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1932), as it also tackled anti-clerical themes. He also decided to withdraw L'Age d'Or in 1934 and it remained out of circulation for 45 years. But the film had already served as a calling card for Buñuel and he and Lya Lys were invited to study film-making techniques at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. During his stay, Buñuel made the acquaintance of Sergei Eisenstein, Josef von Sternberg, Jacques Feyder, Charles Chaplin and Bertolt Brecht. However, Greta Garbo had him thrown off the first set he tried to visit and, after doing extra duties in a Spanish version of George Hill's Min and Bill (1930), he refused to go near the studio until his short-term contract expired.
A Rebel Without Applause
Once in Europe, Buñuel announced his break from the Surrealists and joined the Communist Party. But there was still an iconoclastic edge to Las Hurdes (1932), a documentary study of peasant life in the impoverished Extremadura region of rural Spain. Claimed by some as the first mockumentary, this bold blend of starkly realistic imagery and travelogue-like narration was banned by parties on either side in the Spanish Civil War and Buñuel thought it prudent to accept a job in the dubbing department of Paramount's Paris studios until the fuss died down.
He returned to Madrid in 1934 when Warner Bros opened a dubbing studio, only to be headhunted by Ricardo Urgoiti of Filmófono, who asked him to produce pictures for mainstream Spanish audiences. As he insisted on complete anonymity, it's not possible to determine with any accuracy whether Buñuel directed any of the 18 projects he executive produced. However, scholars have deduced that he was more than simply the guiding hand on the musicals Don Quintin the Sourpuss and Juan Simón's Daughter (both 1935) and the comedies, Who Loves Me? (1936) and Sentry, Keep Watch! (1937).
When the Civil War broke out, Buñuel was placed in charge of cataloguing Republican propaganda films. He also supervised Jean-Paul Le Chanois's España 1936 (1937) and, following Lorca's death at the hands of the Nationalist militia, Buñuel returned to America to advise on Hollywood features about the conflict. However, the 1938 MGM project, Cargo of Innocence, was cancelled because of its left-leaning sentiments and, being unable to return to Spain after Francisco Franco took power, Buñuel did odd jobs like devising gags for Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) in order to stay afloat.
He readily relocated to New York, therefore, when Museum of Modern Art film curator Iris Barry asked him to re-edit Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935), as part of a programme designed to teach President Roosevelt's administration about the value of film propaganda. Moreover, he re-edited over 2000 actualities for Latin American markets, as part of the 'Good Neighbour' initiative. Yet, despite returning to Warners to dub films into Spanish, Buñuel failed to find backing for a number of his own feature projects, while some have questioned his claim to have contributed to Robert Florey's Peter Lorre chiller, The Beast With Five Fingers (1946). With his avenues narrowing, therefore, Buñuel decided to try his luck across the southern border.
Down Mexico Way
Despite a proposed Mexican adaptation of Lorca's play, The House of Bernarda Alba, falling through, Buñuel felt comfortable in a Hispanic environment and readily accepted producer Óscar Dancigers's offer to direct singing stars Libertad Lamarque and Jorge Negrete in the 'churro' musical mystery, Gran Casino (1947). He followed this with the comedy, The Great Madcap (1949), which starred Fernando Soler as a rich widower who turns the tables on his work-shy relatives. Made quickly and cheaply and limited to only 125 shots, neither film proved a success. But the Russian-born Dancigers realised that Buñuel was merely ring-rusty and encouraged him to attempt something weightier in the form of Los Olvidados (1950).
Drawing on Buñuel's experiences of slum life in Mexico City, the story of an adolescent boy's bid to resist the baleful influence of an older youth combined surrealist and neo-realist elements and so infuriated patriotic audiences that Dancigers was forced to change the ending to show that Mexico was not alone in having to contend with juvenile poverty and delinquency. But the reaction was so hostile that he was forced to withdraw the picture after just three days, amidst demands for Buñuel's recently granted citizenship to be revoked. However, poet Octavio Paz was much more impressed and took the film to Cannes, where Buñuel won the prize for Best Director.
Suddenly the toast of Mexican cinema, Buñuel was given the latitude to conduct the odd experiment while churning out generic offerings to earn his keep. Over the next 18 years, he made 21 features, including Susana, which follows the misadventures of reformatory escapee Rosita Quintana, the intriguing road movie, Ascent to Heaven (both 1951), and the simmering melodrama, The Brute (1952), which sees luggish slaughterhouse worker Pedro Armendáriz fall for Katy Jurado, the wife of exploitative slumlord, Andrés Soler. Buñuel also joined forces with the American studios United Artists and Columbia for Robinson Crusoe (1954) and The Young One (1960), which respectively starred the Oscar-nominated Dan O'Herlihy as Daniel Defoe's castaway (in what was Buñuel's first colour film) and Zachary Scott and Bernie Hamilton in a race relations parable set on a remote island off the Carolina coast.
Co-operation was also the theme of Death in the Garden (1955), one of three French co-productions that Buñuel directed in the middle of the decade, which stranded adventurer Georges Marchal, prostitute Simone Signoret, priest Michel Piccoli, diamond miner Charles Vanel and his deaf daughter, Michèle Girardon, in a South American jungle at the height of a revolution. The quality of these Mexican outings was decidedly mixed (hence so many of them being unavailable on disc) and Buñuel admitted that he accepted any assignment 'as long as it wasn't humiliating'. But this period did produce two of his finest achievements, Nazarin (1958), which stars Francisco Rabal as a priest whose penurious parishioners despise his attempt to life according to Christian principles, and The Exterminating Angel (1962), which centres on the deteriorating behaviour of the guests at a dinner party hosted by a senator and his wife when they discover that they are trapped in a single room inside a luxurious mansion.
Europe's Favourite Provocateur
With the exception of Simon of the Desert (1965), the majority of Buñuel's later films would be made in France. One notable exception is Viridiana (1961), which he scripted with Julio Alejandro after Carlos Saura asked his compatriot to return home to work with the UNINCI company he had set up with fellow directors Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis García Berlanga to create a new brand of Spanish cinema. Unable to resist the temptation to cock a snook at El Caudillo, Buñuel submitted a screenplay that he was confident would be rejected by the state censors.
Much to his amazement, only cosmetic changes were requested and he used his son, Juan Luis, to smuggle the negative across the Pyrenees after presenting the authorities with a rough cut. Moreover, he persuaded the head of the Spanish film industry, José Munoz-Fontan, to introduce the film at Cannes and collect the Palme d'Or when it tied with Henri Colpi's The Long Absence. Then, with Munoz-Fontan basking in reflected glory, the Vatican realised that the picture openly mocked Christianity and it was banned for the next 17 years, while the luckless cine-chief was unceremoniously fired.
Two years later, Buñuel returned to Paris to adapt Octave Mirbeau's Diary of a Chambermaid, which had previously been filmed in Hollywood by Jean Renoir in 1946. Jeanne Moreau inherited the role previously taken by Paulette Goddard (and revisited by Léa Seydoux in 2015). In order to help Buñuel with the French screenplay, Polish producer Serge Silberman hired actor Jean-Claude Carrière, who struck up such a rapport with the director that he became his favourite writing partner.
They were frustrated in their efforts to adapt Matthew Lewis's Gothic novel, The Monk (which was filmed by Dominik Moll in 2011), but enjoyed scandalous success with Belle de Jour (1967), an adaptation of Joseph Kessel's novel about a prim housewife who seeks work in a Parisian brothel. Despite her unhappy experience on the project, Catherine Deneuve also signed up for Tristana (1970), which was based on an equally infamous tome by Benito Pérez Galdós. Indeed, the Spanish censors had previously denied Buñuel permission to film in Toledo. But, learning little from the Viridiana farrago, they allowed him to shoot the story of a 1930s nobleman who becomes obsessed with a pious woman who accepts his marriage proposal after having a leg amputated.
Religion also reared its head in The Milky Way (1969), which followed a couple of French pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Denounced by some as wilfully heretical, this talkative picaresque has been claimed by some as a fascinating treatise on the mysteries of the Catholic faith. As if to prove Buñuel's contention that he could fool most of the people all of the time, he was both amused and outraged to receive the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), which he claimed had been voted for by '2500 idiots'.
Revisiting the creative process he had perfected with Dalí, Buñuel invited Carrière to share his dreams before they wrote The Phantom of Liberty (1974), a dissertation on chance and necessity whose title pays wistful tribute to The Communist Manifesto. Episodic, endlessly teasing and acutely perceptive, this surrealist satire remained one of Buñuel's favourite films and, with his hearing deteriorating, it also proved to be his penultimate venture. Once again, he turned to a literary source, as That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) was based on the same Pierre Louÿs novel that had inspired Josef von Sternberg's Marlene Dietrich drama, The Devil is a Woman (1935). However, it turned out to be a difficult shoot, as Buñuel had to replace Maria Schneider, who was struggling with her drug addiction after becoming an overnight star in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972), and decided to cast both Angela Molina and Carole Bouquet in the role of the aspiring flamenco dancer determined to keep out of the clutches of the lustful Fernando Rey.
In retirement, Buñuel worked on his memoirs with Carrière and studiously prepared for death. Still resident in Mexico City, he spent his last days discussing theology with Dominican priest Julian Pablo Fernandez, with whom he joked he was being 'crucified for surrealism'. Shortly after whispering, 'I'm dying', to Jeanne Rucar, his exceptionally tolerant wife of 49 years, he passed away on 29 July 1983. However, it seems that Buñuel has been involved in one last prank on the clergy, as Fr Fernandez's claim to have placed the Spaniard's ashes in the order's university chapel was contested by Buñuel's second son, Rafael, who insists that he scattered them from Mount Tolcha near his father's home town in 1997.