Louis Bunuel, master of The Absurd

I recently watched a series of Bunuel's later films, this being my first contact with his work.

Bunuel is probably most well-known for his earlier surrealist films, Un Chien Andalou & L'Age d'Or, made along with another Spanish proponent of Surrealism, Salvador Dali, in the inter-war years.

However his later work evokes the same inclination to employ absurdity and discontinuity in his narrative, thus exposing the fragility of contemporary society - especially the bourgeoise. Absurd though his work might be, it doesn't become tiring - or boring. His films are very entertaining and accessible.

The Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) and Tristana (1970) are rather 'conventional' films. In the former, a chambermaid (Jeanne Moreau) is moving to work to an old mansion in the countryside of France. Her visit exposes the decadence and aloufness in which the aristocratic family spend their lives, while it also charts the rise of fascism in the 30's.
However, although Moreau initially works against that burgeoise complacency, she ends up becoming a member of it by marrying a retired general leaving next door to her employers. Thus the power of capitalism to 'buy' its critics is exposed. It is to be noted, though, that nobody is happy under these circumstances - neither the working class nor the bourgeoise; Moreau becomes very unhappy with the emptyness of her marriage, although she did escape from poverty and exploitation.

It is a film worth watching again, both for Moreau's superb acting and also the way Bunuel exposes the way people behave; the exploitation, fetihism, sexism and dogmatism that characterises many of them. 

Tristana (1970) deals with the same issues of sexual desire and social suppresion of man's insticts. Catherine Deneuve stars as a poor girl, who after the death of her closest relative is taken under the custodianship of her aging, articulated uncle (Fernando Rey). However, despite all his rhetoric about taking care of his nephew, he takes advantage of her innocence. The girl is eventually escaping with her lover, only to return years later, very changed by then, to ask for her ailing uncle's help. How would the characters behave under these circumstances?

The issues of repressed sexuality and deep rooted desires are especially evident in Belle De Jour (1967). An upper middle class wife (Catherine Deneuve), a rather shy and sexually withdrawn character, is voluntarily drawn into a classy brothel, where she receives customers, everyday in the afternoon. Then she returns fullfilled to her 'normal' life, back to her husband, as if nothing had happened.

One of the funniest and more entertaining films is The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). An upper middle class group of friends is trying desperately to have dinner together, only to be interrupted by the strangest of incidents. A couple escapes from their bedroom to their garden to make love, while their guests are waiting for them in the dining room; a bishop asks to be employed as a gardener; a group of soldiers conduct military exercises outside their house; and so on! 
It is arguably one of the bests films I have watched; still so refreshing after so many years.

Bunuel's anarchic approach towards the structure of the film narrative is most celebrated in The Phathom of Liberty (1974). Each scene takes its lead from the one before it, without any coherence and continuity in the unfoding of the story line or characters. Through a comedy of manners, Bunuel ravages a complacent European society. 

Bunuel resisted identifying a meaning or a purpose to his work and avoided exlaining why that happened or what was the meaning of that. Just as in other Surrealist and Dada works, Bunuel upsets the rational order of things by putting people doing things that would like to do but are not allowed to because of social conventions, and brings to the fore their unconscious desires. Thus he ridicules the complacency and etiquette of the polite society, attacking authority, especially in the face of the Church and the bourgeoise.

Bunuel's work is highly entertaining and accessible, and still very relevant. Surrealism is a powerful tool to expose social ills and undermine West's cultural and philosophical foundations, and one could only regret the fact that today we lack an artistic movement that would perform such a role. Although mainstream culture would have us persuaded that 'we are all middle class now', there are so many reasons worth fighting for; our society is in many aspects different indeed but in others still the same as it was in Surrealism's or Bunuel's heyday. 

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