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Related Reading: Indecent Exposures: Buñuel, Saura, Erice and Almodóvar by Gwynne Edwards.
Related Article: The Exterminating Angel, short essay featured in Issue No. 8 of Senses of Cinema.


Él, 1953
[This Strange Passion/Torments]

Alonso A peculiar, quasi-religious solemn ceremony - in a drolly surreal sequence that even manages to insert Luis Buñuel's notorious foot fetish - sets the metaphoric theme for the often (uncomfortably) over-intimate societal relationship between parishioner and priest (and more broadly, the individual and the church) as a dashing aristocrat, Don Francisco (Arturo de Córdova) assists Father Velasco (Carlos Martínez Baena) in the ritual cleansing of a succession of altar boys' feet before the well-attended Holy Week observance. Continuing to visually trace the seemingly endless trail of disembodied feet, Don Francisco focuses his undivided attention on the shapely legs of a radiant and beguiling woman, later identified as Gloria (Delia Garcés), whom he instinctively follows after the services, but loses sight of when the elusive young woman boards a motorcar with her mother while he is temporarily detained by the genial Father Velasco for a cordial introduction to a group of visiting clergymen. Having spent the better part of his time embroiled in a protracted real estate dispute involving inherited property that had been developed by a private corporation without his knowledge or consent, Don Francisco has found a new object of obsession in the dogged and myopic pursuit of the elusive Gloria. Returning to the site of their momentary encounter, he soon spots an unchaperoned Gloria paying a church visit for morning prayers and seizes the opportunity to surreptitiously follow her as she goes through her routine daily errands: a persistence that would eventually lead him to the discovery of her fiancé, a trusted associate and well-traveled engineer named Raul (Luis Beristáin), and consequently, to a subtly manipulative plan of irresistible - and inescapable - seduction.

Adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel (whose characterization of the male protagonist was inspired by the author's own troubled first marriage) by writer and progressive activist Mercedes Pinto (who, like Buñuel was a Spanish exile who had immigrated to Latin America), Él is an elegantly understated, wickedly incisive, and wry satire on obsession, superficiality, hollow spirituality, possessiveness, and machismo. Incorporating expressionistic devices of reflecting character interiority through architecture and mise-en-scène, Buñuel uses integrally tactile and voluptuous Gaudi-like structures and ornate, baroque ornamentation in Don Francisco's secluded (and self-imprisoning) estate that paradoxically reveal the suppressed eroticism, passion, and perversion that lay beneath the façade of genteel and pious respectability. (Note Buñuel's indelible long shot of the baroque church interior and the claustrophobic bell tower sequence that would subsequently inspire Alfred Hitchcock's stylistically reverent compositions in Vertigo, a similarly themed film on obsession, possession, and madness). Furthermore, the organically formed interiors and change in character point-of view also create an inherent sense of asymmetry that, in turn, contributes to a pervasive imbalance in the progression and tone of the narrative. In a seemingly trivial, yet sinister parallel image, Don Francisco's tormented, zigzagging staircase ascent is mirrored in the resigned, parting image of the hermetic aristocrat as he walks away from the camera towards a dark tunnel. It is a wry, foreboding double entendred image of calculated, deliberately tempered passion and suppressed mania concealed within the socially accepted institution of self-abnegation and devoted fervor - a dystopic vision of spiritual sanctuary - a wolf in the midst of sheep.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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Ensayo de un crimen, 1955
[Rehearsal for a Crime/The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz]

AlonsoA seemingly rational, well mannered artist named Archibaldo de la Cruz (Ernesto Alonso) recounts the moment of revelation of his fated destiny as he methodically turns the pages of a photography book of war casualties. On an ominous evening during an unnamed civil insurrection, a spoiled young Archibaldo is entrusted to the care of a stern and attractive governess (Leonor Llausás) while his wealthy, neglectful parents attend a social event. In order to pacify the temperamental boy, his doting mother allows him to play with a cherished music box that, she explains, possesses magical powers and must be handled carefully. The governess tacitly accommodates his mother's prevarication by concocting a story about a king who used the music box to rid himself of his enemies. In a bizarre coincidence, Archie winds the music box... and a stray bullet shatters through the window and kills the governess. Alone with the body of the dead governess, the young and impressionable Archibaldo is aroused by the graceful and sensual form of her body, and becomes convinced of his omnipotence over the destinies of women. He readily confesses that it is this pursuit to recreate and attain this ideal image that has led him on his murderous obsession. The polite and attentive sister of mercy, Sister Trinidad (Chabela Durán), recoils from Archibaldo's unrepentant admission, only to find that he has already selected his latest victim.

Luis Buñuel creates a macabre and insightful comedy on obsession, machismo, and bourgeois hypocrisy in The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. Using the repeated imagery of mirrors and reflections, Buñuel provides a figurative window into his own sardonic humor and personal idiosyncrasies: a foot fetish suggested through the death of the governess (that is subsequently manifested in Diary of a Chambermaid and Tristana); a sense of voyeurism that arises from vigilant observation, revealed through Archibaldo's discovery of a lovers' quarrel (shown through an angled mirror) and Carlota's (Ariadna Welter) rendezvous with her lover; an obsession to capture the essence of the perfect woman through Lavinia (Miroslava Stern) and her mannequin likeness (the doppelganger imagery is also examined in his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire). In a playful homage to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, Buñuel further illustrates his droll and incisive wit by creating a surreal twist to pivotal Hitchcockian images involving a glass of milk (Notorious) and a straight razor (Spellbound). Through Archibaldo's bizarre and unorthodox dual life as a serial killer, Buñuel subverts the conventional devices of a suspense film and creates an irreverent and audacious personal statement on the conundrum of sexual politics.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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El Angel Exterminador, 1962
[The Exterminating Angel]

Rambal/PinalThe sound of a tolling church bell prefaces the bizarre events that are to unfold at a Mexican estate on Providence Street. An aristocrat appropriately named Nobile (Enrique Rambal) has invited several society friends to his home after the opera. But even as the dinner preparations are underway, the servants feel an inexplicable urge to depart from the premises. Despite the threat of dismissal, an anxious footman, Lucas (Angel Merino), is the first to leave. As the guests arrive and ascend the stairs to deposit their overcoats for the evening, two more servants attempt to escape, only to turn back when the guests emerge from the room. Or do they? Curiously, the entrance scene of the guests is repeated from a higher camera angle, and this time, the servants successfully escape.

The dinner is a great success. The hours pass. The people yawn and stretch out in exhaustion, yet no one leaves. Despite the mutual realization of the guests that they have clearly overstayed their welcome, no one wants to bear the distinction of being the first person to leave the dinner party. The veneer of civility erodes as desperation and distrust set in, and inevitably, the guests turn against their accommodating host, blaming him for their absurd, self-induced captivity.

Luis Buñuel uses sardonic humor and surrealist imagery as instruments of social indictment in The Exterminating Angel. In a culture defined by etiquette instead of humanity, Buñuel exposes the underlying artifice and hypocrisy of civilized society. In essence, it is the burden of the guests to perform the meaningless, Sisyphean rituals dictated by their privileged class: the repetitive introductions, the polite acceptance of social invitations, and the perpetuation of self-indulgent dinner parties. However, it is also the passive comfort of their social status that creates their claustrophobic isolation and complacent inertia. Stripped of their pretense, their innate behavior remains fundamentally instinctual, base, and primal. Ironically, it is a return to the ritual that liberates them from their artificial prison. The Exterminating Angel is a mesmerizing, richly symbolic, allegorical tale on the nature of human behavior: of masters and servants, of excess and want, and of fraternity and alienation.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Belle de Jour, 1967
[Beauty of the Day]

DeneuveBelle de Jour is a provocative and emotionally complex film about sexual inhibition, liberation, and obsession. Highly controversial, critically acclaimed, and even banned for its mature subject matter, Belle de Jour is an artistic and surprisingly tactful and discreet film, operating on a level that is suggestive and erotic without gratuitous titillation. Severine (Catherine Deneuve), is a repressed, bored housewife, who is afraid of intimacy. Her husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel), is kind, devoted, and understanding. From the opening scene of the carriage ride, it is evident that Severine is aroused by the idea of domination and debasement, and the gentle Pierre is hardly the type of person who would treat her cruelly in order to receive sexual gratification. Her curiosity is heightened upon learning that an acquaintance leads a double life as a call girl. She goes to Madame Anais, a notorious high-class house of ill repute, and assumes the pseudonym of Belle de Jour (since she has to leave by 5:00 PM). However, her domestic life is threatened when an obsessed client, unable to possess her completely, begins to stalk her. The remarkable ending of the film is puzzling, unresolved, and engrossing (I can think of three plausible interpretations). Belle de Jour is a well-crafted, surreal, and taut film about the destructive consequences of human perversion.

The beauty of Luis Buñuel's masterful technical direction is his ability to create an atmosphere that is sensual and erotic without graphic nudity or explicit scenes. Note the scene involving the rough-looking Japanese businessman with a mysterious buzzing box. All we see is a prone Severine under a blanket with tousled hair after the incident. Another is the man who asks Severine to lie inside a coffin in order to act out his fantasy of mourning a daughter. The casket shakes, Severine looks down, but we never see what he is actually doing underneath. Buñuel uses diffused lighting, dark colors, and shadows throughout the film to temper the gravity and emotional impact of each uncomfortable scene. Left to our own imaginative devices, the result is a film that is highly unsettling, perverse, and inevitably tragic.

© Acquarello 1998. All rights reserved.

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Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie, 1972
[The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie]

Ogier/Audran/SeyrigThe guests arrive at the Senechal home for a dinner party, only to discover that the invitation had been given for the following evening. This miscommunication proves to be the first in a series of unusual events that invariably prevent the Thevenots (Paul Frankeur and Delphine Seyrig), the Senechals (Jean-Pierre Cassel and Stephane Audran), Don Rafael (Fernando Rey), and Florence (Bulle Ogier) from enjoying a meal together. An alternate plan to dine at a local bistro is foiled when a funeral wake for the restaurant owner is held in an adjacent back room. Another dinner party is promptly canceled when the Senechals sneak away from the house for a moment of intimacy, and the guests mistakenly conclude that a raid on the house is imminent. The women meet for drinks, but are informed that the cafe is out of tea and coffee after an unusually busy day. A subsequent dinner party is also disrupted when the military unexpectedly turns up for training exercises at the Senechal estate. Even dreams provide little respite for their frustrated efforts to hold a dinner party, as the guests inexplicably find themselves seated on stage during the performance of a play, or creating an international crisis when the colonel (Claude Pieplu) insults the obscure Republic of Miranda, in front of the ambassador, Don Rafael.

Luis Buñuel creates an absurdly comic and wickedly incisive portrait of the meaningless social rituals and polite hypocrisy of the upper middle class in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. By interweaving exaggerated reality with lucid dream sequences, Buñuel blurs the distinction between civilized behavior and social indictment. As in The Exterminating Angel, the inability of the guests to enjoy a defining ritual associated with their class results, paradoxically, from an unwillingness to break from social tradition. In essence, the dinner party provides the means for validating social worth, and therefore, becomes an indispensable, self-perpetuating event for the guests. But inevitably, like the repeated image of the weary guests walking on a deserted street, it is an endless and incomprehensible path that ultimately leads nowhere.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Cet Obscur Objet du Desir, 1977
[That Obscure Object of Desire]

Bouquet/ReyThe opening sequence of That Obscure Object of Desire has come to define the surreal, sardonic humor of the great director, Luis Buñuel. Before leaving for his trip, Mathieu (Fernando Rey), a wealthy middle-aged businessman, methodically orders his valet to burn everything in the room that is associated with a certain woman. On his way to the train station, he is caught in traffic after a terrorist bomb explodes in a diplomat's car. From the train, he spots a beautiful young woman named Conchita (Carole Bouquet/Angela Molina), and proceeds to dowse her with a bucket of water. He returns to his cabin to the aghast of the other passengers, one of whom is a dwarf psychology professor. He justifies his seeming misogyny by attempting to explain their curious relationship. Drawing from a subject to which the director has dedicated much of his film career, That Obscure Object of Desire is a farcical examination on the puzzle of sexual politics. Buñuel appropriately structures the film in thematic cycles to symbolize Mathieu's confusion. Their relationship is depicted in a series of breakups and reconciliations. There is a constant threat of terrorist activity, punctuated by explosions at the beginning and end of the film. More importantly, two women interchangeably portray the elusive Conchita, symbolizing the complexity of her character, and Mathieu does not seem to notice the difference. Figuratively, he does not understand Conchita, and therefore, cannot possess her completely. All of his attempts to win her: through kindness, money, gifts, even brute force, are his perception of her needs, and is confounded by her rejection. She is the obscure object of desire, enigmatic and unattainable. The final scene shows the reconciled couple arguing, behind the silence of a lace shop window...and so the battle wages on - a testament to the eternal mystery of sexual psychology.

© Acquarello 1999. All rights reserved.

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