Why this might not seem so easy
More than 30 features and perhaps the most famous short film ever made bulk up the legacy of Luis Buñuel. His career kicked off with a barber slicing his razor through a woman’s eyeball, in the scandalous opening to his 21-minute debut, Un chien andalou (1929), and ended with an explosion ripping through a Paris mall, at the close of That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) – with no shortage of shocks and sly provocations in between.
For nearly half a century, Buñuel took glee in lighting the fuse under bourgeois notions of good taste and propriety, saving his most savage barbs for what he saw as the complacency of the middle classes and the hypocrisies of the Catholic church. He found himself in hot water plenty of times as a result, but his reaction was to drink it up, like one of the daily martinis he professed never to miss.
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He claimed he’d waited with stones in his pockets at the Un chien andalou premiere, ready to throw if the audience rioted – only to be disappointed when they lapped up the film’s erotic surrealism. But notoriety would come: his second film, L’Age d’or (1930), was banned in France after the premiere was invaded by protesters, who threw ink at the screen and attacked patrons, while his 1961 Spanish homecoming film, Viridiana, was labelled blasphemous by the Vatican and outlawed by Franco.
Yet Buñuel’s enduring reputation as a surrealist and a troublemaker has tended to obscure just how entertaining he is as a filmmaker. The savageness in his films is tempered by wry humour and dry wit, but also with a sure grip on storytelling that really blossomed during his still underrated period in Mexico (where he made 2 thirds of his output) and in his celebrated late run of films in France.
The best place to start – Belle de jour
The latter-day French Buñuel films, made with the collaboration of screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, have a gloss and ease of style that make them an appealing first dip. 1967’s Belle de jour is perhaps the most famous of these, featuring Catherine Deneuve dressed in Yves Saint Laurent, playing a well-heeled Parisian woman, Séverine, whose secret sexual fantasies lead her into daytime work as a prostitute.
While Belle de jour can be enjoyed simply as a daring and suggestive walk on the wild side, it’s also craftily modernistic, presenting a series of tricksy clues that complicate whether what we’re watching at any one point is reality or reverie. By this point in his career Buñuel was wise to how easily audiences adapted to the oddities of out-and-out surrealism. Instead, he opted for a subtler approach in which teasing enigmas and unsignaled fantasy sequences are woven into his plots to needle and destabilise the viewer.
What to watch next
The straitjackets we choose to wear in society also come in for a ribbing in the later Buñuel-Carrière collaboration The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), which to Buñuel’s amusement won him the Oscar for best foreign film. Featuring Spanish actor Fernando Rey (an irreplaceably suave presence in 4 of Buñuel’s best films), it centres on a group of socialite friends whose efforts to dine together are continually frustrated by bizarre interruptions.
This great comedy bears some similarities with his late Mexican masterpiece The Exterminating Angel (1962), about a house of party guests who find themselves mysteriously unable to leave, as well as with the incendiary L’Age d’or, in which it’s a couple’s attempts to consummate their passion that come unstuck. In his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire, a wealthy Frenchman’s desire for a beautiful flamenco dancer is hampered as she repeatedly blows hot then cold towards him. Thwarted desire was a constant theme throughout Buñuel’s career, and these 3 films are essential stop-offs.
There’s perversity and fetishism aplenty in the earlier Mexican films too. Los olvidados (1950) has traditionally been the most highly praised of these, perhaps because critics felt on surer footing with its neorealist-style tale of delinquent boys on the streets of Mexico City. But Buñuel still finds time for an eerie dream sequence and an egg thrown straight at the camera.
In its story of a lusty suitor who becomes an overprotective husband, 1953’s El could be called a dry run for his later Fernando Rey films, except it’s as essential as any of them, while 1952’s Subida al cielo (known in English as either Ascent to Heaven or Mexican Bus Ride) is a hugely enjoyable road trip comedy.
These years also brought idiosyncratic, surrealism-tinged adaptations of Wuthering Heights (1954) and Robinson Crusoe (1954); the deliciously dark comedy The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), about a would-be serial killer who never quite gets around to killing (again that theme of frustrated desire); the jungle adventure Death in the Garden (1956); and the unexpected The Young One (1960), a red-hot melodrama based around a beekeeper, his young ward and a jazz musician who arrives at their island home having escaped lynch mobs in the American south.
His final Mexican film, Simon of the Desert (1965), is just 45 minutes long, but that too manages to pack in all sorts of fun, as the Devil takes various guises to tempt the fifth-century ascetic Simon Stylites from his 37-year perch at the top of a column. Its twist is literally ‘the twist’, as the scene jumps centuries ahead to hipsters getting down to a song called ‘Radioactive Flesh’ in a 1960s nightclub.
Buñuel made only 3 films in his native Spain, 2 of which were banned by the government there. Land without Bread (1933) is a hallucinatory short-form study of the rugged landscapes and poverty-stricken people of the Las Hurdes region, while the Vatican-baiting Viridiana centres on a novice nun’s disastrous attempts to run a home for beggars following the death of her pervy uncle (Rey, in his first Buñuel appearance). The inflammatory ‘Last Supper’ sequence, in which a rowdy feast is momentarily freeze-framed to resemble Da Vinci’s painting, was copied by Robert Altman for MASH (1970) and perhaps gave The Rolling Stones the name for their 1968 album Beggars Banquet.
The last of these Spanish films, Tristana (1970) teamed Catherine Deneuve and Fernando Rey for one of the most perfectly achieved of Buñuel’s twisted May-December fables.
Where not to start
Very few of Buñuel’s films hold their secrets too close to their chest for easy enjoyment, though 1969’s The Milky Way is an exception. Though the director linked it in a loose trilogy with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and the wonderful The Phantom of Liberty (1974), it’s a good deal more opaque than either of those.
Relaying the picaresque adventures of 2 modern-day pilgrims on the path to Santiago de Compostela, it includes a succession of symbolic encounters with religious figures and heretics along the way. A solid knowledge of Christian history, together with a head for nonlinear, multi-level plotting, are required to get the most out of it all.