Luis Buñuel  

The classic surrealist and a father of the movement. Classic surrealism explores the subconscious or irrational juxtaposition of ideas, objects and images. It thrives on a pure and unfiltered flow of ideas and associations from the subconscious. Obviously emerging from the original nihilistic Dadaist movement, Buñuel at first took this style to an extreme, directing provocative movies or scenes with absolutely no meaning. He often laughed at critics and viewers who forced a variety of meanings and symbols into his creations.

After a couple of extreme collaborations with Dalí, Buñuel had an inactive period during and after the war, then a Mexican period where he made mostly neo-realist dramas with very slight touches of surrealism (dreams or magical-realism), but it's during his final period of more expensive and interesting works that he shines. All these later works eased up on the purely irrational and strange, and explored more straightforward plots and ideas mixed with dream sequences and the occasional use of his surreal bag of tricks. Rich with sly humor, most of these later movies wallowed in the absurd rather than the surreal and used it to poke fun at society. For example, The Exterminating Angel features rich people unable to leave a room and making up excuses for it, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie features people unable to have a meal, politely evading ridiculous interruptions, and in his best work, That Obscure Object of Desire, he makes fun of the male's chase after women.

Buñuel had a wicked sense of humor and loved to play jokes on his audience, teasing them with objects and various cinematic tricks that are often meaningless yet also provocative and mysterious, using contradictions and sly twists on common settings, and blurring the line between dreams and reality. The major themes in most of his movies are jokes on the hypocrisy and quirks of the bourgeoisie from an amused insider's point of view, poking fun at clerics, Christianity and sometimes religion in general, as well as ridiculing the army or police force. He usually doesn't make movies to tell stories or convey a message, but as vehicles for his jokes and iconoclastic ideas. As such, his movies are not to everyone's taste. The following are only his strangest movies. Died in 1983.


Chien Andalou, Un  
A landmark in cinema and probably still the most extremely surreal short movie ever made. Buñuel and Dalí got together to make a purely surreal experiment where only the most raw, provocative and unfiltered images, dreams and ideas created by the psyche would be allowed, with the additional criterion that no symbolism or rational explanation would be available. They also looked forward to a shocked reaction to the movie in the spirit of Dada. As such, these utterly bizarre and perplexing 17 minutes can only be described as a sequence of scenes and images. First there is the notorious 'razor slicing an eyeball' scene juxtaposed with a cloud slicing the moon. Cards propel the movie 8 years forward or back with no rhyme or reason, there's a scene of a horny man who suddenly finds himself dragging baggage of two grand pianos, some priest and rotten dead donkeys while trying to sexually attack a woman, a scene of ants swarming out of a man's hand, some suggestive or loosely linked items and visuals between scenes to provoke some 'dream-logic', and so on. This one is guaranteed to stick in your mind as an perplexing and extreme experience.

Of Some Interest

Âge d'or, L'  
Buñuel and Dalí's second outing is an hour-long this time, and a different, relatively less irrational beast from Chien Andalou. It is primarily a surreal satire on Christianity, and on social and bourgeoisie mores. As such, it is a precursor of many movies Buñuel would make much later, except, ironically, this early outing is much more savage than those later efforts and is also much more challengingly surreal. There are bishops chanting on some rocks, revolutionary peasants too exhausted to even walk to the war, and their nemesis: a civilized society that literally builds its city on the skeletons of bishops. Right from the start, a libertine lustful man and his female fetishistic partner are constantly thwarted from their attempts at making love. The crowd has him arrested and he responds with acts of savagery to undermine their morality, kicking a dog, squashing beetles, beating a blind man, trampling on a violin, and hitting a woman for spilling a drink on him. These savage acts only turn her on more. A polite bourgeoisie party continues on even though fires break out and a young boy is shot in cold blood, and the couple can't keep their hands and tongues off each other, or off a statue's toes for that matter. There are frequent surreal images, such as a poster of a woman turning into a masturbating woman and the girl feeling it in her hands, a man throwing a priest and giraffe out of the window in a jealous love fit, and the ending which places Jesus the nobleman as the prime sadist in a castle of the 120 Days in Sodom. Mostly for unsubtle iconoclasts with its jackhammer approach to its satire, although the techniques of surrealism are quite interesting. Banned for decades.

Belle de Jour  
A classic, and one of the most delicately surreal movies, where the ending somehow forces you to question how much of the movie was fantasy or real. Deneuve is in her element here in the role of a frigid housewife with inner depths and complex sexual needs. Buñuel is also in his element, exploring and satirizing the hypocrisy and hidden layers in upper-class society, as exemplified by a well-bred housewife who has secret rough sexual fantasies and who is drawn to the life of a prostitute. Her idle fantasies flirt with S&M and cruel treatments, and when she hears about a woman within her social circle who works in a whore-house, she is both repulsed and strangely attracted to the idea. All of this is hidden from her adoring but clueless husband. Her clients become increasingly strange in their sexual tastes, and we are constantly surprised at what makes her satisfied, even by strange secret objects that only she can see and understand in typically sly Buñuel fashion. Although it is simple in its idea and satire and I did find it realistic enough to be compelling, its strength is in its nuances.

Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The  
Perhaps the most popular movie by Buñuel. Once again, his target is the hypocrisy of the privileged class as well as of Christian clerics, except this time, it is much more light-hearted than his earlier creations, being mostly a lightly amusing satire and a vehicle for Buñuel's jokes. As with many of his other latter-day movies, it is debatable whether this can be categorized as a surreal movie, being more about dream-sequences, absurdities and jokes used to poke gentle fun at these people, with a firmer grounding in reality than his earlier Exterminating Angel. The movie is about a group of privileged people, their little manners and social rules that they follow despite their underlying human nature, resulting in hypocritical behaviour. A recurring theme throughout the movie is how they repeatedly try to eat at social gatherings only to be interrupted by increasingly absurd situations: From finding that the proprietor of their restaurant just died, to a menu lacking their aperitifs, a case of mistaken dates, horny hosts neglecting their guests, army manoeuvres, or even terrorists. One of them is an ambassador from a problematic country who is hounded by revolutionaries and who uses his status to import hard drugs, while frowning on public marijuana smoking. They never allow their well-bred manners to fail even when their circumstances or their own behaviour betrays them. Some circumstances grow so absurd, Buñuel simply turns them into dreams within dreams, except these dreams don't differ much from their reality by much, which is another amusing joke. To top it off, Buñuel adds random stories told by strangers about ghosts and murders, like something out of a Raoul Ruiz movie, and, of course, our protagonists take it all in stride, politely. Personally, I found the movie quite amusing but overrated and lacking more varied notes, but, probably, one's appreciation of this movie depends on one's background.

Exterminating Angel, The  
Although touted as a surreal classic, I felt this one straddled the border between a Twilight-Zone-esque strange and supernatural occurrence used to satirize upper-class society, and a lightly semi-surreal fantasy. It's also a movie with only a single idea: The guests at an upper-class party find they cannot leave the dinner room. The way this is done is pure Buñuel: There is no sci-fi supernatural barrier, they simply find they lack the will to leave every time they approach the exit and make excuses to stay. And this continues for an absurd amount of time until it somehow becomes a survival drama. Of course, being a Buñuel movie, upper-class etiquette and social restraints slowly fall apart and the underlying madness of each of the guests comes to the fore. Sheep are symbolically led to the slaughter and some of the guests hallucinate or become violent. Except there is still the confusing faux-pas of not leaving the room no matter what happens, and it is never clear if they simply got stuck in a bizarre etiquette loop, or there is actually something supernatural going on. Even the resolution of the problem is a playful twist on the theme of trying to get past the magical etiquette barrier.

Phantom of Liberty, The  
A series of vignettes, some intensely surreal or weird, some slyly amusing or full of fascinating contradictions. The camera drops subjects to follow other unconnected ones, shifting from one scene, joke, setting or dream to another. My favorite is the one where people sit around a table on toilet seats discussing human waste, and then excuse themselves to eat food in private. Then there is the man who invites four priests into his hotel room and then gets his girlfriend to whip him in front of them without warning, the man who dreams of an ostrich and a postman in his bedroom, a man diagnosed with cancer by his whimsical doctor who offers him a cigarette, etc..

Milky Way, The  
A catalog of famous and not-so-famous heresies and arguments in Christianity and atheism, with plenty of ridiculing points and jokes thrown in for good measure. There is no story, but the movie follows two tramps on a pilgrimage who encounter a variety of strange characters and people discussing theology, and witness strange spiritual beings and miracles. The eras change and blend together, including a scene of Jesus performing miracles and uttering nonsensical parables, Renaissance men dueling over a heresy, and an insane priest that throws coffee in a modern policeman's face. The whole movie is an iconoclastic joke that makes fun of all the bickerings even within Christianity and how people kill each other over their personal truths. The last scene is a kick in the butt on Jesus himself. A fitting accompanying piece to his earlier 'Simon of the Desert' that made fun of sainthood and employed some amusing magical-realism to depict the devil.

© 1999- by The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre Table of Contents