The precious charm of nightmares

Sala Leopoldo Lugones at Teatro San Martín opened a film series yesterday entitled Reencuentro con Buñuel (Reunion with Buñuel), screening five of Luis Buñuel’s most important movies, all of them shot during very different periods in Mexico, Spain and France. The program concludes with two recent documentaries — El último guión: Buñuel en la memoria (Spain, 2008), by Gaizka Urresti and Javier Espada, and Calanda, 40 años después (Spain, 2007), directed by Juan Luis Buñuel, the eldest son of Luis Buñuel.

The series opened with Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned, 1950), shot on the outskirts of Mexico City, featuring a story that could happen, as the voiceover points out at the beginning of the film, on the periphery of any big city: “New York, Paris, London hide, behind their magnificent buildings, homes of poverty that house badly fed children…”

Los olvidados (The Young and the Damned), Luis Buñuel"

Los olvidados (The Young and the Damned), Luis Buñuel”

Filmed on-site and with the actual inhabitants as the actors, The Young and the Damned can at first glance look like a neorealist movie, filmed in the style created by Vittorio de Sica and Cesare Zavattini who also shot the poverty and desperation of everyday life in the suburbs of Rome. The essential difference, though, is that Buñuel’s characters are deeply marked by the material conditions of their lives and aren’t genuinely good-natured like the Italian heroes. Buñuel denies them sympathy and compassion. In one scene, for instance, children throw stones at a blind man in a display of brutality and egoism.

Belle de Jour, Luis Buñuel"

Belle de Jour, Luis Buñuel”

In his autobiography, the director relates that “although the opening in Mexico City was in itself uneventful, there were some violent reactions a few days later.” Buñuel presented the film at the end of the year 1950 in Paris, but by then the Communist Party had forbade Georges Sadoul to write a review of it after branding it “bourgeois.” Success had to wait for the screening at Cannes and an article by Octavio Paz. The Mexican poet remarked how Buñuel’s work demonstrates the evolution of Surrealism, which now falls within traditional forms of narration — in this case an absurd tragedy — “becoming part of the irrational images that emerge in the dark half of mankind.”

Years before, in his first film, made in collaboration with Salvador Dalí in 1929, the rule the governed the script consisted in “refusing any image that could have a rational, cultural or historical meaning.” That’s how they conceived Un Chien Andalou, mainly based on two dreams, each one springing from the heads of the two directors. It was shortly after that that they became acquainted with the Surrealists, which had gathered around André Breton.

Years later, Luis Buñuel adopted the conventions of narrative and naturalistic cinema, but only in appearance. Among perfectly “rational” scenes, he always alternated images of dreams and fantasies standing in for the contradictions that the characters couldn’t sort out. In Belle de Jour (1966), for instance, the protagonist appears as a woman happily married to a surgeon, but the couple has sexual problems. In the editing of the movie, the scenes of her frigidity are carefully mixed with images of sadomasochistic visions and fantasies. The real keys to understand the character’s acts and decisions lies in this field of fantasy. Fantasy provides a “rational” explanation that ends up blurring the borders between reality and imagination.

Viridiana, Luis Buñuel

Viridiana, Luis Buñuel

Viridiana (1961) was a Mexican production entirely shot in Madrid while Francisco Franco was still in power. The film caused another scandal at its premiere. In spite of obtaining the Palm d’Or at Cannes, it was immediately censored in Spain by the Minister of Information and Tourism. The main character of the story, Viridiana, is a young novitiate bearing the name and attitude of a saint. During her visit to her uncle, Don Jaime, the uncle gives her a sleep-inducing drug in order to rape her, but he finally doesn’t dare. Later he tries to keep her at the estate when she intends to return to the convent by telling her that she can’t be ordained as a nun because he had sex with her while she slept.


Buñuel stated that he wrote Viridiana’s script based on an old erotic fantasy. “When I was fourteen, I fantasized a scenario that was eventually expanded into Viridiana. The queen retires to her bed-chamber; her servants help her undress; she gets into bed. When the maids have left, she drinks a glass of milk into which I’ve poured a powerful narcotic, and an instant later she falls into a heavy sleep. At that point, I slip into her royal couch and accomplish a sensational debauching.”

Sala Leopoldo Lugones’ program also includes The Young One (1960), one of the only two American productions that Buñuel did, but shot entirely in Mexico. The story takes places on an island where a young girl supposedly gets raped. In My Last Breath, Buñuel’s autobiography, he says that characters in films are usually divided between good and bad, leaving no room for ambiguity. This film was made as a reaction against the Manichaeism he saw in the movie industry.

El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel), Luis Buñuel

El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel), Luis Buñuel

The isolation of a group of characters — either on an island in The Young One or in the director’s version of Robinson Crusoe(1954), in the jungle as in Death in the Garden (1956), on a bus (Mexican Bus Ride, 1952) or in a streetcar (Illusion travels by Streetcar, 1954) — recurs in several films by Buñuel. In The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, 1962), a group of twenty characters gather at an aristocratic home for a dinner party after going to the theater. Without being actually locked-up and without an explicit reason, no one manages to leave the room when the party ends. As soon as one of the men takes off his jacket, polite conventions disappear. Diplomatic tactics and careful conversation begin to vanish, too. The group engages in absurd dialogues and it’s possible to see how the aristocracy, confined within its own conventions, becomes demoralized and loses its mask.

This film cycle provides an excellent opportunity to enjoy (or enjoy again) a director who, blurring the borders between fantasy and reality, created new ways of understanding cinematic ambiguity during his almost fifty years of film production.


Wednesday, November 9th:
La joven (The Young One; México/EE.UU., 1960).

Thursday, November 10th:
El último guión: Buñuel en la memoria (España, 2008), Documentary by Gaizka Urresti, Javier Espada.
Buñuel y la linterna mágica (España, 2011), by Javier Espada (6’; digital)
Awarded shorts or the competition “Imaginando a Luis Buñuel” (Imagining Buñuel)
Calanda, 40 años después (España, 2007), Documentary by Juan Luis Buñuel.

Friday, November 11th:
Viridiana (Mexico/Spain, 1961).

Saturday, November 12th:
El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, México, 1962).
Domingo 13: Belle de jour (France, 1966).

Sala Lugones, Teatro Municipal General San Martín

Corrientes 1530, 10th floor, Buenos Aires, Argentina


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