Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Death Of Buñuel

The Death of Buñuel  
First, round numbers. Buñuel was born in 1900, not long after cinema and psychoanalysis, and at the same time as the century. He is thirty years old when he astonishes the world (L’Age d’Or, 1930). He is fifty when he makes his first Mexican come back (Los Olvidados, 1950), sixty when he returns to shock his native country (Viridiana, 1960) and seventy when he bids it farewell (Tristana, 1970, sublime). Logically, Buñuel should have died in 1990 or in 2000, but eternity wasn’t to his liking. “Dying or disappearing forever doesn’t strike me as awful, but perfect. However, the possibility of living eternally terrifies me.” 
On Buñuel’s work, we’ve had plenty of time to say everything. There will always be volunteers to interpret it and the naive to think cinema is made of symbols. There is nothing to add on what never ceased to obsess him, throughout his life. The histories of cinema have already laid out all the “-isms” that crossed his path (surreal-, commun-, fetish-, Catholic-, oneir-). There is nothing to say about himself and what he has shared about it: an ordered life, a successful marriage, a good balance of serious work and simple pleasures (wine, whisky). And there is not much to go on about his style: he has always filmed as frontally as possible complicated situations related to the study of social customs, bourgeois ethology and the science of dreams. A documentarist. 
Where’s the mystery then? Neither in life nor in the work but in his career with its ups and downs. And what is it that dies today with Buñuel (after Renoir and Chaplin)? A certain way for a filmmaker to be in the century and to have, his arteries aside, the same age as cinema. The idea that time is not the enemy, that one wastes it by trying to gain it, that there is always time left. Buñuel’s “career” is one of the most disarming adventures in cinema. Here is a man who begun by surviving modestly the three thunderclaps of his unforgettable debut (Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or, Land Without Bread). Here is a filmmaker who found nothing better than to start his first film (financed with his mother’s money) with the image of an eye being slices in two that still stuns. Here is a man who, for fifteen years, seems to have forgotten to fight to make his films at all costs. An ace of the avant-garde who accepts to produce (in Spain) and to make (in Mexico) purely commercial films. A deaf Spaniard who, late in the day, drew the most eloquently French portraits of the French bourgeoisie. In short, here is a man who did not always do what he wanted but always did what he could, and who remained himself. 
When we talk of humanism, or say that someone is “humane”, we often refer to the weaknesses that, by dint of generosity mixed with cowardly relief, we have decided to confer to him. Buñuel’s humanism has nothing to do with this. It is rather the (moral) honesty of a man who accepts to stay in direct contact with his own contradictions, without really trying to “resolve” them, without hoping to escape common fate, without any scorn for this fate. A rigorous craftsman who declares war only in the full knowledge that he cannot but declare it. Or win it. But who will always know the difference between concessions over secondary things and betrayal of the essential. 
Like all those who seem to be offering the audience a coded work and encrypted messages, Buñuel has been the perfect example of the filmmaker to interpret (meaning to hijack). But he hastened slowly enough and he lived long enough to discourage his exegetes. Not because he was changing but because they were. A few fixed and simple ideas, as stubborn as insects, indifferent to fashion, made it possible for him to say two or three things but in all the languages: the language of the avant-garde, of the popular melodrama, of the French tradition of quality. Few things in reality: that desire keeps us alive, and that its object is, in the end, obscure, that man considered as homo erectus is the only object worth studying, that man as a social animal lives in a sweet immorality, and that any truth, especially provisional, is worth saying. 
In the French films of his late period, from Belle de jour to That Obscure Object of Desire, he had the last words on his commentators: everybody suddenly rediscovered that a symbol doesn’t necessarily need to be explained, that the subconscious is quite a puzzle, that fantasies make us laugh, that the real is ironic, and that the bourgeoisie even have a discreet charm. A few years earlier he had effectively declared that the desire to find an explanation for everything was a bourgeois vice. By stripping his audience from this desire, he sort of liberated it. Buñuel remains a distinct filmmaker, less an inventor of new forms than a documentarist of the forms of the subconscious, or its formations rather. Each one of his films is in that sense like a dream. The best ones have the vividness of the dreams you can recall in their entirety. Hence their literal comedy effect. The lest successful ones are only remembered in bits and pieces. What difference does it make: it’s always about a dream and the capacity to transcribe and be faithful to dreams. Buñuel followed the adventure of cinema (or rather doubled it, like the lining of a jacket) as a wide-awake dreamer, a free man. 
First published in Libération, 1 August 1983. Reprinted in Ciné-journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

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