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The Absurd Juxtaposition


Bunuel’s capacity for ambiguity we often feel resides less in the complexity of the images that he creates, than in the simplicity with which he feels a certain ambivalence towards the world. There are his statements – “thank God I’m an atheist” and “religious education and surrealism have marked me for life” – that seem to capture a position on the world which, no matter how simply he films it, will reveal a complex universe. As E. Rubenstein proposes in The International Dictionary of Film and Filmmakers: “the uncertainties and ambivalences we may feel as we watch a Bunuel film arise not from the camera’s capacity to record: our responses are inherent in the subjects.”  We needn’t go looking for symbolic meaning or deep formal purpose; as Rubenstein adds, “Bunuel’s camera is the instrument of the most rigorous denotation.” What we need to search out is merely the ‘Bunuelian’ – our job isn’t to make sense of Bunuel, to offer a form of psycho-criticism to do away with those contradictions and give him an aesthetically clean bill of health by fretting over the imagery, but instead to suggest the brilliance of his ill-health out of which comes a curiously complex perspective.

Let’s take the ill-health of El, where Bunuel tells a potentially simple story of a society gentleman who manages to woo away from his friend a young woman whom he then goes on to marry. Francisco (Arturo de Cordova) is an idealist who has foregone relations with women while he waits for the right one – and along she comes, little knowing of the terrors being perceived as an ideal can bring. Conventionally, we’d call Francisco jealous as he becomes increasingly suspicious, fretful and preoccupied over his wife’s every move. However, what is interesting is that there is nothing hypocritical in his jealousy: he’s not the societally jealous husband Tolstoy so brilliantly explores in The Kreuzer Sonata. He is not the sort of husband who would say “all those gentlemen and myself, debauchees in our thirties with hundreds of the most varied and abominable crimes against women on our consciences”, and by the end of the story murders the wife who he believes has taken a lover.  No, central to Bunuel’s perversity here is to make the man much more obviously chaste than the woman, as if he wanted to search out less the hypocrisy of jealousy, but the impossibility of a transposed religiosity.

It is after all in the church that Francisco first sees the woman not so much of his dreams as of his moral reality. He wants a woman who can match the fervour of religious abstention, but because he is first and foremost a bourgeois, over a man of faith, he needs to take a wife, yet a wife one who can conform to all the principles of religious purity.  How can Gloria (Delia Garces) possibly live up to this welding together of his own sexual abstinence, and her status as an object projected upon? Thus though Bunuel’s film – like much of his oeuvre – gives the impression of woman as object, there is often a sense in the director’s work of the women trying to wriggle free from this objectification. In fact, much of El is told in flashback, from the point of view of the woman. Thus, though she’s presented not so much as the obscure object of desire, but the luminous projection of faith, Bunuel at the same time makes clear this projection by suddenly shifting the narrative focus from the man’s take on the woman, to the woman’s take on the man. As she meets up some years later with Raul (Luis Beristain) , the man whom Francisco wooed her from, she explains to him just how difficult the marriage has been, so that though the film smoothly continues on its trajectory of obsession, it skilfully switches from Francisco’s point of view to hers.

Now feminists and narrative theorist might choose to talk here about the way Bunuel wrestles the gaze from the man and gives it to the woman, but maybe it is more interesting to think not of the gaze but of perspectives on obsession. It is as if Bunuel’s working more with a contradictory hypothesis equal to his quote about being an atheist: he narrativises the contradictions, rather than simply gives the gaze over to the woman. Switching perspectives gives the film a double-jointedness rather than an ideological assertiveness, because Bunuel cannot quite believe in any value system that gives greater force to values over instincts. Values and instincts are constantly at war in his work. In Bunuel’s ‘naturalist’ philosophy, as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze points out in Cinema 1: The Movement Image, Bunuel shows “in the poor or the rich, impulses have the same goal and the same destiny: to smash into fragments, to tear off fragments, gather up the scraps, form the great rubbish dump and bring everything together in a single and identical death impulse.”

Ditto men or women. Bunuel’s interest doesn’t lie in the ‘superficial’ issue of sexual politics, but in a certain first principle when theology meets love and functions through a ‘negative principle’ as opposed to a ‘positive principle’.  Imagine, from the positive perspective, if Francisco really had eschewed the sort of debauchery expected of his class proposed in Tolstoy’s story, and suppose he attached that sense of faithful well-being to a woman rather like a Pascalian wager, whereby his integrity to the code eventually led to a woman’s love. And so he couldn’t possibly doubt this love because he’d waited for it, and it was God’s gift for his patience. But of course Francisco’s is a negative principle, where all the waiting turns against itself as he accuses his wife of having lovers in the past; a past that he instead had given over to chastity. This comes through clearly in the scene where Gloria gets into her Raul’s car and says “my first surprise came on our wedding night”, and the film moves into flashback. As Francisco goes into her cabin on the train at the start of their honeymoon, he asks her what she’s thinking about and she replies that she is thinking of him. He doesn’t believe her, and wonders if she’s actually thinking of Raul. She insists of course not, she is thinking of Francisco. However, the negative instinct takes hold, the first crack appears, and so what Gloria relates to the lover isn’t so much a woman’s perspective on obsession, but instead she explores and explains the crack that appears and just keeps getting bigger. Her husband links God to love and instead of theology giving to love a perfect equilibrium, love gives to theology a slippery human subject.

So the wager fails, and Bunuel, the misanthropic naturalist, suggests once again that our wilful attempt at purpose will inevitably fail. For Pauline Kael in The New Yorker this pessimism even embraces, or violates, narrative form, where Bunuel’s “mixture of calculation and carelessness in his ambiguity can be maddening” and that he’s a remarkably fast, economical, and careless movie-maker, “and the carelessness no doubt accounts for some of the ambiguity in the films, such as the unresolved trick endings that leave us dangling.” (Going Steady) But Kael also acknowledges that what “makes an artist great and original is that in his lack of interest in (or lack of talent for) what other artists have been concerned with he helps us to see things differently and develops the medium in new ways.” Kael may be underestimating Bunuel’s conventional talent and overemphasizing his laziness, but it seems as if there is something so Bunuelian in Bunuel that convention constantly gets sacrificed not to a message as such, but to a perspective.

And what might this perspective be, especially in El but also in much of his work? It resides not in a naturalist pessimism, per se; more a belief in life and a fascination in religion, but not simultaneously – that it is in their simultaneity problems so often reside or arise. When Kael muses over the pineapple a woman gives to the titular priest at the end of Nazarin, and that the priest reluctantly accepts, she insists it’s that the priest’s ”stubbornly proud” in his delusion, in his faith in God. Yet the film’s gone to great lengths to show that the priest is willing to accept untold humiliation, whether that takes the form of beatings, or the inevitability of begging. If he initially refuses the pineapple it seems to have more to do with an acceptance that man and God cannot be united on earth. Bunuel’s misanthropic naturalism, where man’s instincts constantly move towards states of degradation, contains within it an ethos, a code, and it is this perverse, very Bunuelian code that can lend itself to the sort of pessimism Kael insists upon seeing. When Kael says “surrealism is both a belief in the irrationality of man and a technique for demonstrating it”, and adds “in his Land Without Bread, Spain itself – that country that seems to be left over from something we don’t understand – was a surreal joke, a country where the only smiling faces were those of cretins”, we can see this as Bunuel’s joke on humanity, or we can see it as the irreconcilability of life and the beyond.  In El we realise the only happiness that could possibly contain for Francisco the irreconcilable combination of God and earthly love would be complete madness, the sort of cretinous condition that overtakes the peasants in Land without Bread. And yet at the end of the film, though Francisco has retreated to a monastery, he’s neither quite found God nor sunk into insanity. As he walks around the religious order’s gardens, he looks up at the monastery Gloria is visiting with Raul and their child, and this allows him not to escape any impending madness but to prove his point: “then I wasn’t as mixed up as they claimed. Time has proven my point…but to what avail.”

And so his tempered madness continues. This isn’t the cretinous collapse Kael talks about, but the tortuous mental imbalance of the paranoiac. It is no accident that Jacques Lacan would screen El to his students as a case study in paranoia (Cineaste, Vol. XXIII, no. 4): it is a wonderful example of that mental state that refuses reason, yet won’t absorb madness. The priest may believe that for Francisco “faith has become his shield against the world”, but of course as he proves moments later in the words quoted above, his suspicion proves so much greater than his faith. His love of Gloria became suspicious because he could hardly hope from another human being the resolute consistency he can expect from a higher being. Thus when he says at the end of the film that time has proven him right, what he means is that she’s proven her human fickleness. Hence his suspicion that because she could love another in the past, that means while she was with him she could easily love another in the future; where for him he loved no other human in the past and therefore would not love another in the future. He does not seem to countenance the idea that it could have been his obsessive jealousy and violence that made her return to Raul. From a certain point of view he is right; from the point of view that insists on attaching a first principle of religious love to the precarious love one feels for another human being. If relationships happen to be the breeding ground so often for paranoia, is it not because there is some theological trace that makes one insists another’s life is as secure as that of intangible existence, and yet at the same time one is aware constantly that this is clearly not the case? However loyal and loving a partner may be, they are obviously of this world and not another. Bunuel plays with this absurd juxtaposition of imposing the religious onto the human.

So this seems to be Bunuel’s thesis: do not attach the love of God to the love of an earthly mortal, for the certitude one demands will constantly be undermined by the simple existence of flesh and blood. It is this that ties El to numerous other Bunuel films with an ostensibly different problematic. In Nazarin, for example, Bunuel’s priest passes through the film’s narrative determinedly trying to prove the significance of God whilst all around him he sees evidence to the contrary.  As he tries to instil religious belief in the people, you wonder if those around him are successfully going to instil disbelief in him. In one scene Nazarin arrives in a new village and asks for food, only to be told that everybody has to work for a living. So Nazarin says he’s happy to work for food, only to umbrage other workers – who the bosses are trying to get to work for no more than their daily sustenance. For Nazarin all he’s looking for is enough to survive and serve God; for the workers it’s about a better standard of living for their families, and to avoid exploitation by their bosses. They force the priest off the job, and we notice another of Nazarin’s attempts to serve God has hardly succeeded in serving the people. In Viridiana, meanwhile, Bunuel shows the young nun at its heart who opens her uncle’s home up the local peasantry, and the peasants quickly show their ingratitude, laziness and greed. In such work there is a conservative political message to be extracted, undeniably, but to do so we’d be simplifying and misplacing Bunuelian concerns. It isn’t that Bunuel insists on the conservative; more that he wants to question religion’s capacity to work politically.

Now of course this might lead us to say if Bunuel is not a conservative, then he must be a cynic: that both Nazarin and Viridiana’s attempts at improving mankind are shown to be futile. However it is not that they’re unworkable, just misplaced, in the way that in El Francisco’s attempt to transpose spiritual belief on top of corporeal love is a misjudgement. It’s as though Francisco, Nazarin and Viridiana fail to understand the nature of reality, and hope that a superimposition will be stronger than the variable reality they try to alter.  As a priest once proposed, “Suppose, for example, that Bunuel wished to persuade us that the hero’s morbid obsessions in El may be explained away by the social class to which he belongs, since it is well known that in the socialist countries such monsters have already vanished or are fast disappearing, we are still entitled to wonder why there are so few positive heroes in Bunuel’s work capable of offering us a clear lead to the path we should follow.” The priest denies Bunuel could be a Christian but, as Jean Andre Fieschi notes, in A Critical Dictionary of Cinema, sees that he couldn’t be anything else either, as if Bunuel’s purpose resides in accepting the mise-en-scene, if you like, of Catholicism, but wants to show that our problems, whilst riddled with Christianity, cannot be resolved by Christianity.

Christianity is after all an ideal, whilst humanity is a constantly evolving organism, a drive rather than an idea; and yet organic man insists on trying to live a disembodied theology that works like an overly abstract superego. If Bunuel was so taken by surrealism, its significance resides in surrealism insisting not on an art of the ideal, but of the manifold real. The ideal is the sort of ideal proposed by Aristotle when he says, “since tragedy is a representation of people who are better than the average, we must copy the good portrait-painters. These, while reproducing the distinctive appearance of their sisters and making likenesses, paint them better looking than they are.” Bunuel quite literally paints them worse than they are, if we take into account the priest’s comment above, and Bunuel’s filmic re-enactment of The Last Supper in Viridiana not as some sombre, respectful event, but a veritable orgy of gluttony. Bunuel’s surrealistic streak lies often in his insistent need to say that the organic lies at the antipode of the ideal, and any ameliorative possibilities need to find their way through the organic and not be  imposed upon by a theo-logic that has little place in the lives of a species still working on the lower level of the organic. Thus from Los Olvidados to Nazarin to Viridiana, Bunuel shows the life of the poor as no more amelioratively possible than in relation to the reality of their lives, not to the ideals that cannot really alter their material reality. Just as some might insists Bunuel’s conservative, others could see a Marxist materialist at work.

But how does this fit into the context of El – where obviously poverty has no place? As we said above, though, the problematic is similar in that Francisco wants to work idealistically as opposed to organically – he fails, to use Deleuze’s term, to work naturalistically, to accept the state of things, and superimposes upon the state of things misguided belief. But Deleuze explores in Bunuel a naturalism that accepts the body not first and foremost as rational or irrational, but as driven, a selfish genetic make-up that determines to satisfy its needs and wants. Now whether this happens to take a base form in the likes of Los Olvidados, Nazarin or Viridiana, or the apparently high form present in the bourgeois dramas El, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire, the point is to see how it gravitates towards the lower form of greed, lust and murder, or neurosis, projection and misperception in the higher form.

What such an approach must not do, it seems, is offer psychology, “above all spare us the psychology” – as Bunuel would say on the set of Tristana, according to Catherine Deneuve in Up Personal and Close. And yet, later on in her diary, Deneuve insists “All these scenes are important, necessary, never mere links – each one contributes to a character’s psychological development. This is of course an ostensible contradiction (whether Deneuve’s or Bunuel’s), but we must remember that we are not concerned with either logic or clean bills of psychological health. What we’re interested in are states, high and low, and if Bunuel seems to want to spare us the psychology it is because the states he’s interested in are above or below ‘psychology’ He doesn’t want them contained by normative modes, and explained away, or by abnormal modes that can be psychologically rationalised, but to ‘narrativise’ a state, to create a world around a behavioural pattern that fascinates him. Thus though Lacan may have used El as a “classic example of paranoia”, we might accept the film is certainly that, but it is also so much more, and this is where Deleuze’s idea, in Masochism, of artists functioning as both patients and clinicians proves useful. “In any case whether Sade or Masoch are “patients” or clinicians or both, they are also great anthropologists of the type whose work succeeds in embracing a whole conception of man, culture and nature…” They are, Deleuze adds, “…great artists in that they discovered new forms of expression, new ways of thinking and feeling an entirely original language.” For all Lacan’s idiosyncrasies we would still probably see him as the clinician, and ‘Bunuel’ playing the patient as he utilises the artist for his own psychoanalytic ends. Yet in Deleuze’s approach  an artist is both clinician and patient in the symptomological sense that he works with signs and suggests their meaning under a general auteurist heading.

Hence when we say something – an event, a person – is Bunuelian, we might almost be offering a psychological profile, but in a way very much looser and suggestive than if we were to say they were paranoiac, schizophrenic or manic depressive. To be Bunuelian is neither a compliment nor an insult, neither a determination nor a proclamation, just an observation. If Bunuel was so wary of psychology, it was maybe because he wanted to keep his world much freer than he believed psychology could afford: he wanted not to analyse the illness, but see how he could run with it, see what narrative possibilities could come out of it. This needn’t be seen as some cynical desire to look for a story to tell, per se, but to realise that any illness needs a context that is less clinical than humanly complex. Thus when Deleuze says that everybody in Bunuel has the same “goal and the same destiny: to smash into fragments, to tear off fragments, gather up the scraps, form the great rubbish dump and bring everything together in a single and identical death impulse” it is important a character doesn’t just become a case study. There is a world, a whole milieu surrounding every gesture, and to see for example Francisco’s paranoia in isolation is to miss the religious and societal context that makes him who he is.

Now of course some will insist that is exactly what any case study would do: it would provide the context for the paranoia. But Bunuel doesn’t want to case study it, he wants to tell a story about it; and it is this difference which often gives Bunuel’s work its sense of indifference and also its curious sympathy. In both El – which is a study in paranoiac obsession – and Nazarin – which could be read as a study in delusion – Bunuel mocks and empathizes simultaneously, but he never pities. Pity would assume a position beyond the milieu, where Bunuel appears to suggest that there is nothing beyond the milieu. There is just the perfunctoriness of this world, no matter if the characters frequently hint at a desire to belong to another one and to escape the “great rubbish dump”.

“No more the desire to cure” Freud and Jung proposed in their letters to each other, and it could almost serve as the Bunuelian motto. There are social ills, undeniably, but Bunuel’s much more suspicious of social cures, and so though the priest who commented on El can claim Francesco as very much a product of his time, Bunuel’s quite happy to show in the seventies, contemporary set That Obscure Object of Desire, that the man and the problem haven’t gone away. Bunuelian symptomology may be of a time, but its traces permeate beyond the boundaries of class and culture, and yet, of course, without ever transcending them. Bunuel wants to show man as a product of his environment, but is suspicious of man controlling it quite as he might wish, because there is this naturalist, organic reality that must constantly be confronted. When it isn’t confronted, this rarely leads to a higher value – be that the love of a woman or of God – but a lower demand: the men are dragged into the chaos of scorn or jealousy, mockery and paranoia. There aren’t so much higher values as abstract denials.

So how could one live in a Bunuelian world, how could Francisco escape from his paranoiac obsessions and live a stable existence with his wife – the life she seems to have with Raul, with whom she appears happily married at the end of the film? The answer might be to believe in this world and hope for another one, but don’t will this other world. Do not try and superimpose on this difficult, indifferent existence values that do not belong to it, and certainly don’t try to impose them on people for whom they’re of little use. Whether that happens to be the poor in Viridiana, the morally dubious in Nazarin, or the simple, loving and beautiful Gloria in El, one must be careful not to misattribute higher values than the people or place can cope with. Thus we could simply call Bunuel a pessimist, but it is more useful to think of him as a realist, a realist as naturalist, organicist. But frequently Bunuel presents to us within this world of realism that he believes in, characters for whom irrationalism functions more strongly than the organic values. Whether this is the husband and wife in Belle de Jour, the diners in The Discreet Charm of the Bougeoisie, or the guests at the house in which they can’t leave in The Exterminating Angel.

Now central to the humour in Bunuel’s work – and the surrealist humour so often commented upon – is the gap between the organic world of drives, and the civilized values of society, politics and God. It’s as if Bunuel accepts there is the mind and the body and wants us first to work with the freedom of the former and the necessity of the latter: hence the surrealist freeing of the imagination on the one hand, and the harsh landscapes, villages and the peasants on the other. Imagination and brute reality can co-exist, of course, but they need again to exist as separately as life and religion. One can have surrealist flights of fancy, but one mustn’t expect these flights to then land comfortably in reality. This is the problem at work in The Criminal Life of Archibald de la Cruz, where Archibald believes a series of deaths over a number of years are connected to his own wishes. Just as we may say one can wish a world – be that projecting a God or an ideal onto the world – then it is as if The Criminal Life… observes the absurdity in miniature form. Here we have a perfectly innocent man who happens to wish a death that becomes a reality; but he in no way can be connected to the deaths that ensue, except in his own imagination. Bunuel doesn’t deny Cruz his fantasies – and thus the consistency with a surrealist type of thought that holds to the vividness of the imagination, but not its projection onto the world – he just expects him to understand that they have nothing to do with reality.

So what is it that passes for reality in Bunuel’s work, and if it so often dissolves in his later films is it because the mind and the impulse collide and dissolve reality altogether? That is, the projection of mind becomes so strong it doesn’t lead to the absurdity of a reality that blankly absorbs it, but that ‘reality’ gives way to it. Thus in The Phantom of Liberty, a number of perfectly innocuous pictures taken on a trip become obscene image in the eyes of a bourgeois couple. In That Obscure Object of Desire central character Mathieu can’t distinguish between the two physically very different women who are his Conchita, as if it is not just Bunuel’s casting playing tricks with the audience, but Mathieu’s perverse subjectivity that creates the confusion. Reality in Bunuel has usually been quite elemental and harsh. There is a scene in El where Francesco and Gloria get married, and the film cuts to a dam being built in Argentina, where Raul retreats after losing Gloria’s heart. In a scene that might seem almost gratuitous so apparently irrelevant is Raoul’s work to the story, Bunuel nevertheless justifies it within the context of idle minds making mischief, and that Raul’s mind has been trying to escape painful thoughts. As someone says to him as he finishes up on the project. “You’ve been away a long time…” I wish it were forever,” he replies. Francisco at the same moment happens to be a man more or less at leisure, who creates needless projections around the woman of his dreams and nightmares, while Raul simply gets on with a job of work. There is certainly a stubborn reality in many of Bunuel’s films – evidenced in Land without Bread, Los Olvidados, Nazarin and Tristana – but there are also often equally stubborn subjectivities. These are subjectivities imposing themselves upon Bunuel’s harsh reality and frequently defeating the real with the imaginary. This is what is at stake increasingly in Bunuel’s later films – in Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire, the sort of films that seem to have been directed by a madman, as Larry Gross once proposed of Belle de Jour and other key films of the sixties and seventies, when writing on Eyes Wide Shut in Sight and Sound. These are Bunuel films where we see the characters’ idleness creating so much subjective mischief that the film’s reality almost dissolves in front of our eyes. Whether that be Belle de Jour’s bored housewife, or That Obscure Object of Desire’s wealthy gentleman, there is a curious work ethic in Bunuel’s oeuvre that suggests those without it are likely to get lost in an hallucinatory  laziness.

This is central of course to El’s coda, where Francisco is supposedly resting and finding God, but really just seems still to be practising his hallucinatory laziness in the environs of a monastery. As he says to the priest, “then I wasn’t mixed up as they claimed” – as if he knew all along that it was inevitable that Gloria would end up with Raul. Though he adds, “the real peace is here,” (in the monastery), there’s no hint on his face of this being so. Bunuel appears to believe very strongly in the ‘real world’, but he’s very suspicious of our flights from it, as if God’s presence in our lives is a metaphysical trick playing with our mental faculties. Yet we shouldn’t necessarily take this to be Bunuel’s blanket rejection of faith; just its rejection in relation to the variables in one’s life. One can fantasise, it seems, about God, about women, about politics, but any notion of amelioration does not come out of fantasy projected onto reality – and this might be why it’s so easy to read Bunuel as anti-theological, apolitical and misogynist – but that fantasy has its own place in the imagination (a la surrealism), but for the rest one works with notions of humanity, love and politics in the immediacy of our lives. If Bunuel’s films so often have the air of fables, even curious morality tales, and yet we find them indeterminately moral, then it may lie in this sense that stubborn reality is in danger of being countered by a no less stubborn subjectivity: with neither any sense of social progress nor psychic development.  When Bunuel famously insisted “I have never infringed my moral code…I am against conventional moralities, the traditional fantasies, sentimentality, all that moral filth society incorporates into sentimentality. I have made bad films of course but they’re always morally sound,” we might ask where this moral soundness lies. Perhaps in understanding the relationship between abstract belief and concrete reality, and that his work, conventionally and irresolvably contradictory, possesses a deeper consistency which we shall call, symptomatically, the “Bunuelian”, less a technical complexity than a subtle yet simple  perspective.


©Tony McKibbin