Luis Buñuel  

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"I'm an atheist, thank God." --Luis Buñuel

the dinner party scene in 'The Phantom of Liberty' where the guests are seated around the table on flushing toilets

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Luis Buñuel Portolés (February 22, 1900, CalandaJuly 29, 1983) was a Spanish-born surrealist filmmaker. He mainly worked in Mexico and France and is best-known for the 1929 debut film Un chien andalou, co-directed with Salvador Dalí.



Buñuel's films were famous for their surreal imagery; they include scenes in which chickens populate nightmares, women grow beards, and aspiring saints are desired by luscious women. Even in the many movies he made for hire (rather than for his own creative reasons), such as Susana and The Great Madcap, he usually added his trademark of disturbing and surreal images. Running through his own films is a backbone of surrealism; Buñuel's world is one in which an entire dinner party suddenly finds themselves inexplicably unable to leave the room and go home, a bad dream hands a man a letter which he brings to the doctor the next day, and where the devil, if unable to tempt a saint with a pretty girl, will fly him to a disco. An example of a more Dada influence can be found in Cet obscur objet du désir, when Mathieu closes his eyes and has his valet spin him around and direct him to a map on the wall.

Buñuel never explained or promoted his work. On one occasion, when his son was interviewed about The Exterminating Angel, Buñuel instructed him to give facetious answers; for example, when asked about the presence of a bear in the socialites' house, Buñuel fils claimed it was because his father liked bears. Similarly, the several repeated scenes in the film were explained as having been put there to increase the running time.

Filming style and technique

Buñuel's style of directing was extremely economical. He shot films in a few weeks, never deviating from his script and shooting in order as much as possible to minimize editing time. He told actors as little as possible, and limited his directions mostly to physical movements ("move to the right", "walk down the hall and go through that door", etc.). He often refused to answer actors' questions and was known to simply turn off his hearing aid on the set; though they found it difficult at the time, many actors who worked with him acknowledged later that his approach made for fresh and excellent performances.

Buñuel preferred scenes which could simply be pieced together end-to-end in the editing room, resulting in long, mobile, wide shots which followed the action of the scene. Examples are especially present in his French films. For example, at the restaurant / ski resort in Belle de Jour, Séverin, Pierre, and Henri are conversing at a table. Buñuel cuts away from their conversation to two young women who walk down a few steps and proceed through the restaurant, passing behind Séverin, Pierre, and Henri, at which point the camera stops and the young women walk out of frame. Henri then comments on the women and the conversation at the table progresses from there.

Buñuel disliked non-diegetic music, and avoided it in his films. The films of his French era were not scored and some (Belle de Jour, Diary of a Chambermaid) contain absolutely no music whatsoever. Belle de Jour does, however, feature (potentially) non-diegetic sound effects, believed by some to be clues as to whether or not the current scene is a dream.

Religious influence

Many of his films were openly critical of middle class morals and organized religion, mocking the Roman Catholic Church for hypocrisy. Many of his most famous films demonstrate this:

  • Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) – A man drags pianos, upon which are piled two dead donkeys, two priests, and the tablets of The Ten Commandments.
  • L'Âge d'or (The Golden Age, 1930) – A bishop is thrown out a window, and in the final scene one of the culprits of the 120 days of Sodom is portrayed by an actor dressed in a way that he would be recognized as Jesus.
  • Ensayo de un crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibald de la Cruz, 1955) – A man dreams of murdering his wife while she's praying in bed dressed all in white.
  • Simón del desierto (Simon of the Desert , 1965) – The devil tempts a saint by taking the form of a bare-breasted girl singing and showing off her legs. At the end of the film, the saint abandons his ascetic life to hang out in a jazz club.
  • Nazarin (1959) – The pious lead character wreaks ruin through his attempts at charity.
  • Viridiana (1961) – A well-meaning young nun tries unsuccessfully to help the poor. Also there is is a scene in the film as The Last Supper (of Leonardo Da Vinci).
  • La Voie Lactée (1969) – Two men travel the ancient pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela and meet embodiments of various heresies along the way. One dreams of anarchists shooting the Pope.

The story of the making of Viridiana is illustrative. Buñuel's earlier Spanish and French films from the 1930s were regarded as cinema landmarks: Un Chien Andalou, L'Âge d'or, and Las Hurdes (also known as Tierra sin Pan or Land Without Bread) (1933). The advent of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, however, caused the expatriation of many artists and intellectuals from the fascist dictatorship of Franco, whose military revolt and rise to power had had the strong backing of the Spanish Catholic hierarchy.

Had Buñuel stayed in Spain, his fate might have been the same as that of his friend, poet Federico García Lorca, who was assassinated at the outset of Franco's military revolt. After some years of artistic silence forced by the difficult circumstances of his expatriation, Buñuel, then residing in Mexico, returned in full force to writing and directing with some of his best films, which once more won him international acclaim.

In 1960, for political propaganda reasons, Franco instructed his minister of culture to invite the country's most famous filmmaker to return to Spain to direct a film of his choice. Buñuel accepted and proceeded to make Viridiana, promptly departing from the country after finishing the film, but leaving a few official copies. After viewing them, the copies were burned by the dictator's authorities. The minister of culture was reprimanded for having passed the screenplay in the first place. A copy of Viridiana, however, had been smuggled to France, where it proceeded to win the Palme D'Or of the Cannes International Film Festival. The film was banned in Spain, but got international attention and praise (with some exceptions). The Vatican's official press organ, l'Osservatore Romano, published an article calling Viridiana an insult not only to Catholicism, but to Christianity itself.

Filmography (director)

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Luis Buñuel" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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