That Obscure Agent of Misanthropy?
Un Chien Andalou (1929), the “surrealist masterpiece” made in collaboration with Salvador Dali was, in one sense, a new sugar-free version of Rene Clair’s original Dadaist pudding, Entr’Acte(1924). According to Bronja, (Clair’s girlfriend and later his wife) this highly original piece of arty nonsense had, on its release, “knocked out all Paris.”
Buñuel’s “call to murder” with Un Chien certainly sounds more worrying than a mere sock on the jaw. But the most militant of avant-gardistas was, surely, always too self-disciplined a bourgeois to stir up anything more deadly than the most staged-managed of riots: Rumble at cinema tonight, ultra-Right please bring own ink-bottles.
This, of course, underplays the risks of turning on one’s own class; but there are social paradoxes here which seem to me as relevant now as they were eighty years ago — and also as French as they are Spanish. I’m thinking of those eerily well-choreographed events on the streets of central Paris last year (2005): as the November sun went down, fairly Civil Unrest in the Red corner was patiently dealt with by not-much-of-a-Riot Police in the Blue. Except for the absence of some brilliantly crisp editing, we might have been watching an oft-repeated Buñuel scenario rather than 24-hour TV news.
But who wouldn’t yearn for more spontaneity if, under the pressure of middle-class manners and beliefs, Life — and especially Love — seemed increasingly to be a matter of robotic biology? To jump ahead, The Exterminating Angel (1962), Buñuel’s most Pirandello-like film, squeezes all the juices possible out of this theme; and it’s relevant to any study of Buñuel that — though rather unfashionable now — Luigi Pirandello, in the 1920s and 30s, was the world’s leading avant-garde playwright.
In our era — despite the happy ending — there was a distinctly Pirandello-like feeling about Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993).
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Buñuel’s second film was made largely without Dali and in blunt opposition to Salvador’s wish to start toning the whole thing down. For this reason, and borrowing from Fellini’s special arithmetic, I therefore count Un Chien only half a Buñuel and move straight on to L’Âge d’or (1930, below).
The opening — a piece of science documentary about the sex life of scorpions — derives, at the simplest level, from Buñuel’s forays into Biology before Art became his true mission. The rest of the film is in segments — the same number as in a scorpion’s tail. As for story, L’Âge d’or is actually as structured as in any old piece of escapism — a porn flick, say, with one M one F. But, despite having been exposed to so much jagged juxtaposition in later eras, we can still be unsettled by unprovoked attacks on blind men, blood appearing and disappearing on the face of Romance, a stately home with chamber music indoors and child murder in the grounds, cows in the boudoir, and so on and so forth … Clearly, Buñuel wanted to cause so much outrage that L’Âge d’or would be gloriously banned, which is exactly what happened. Just as predictably, what didn’t happen was the revolution of manners he’d also hoped to spark.
But even at its most successfully scandalous, a wilfully deranged art must also risk completely calm misreadings. For example, in its final frames a large Christian cross, viewed from below, all but blots out the sky. So far so anti-clerically transparent. Meanwhile those windswept objects hanging over the arms of the cross are — as well-informed Buñuelistas know — the scalps of virgins, placed there by the de Sade figure we’ve just seen dressed as a monk. But, until I’d checked further, these symbols of gratuitous violence and religious hypocrisy had seemed about as disturbing as tufts of long grass, perhaps lodged there by a particularly bad golf swing.
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Maybe the old print is to blame; and, at least, in L’Âge d’or we have a complete set of Buñueliana laid out for future development, foremost among these:the bourgeois power game and its effect on gender relations. As for the sexual focus which in one way or another dominates all Buñuel’s output, in cinematic terms, at least, this was originally inspired — not by Pirandello or porno — but by Fritz Lang’s early epic, Destiny/Der Mude Tod (1921).
Here, through separate eras, we follow three doomed couples played by the same two actors: Walter Janssen and (one of cinema’s first sex-bombs) the magnetic Lil Dagover (above, with Janssen ). Meanwhile, Destiny is about nothing less than the endless struggle in the human imagination between Love and Death; but because home audiences weren’t ready for anything so sombre, it was at first condemned in Germany for its “dunderheaded romanticism” and “adolescent” approach to Love. Nevertheless, positive responses elsewhere, especially in Britain and France, soon encouraged more favourable reactions in the Heimat. The most significant of these meant that Lang and his friends were now able to launch UFA (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft), creating a full-fledged studio out of the Wehrmacht propaganda machine left over from World War I.
If that wasn’t enough, Destiny also proved that a European director could match D. W. Griffith for grand themes and emotional intelligence. No wonder both Buñuel and Hitchcock cite it as the very reason they became filmmakers, a decision taken when they — and the century — were 21 years old. (Lil Dagover was in her mid-thirties; but this would have only made her more awesomely sexual for the young men who went on to create so many cinematic sexual frissons of their own.) On this evidence, then, and despite continuing lack of availability outside DVD Region 1, Destiny must surely be The Most Influential Movie Ever Made.
Meanwhile, in his own first feature Hitchcock reveals that he and Buñuel have more in common than an interest in the opposite sex, clear though that is. The Lodger — The Story of a London Fog (1926) still has audiences all aquiver when they look up and, through a suddenly-transparent ceiling, see the pacing feet of the enigmatic houseguest (Ivor Novello). Even more unusually among the Love Songs of Alfred (d.) Hitchcock, there’s a feeling of religious martyrdom about the Lodger’s climactic peril as he hangs by handcuffed wrists from railings, beset all around by a baying mob.
Albeit from a long-dead era, Novello’s masochistic spirituality seems very Welsh to me here. A great heartthrob of the day and remembered still as one of Cardiff’s most famous sons, Our Ivor was obviously hired to help sell The Lodger to female audiences. But, as he was also helping to launch Hitchcock’s career, a few moments of uncharacteristic religiosity seem to have been easy enough to overlook.
The Fugitive Male would turn out to be a staple in Hitchcock; but, while baying mobs and religious symbolism became meat and drink to Buñuel, their prevalence in Hitchcock tends to thin out. On the other hand, a surrealist sensibility remained an integral part of Hitchcock’s work. Film writer Michael Wood, quoting from a Truffaut/Hitchcock conversation, mentions, for example, the strangely glowing glass of milk in Suspicion (1941), which was achieved not by spotlighting but by a light-source placed inside the glass.
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To correct a false impression, neither Hitchcock nor Buñuel ever allowed technical trumpery to interfere with narrative style. In this context, what stays with me fromL’Âge d’or is the ambiguous Science/Art conjunction set up by those dancing, documentary arthropods at the start of the film. For no obvious reason, the scorpions are suddenly replaced onscreen by a group of people we now see wandering over a rocky shoreline, “led” by a priest. Okay, then: religion — in this context — is just another biological imperative.
Juxtapositions like this make me think of another famous coterie artist, the poet John Donne, and another set of “heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together.” In the Enlightened 18th century, Samuel Johnson worried about a 17th century poetry so irrational that Love might suddenly find itself being compared to a Pair of Compasses! Johnson also seems to have been in Paris in 1924, stricken with a sense of déjà vu as he looked over the shoulder of Andre Breton. (Not The Metaphysicals this time, Sirrah, but The Surrealist Manifesto.)
In the same cinematic moment as L’Âge d’or, Art-and-Documentary were also fused in Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, Russia 1929). This “city symphony” aimed for “an international and absolute language” here speaking particularly on behalf of Man (& Woman)-and-Machine. But apart from the focus on Soviet Work, Rest, and Play, its unspoken aim was to present something more dazzling and dizzying than anything by Clair, Dali, or Buñuel put together. Learning that Dziga Vertov translates as “Spinning Top” and is the pseudonym of the less dynamic-sounding Denis Kaufmann, we can be sure that any resulting audience vertigo is no accident.
Somehow avoiding propagandist overtones, another important contribution to the new Art/Documentary genre also came from People on Sunday (Germany, 1930) — the Siodmak Brothers and Billy Wilder making a confident and convincing entrance here.
Back in Russia — where, unlike Buñuel, he had no excuse to start a revolution of his own — Vertov went on courting controversy more aggressively than ever, denouncing, for instance, all concern with Narrative as akin to “studying one’s own arse.” But the rude rhetoric is misleading, if only because his first “symphony” retains the traditional structure of a dawn-to-dusk story which, despite the general frenzy, is quite beautifully paced.
An amazing weakness in the Man of Steel, Stalin’s soft spot for Film was, nevertheless, pretty soon all that stood between Vertov and the firing squad; and by the mid 1930s “Formalism” — a potentially terminal disease for any Soviet artist — brought an end to Vertov’s creative career, though not to his life. Despite the shared high-risk approach and the undoubted frustrations and interruptions suffered by Buñuel in his own career, the cruel finality of this fate contrasts strongly with that of surrealism’s Grand Picador.
Meanwhile, Kaufmann’s brother, Boris, seems to have played a much safer hand; and he also throws light on the inter-war avant-garde, having come to Paris to work with Jean Vigo, another cineaste with a flair for poetic documentary who first made his name with A Propos de Nice (1930). However, despite comparatively gentle expressions of joie de vivre, this was also a short-lived career, ill health leading to Vigo’s death in 1934 at the age of 29.
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More recently, “scientific” objectivity as an influence on artistic experiment has been the hallmark of Peter Greenaway’s films — e.g., A Zed and Two Noughts (1985.) Leaving aside the quite separate subject of Science Fiction, in the work of Goethe we find yet more Science-into-Art alchemy in Elective Affinities (1809). In this novel, the “new” science of electro-magnetism inspires its own riff on middle-class manners and human sexuality.
Long before the Freud/Jung schism suggested it was Mission Impossible, in his lifework Faust, Goethe persevered to the end in his own attempts to marry Science and Art — or, better, to re-marry an unnecessarily divorced Sex and Spirituality. Early on, Buñuel was so carried away with what was essentially the same project that he even considered screening a porno movie to a cinema full of children. Not so much wisely as fearful of the police, he and his chums quietly abandoned the idea.
But the violation by Church and Bourgeoisie of a potentially Ideal Love — the self-serving obstruction of unillusioned approaches to Truth — this was a “crime” he could never quite forgive. Unforgiving as it might be, however, such is not the way of the average misanthrope. Nor does the older Buñuel fail to complicate things with frankly pro-religious statements. Again jumping ahead, the most sympathetic of these is surely Viridiana (1959), where, in the end, “corruption” born of general moral decay is all that awaits the innocent young heroine. Fellini in La Dolce Vita (1960) lingers over a similarly “inevitable” fate for a young woman at the end of his film; the only difference is that Buñuel’s suggestions concerning loss of religion are, I think, more pointed and desperate.
This shows us that — purist and moralist though he always remained — Buñuel, like many other artists and most human beings, was constitutionally incapable of being over-consistent. Not that this stopped Cardinal Spelman of New York in 1945 from having this “antichrist” removed from MOMA, where he’d worked for several years as Director of Spanish-Language Documentaries.
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A leitmotiv in Buñuel’s films, and one used with characteristic sparingness, is the brief and bizarrely isolated scene of child murder/molestation. It’s a kind of haunting presence, real enough to be glimpsed but deliberately denied full attention. Today, by contrast, Pedro Almodovar is among those who feel able to provide the greater attention which this subject surely deserves. In La Mala Educacion, (2004) a sexually corrupt priesthood is unflinchingly examined without hysterical exaggeration or blinding hypocrisy; and this is made possible by the equally honest passion Almodovar brings to the presentation of gay sexuality in young males.
Buñuel would, I hope, have approved. But despite the peculiarly Christian contribution to sexual unhappiness, thanks largely to world cinema itself we live in an age when it’s hard to ignore the non-Christian, global nature of moral hypocrisy. Since I continue to believe in Buñuel’s passionate intelligence — revealed best of all in his deconstruction of middle-class values — I don’t think he was ever entirely unsuspecting about this fly in the anti-clerical ointment.
Certainly, his more overt attacks on the Church are, for me, often the feeblest element in his films. Sometimes, they go beyond walk-on parts for repressive priests and are the film — as in The Milky Way (1968). Despite editing as crisp as midnight frost — a feature of all his work — this is so lacking in bite that, much to Buñuel’s embarrassment, it was warmly received by film buffs in the Vatican.
In the context of Buñuel’s pro-Christian statements, Nazarin (1959) — like Viridiana— was written with one of Buñuel’s most interesting collaborators, Julio Alejandro; and it too sinks its teeth into the morally bankrupt bourgeoisie. Not coincidentally, this was the Buñuel who, not so long ago, could pack out the aisles even on the most hard-bitten of university campuses.
As is the case with that other successful Buñuel/Alejandro offering, Tristana (1970), and, incidentally, displaying few if any surrealist tricks — these stories inveigh against the Middle Classes in their gory entirety. And as in most of Buñuel’s most successful later work, the excellent actor Fernando Rey stands in the pillory where sexual hypocrisy is linked to general belief systems — religious and secular. Effectively the bourgeoisie — rural and urban — are fingered as having everything to do with our social malaises. And since we live at a time of an exponentially increasing global Middle Class, this aspect of Buñuel’s work seems to me more relevant than ever.
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The theme of sexual hypocrisy returns us briefly to the Buñuel/Hitchcock connection and their relationship with Hollywood: the Hitchcock who never won an Oscar; the Buñuel who never even got on the parking lot. These questions remain puzzling, not least because America has always been typically very open to artists of all kinds, especially to leading European directors — from F. W. Murnau to Wilder, Siodmak, Lang himself, Rene Clair, and so on.
Buñuel did, in fact, sometimes work in European outposts of Hollywood; but in California he was clearly too big a risk to win friends and influence producers. Throwing a less than flattering light on middle-class morality in mid 20th century America, we also have to remember the Hays Office and its own skill in casting a blight on people deemed too sexy for their shirts.
For a society said to thrive on Mom and Apple Pie, Hitchcock’s ever-increasing list of troublesome mothers wasn’t, perhaps, greatly self-recommending. Carl Jung would have definitely underlined the point, since — on his own analysis — he was himself rejected by American Matriarchy. (More mundanely, Jung’s “rejection” was probably due to the fact that, unlike Freud, he had no Ernest Jones tirelessly whipping up enthusiasm on his behalf. If he had, this Conspiracy of Mothers would surely have collapsed.)
More germanely, and without special psychoanalytical implications, Buñuel himself tells us that the character in Destiny played by Bernhard Goetzke “whom I instantly recognized as Death” was always more significant in his artistic development than The Lovers. If that sounds morbidly message-ridden, we should remember that in 1921 Death had just been busier than usual, not only among the soldiers of World War I, but among the entire human population via the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19. This had carried off more people than the war, or any similar previous event. Also unusually, its typical victims were aged 20-40; and many of the first to succumb were Spanish — hence, Spanish Flu. With this completely un-Freudian history in mind, it’s unsurprising to learn that for Luis Buñuel, “Destiny clarified my life and my vision of the world.”
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Picking up on the filmography we come to Buñuel’s exile in 1940s Mexico when, having escaped Franco’s Spain, he spent time making films as bad as Hollywood’s worst. Indeed, their only virtue — apart from preventing terminal rustiness — was to release him from the burdensome role of Banned Avant-Garde Artist. (Arthouse Darling was a much later piece of potentially disastrous labelling.)
Then in 1950, from Mexico City, comes a film bearing clear witness to a Buñuel artistry more caring than daring — Los Olvidados. Clear witness already sounds dubious. But caring? The film’s subject matter — the harsh lives of child beggars — slotted neatly into the neo-realist trend of postwar European cinema, particularly the films coming out of Italy. The immediate effect was to reintroduce Buñuel to welcoming European audiences; and by all accounts Los Olvidados remains one of the best products of Mexican cinema.
But for me the interesting thing is Buñuel’s negative response to his own success. The problem wasn’t just that realism of any sort could now find itself linked to an increasingly suspect Cold War communism. Deeper than that, Luis Buñuel — scourge of middle-class hypocrisy from the egg — was himself an unambiguous creation of middle-class values.
Not so comically abashed about identifying with The Poor as Preston (“I-haven’t-suffered-enough”) Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, (1941), Buñuel nevertheless only seems happy when speaking of — or more accurately mercilessly sending up — his own class. This is a time-honoured tradition in Satire, starting with Juvenal if not before. But it would be a basic category error to see Buñuel as just another satirist, however daring, and for the evidence of this we turn more fully to the late films.
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This is where Buñuel’s “misanthropy” needs very careful attention: is he really blunderbussing all humanity or just the stiflingly dull bourgeoisie? On the face of it, his Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) — in strong contrast, by the way, to Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943) — really is a deliberate and completely relentless assault on pretty well everyone in a typical French village: no one, irrespective of class or gender, is other than selfishly calculating, especially in sexual matters. Or so it seems.
In Diary, notable moments for Buñuelistas include the murder of a young schoolgirl. The motive may be sexual, but it’s left open and — reminding us of the child-killing inL’Âge d’or — the main focus is on the sudden arbitrariness of the event. The chambermaid (Jeanne Moreau) is allowed her attempt to bring the (working-class) killer to justice; but this is soon frustrated and Joseph (Georges Geret) goes on his merry way, realising his middle-class dream of becoming a shop-keeper and participating in the noisy racist demo with which the film ends.
Of the four films made by Buñuel with writer Jean-Claude Carriere — the others being, Belle de Jour (1967), Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie ’72, and That Obscure Object of Desire,’77 — Diary is the least reliant on surrealist conventions. Indeed, of all Buñuel’s films its degree of realism only adds to a perception of an utterly selfish humanity.
But there’s at least one incident here which can only work by appealing to our supposedly absent capacity for fellow-feeling — albeit in a shocking way. The decrepit aristo who employs the maid has a foppish grown-up son and, like all the other men she meets, he’s driven to express a sexual interest. When this is repulsed, he exacts revenge by forcing himself on an older female servant. Lacking the beauty or intelligence of the new maid, she is all the more bewildered and frightened by the episode. As played by Muni — a brilliant actress often used by Buñuel to evoke exactly this sense of female downtroddenness — a more sickening cinematic moment is hard to recall. Our sense of horrified injustice is surely not what “misanthropy” should awaken.
Yet it must be admitted that, in terms of satirical savagery, even the much more classically subversive French deconstructions of the middle class — e.g., A Nous La Liberte (Rene Clair,1931) or Boudu Saved from Drowning (Jean Renoir,1932) — start to look fluffy and too close to the conventions of farce when compared to, say, The Exterminating Angel (above).
Though this is in many ways his most disturbing film, Buñuel actually makes it especially clear that he is not having a go at all humanity. The servants, male and female, are not played for laughs or pathos and — on the contrary — are shown from the start to possess very sound judgement: they know when something ridiculously weird is happening and quite sensibly leave their “masters” to it.
While, as I mentioned, this is a very Pirandello-like piece, its final scenes are quintessential Buñuel. The self-trapped house-guests, having at last moved on with the help of Art (Music) and Innocence (Children), nevertheless resort again to blind belief: they go to Church, and — the final image — so too does a flock of sheep!
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When Buñuel’s greatest period of creative ferment eventually came, it was as though people around him had finally caught up with his own tendencies to oppose an overly snug-fitting Zeitgeist; now at last he could go full steam ahead with themes and techniques most of which had made their first appearance three decades before.
Paris by the mid-sixties was in the midst of the Nouvelle Vague, which meant — among other things — that in its newly-widening artistic vision it could include Alfred Hitchcock in its list of unjustly overlooked auteurs. This ruffled some Anglo-Saxon feathers on both sides of The Pond; but we must be clear that neither Hitchcock nor Buñuel ever felt the need to strike out alone as writers.
What Paris encouraged in Buñuel, now in his own sixties, was nevertheless one of the most extraordinarily fruitful late periods enjoyed by any artist of any era. From this epoch the two films that stand out for me are: Belle de Jour (1967) and Buñuel’s last production, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).
Taking the latter film first, Fernando Rey (Mathieu) again does duty as a powerful homme d’affaires. The literal object of his troubled desires is Conchita, played alternatingly by Carole Bouquet (blonder, cooler) and Angela Molina (darker, hotter). So important is this archetypally surrealist device that it seems close to spoiling tactics to talk about it at all. However, even the sleepiest viewer will notice something odd going on within the first quarter of an hour; and on those grounds alone the “fault,” if any, is inherent to the screenplay rather than any discussion of it.
The sadomasochistic sexuality at the heart of this story isn’t confined to psychological portrayals, and the film’s physically graphic scenes have been rightly championed as opening doors for directors to come. But every last ounce of psychological force here derives from the stroke of genius which led Buñuel to split the female persona in this literal way. Despite the modern cityscapes, the consequent air of self-defeating decadence that hangs over all the proceedings reminds me, oddly enough, of Oscar Wilde. Then we learn that the story is yet another film adaptation of an obscure 1890s novel The Woman and the Puppet, by Pierre Louys, and suddenly this older view of things looks absolutely appropriate.
Remember that, for Wilde — and presumably some of his less well-known contemporaries — the perfect object of desire was one which, even as it gratified, always left its users wanting more. For obvious reasons, Wilde chose the cigarette to symbolise what he meant; but one can’t help thinking that in a freer social ethos he might equally have chosen rent boys.
As for Mathieu and Conchita (1 & 2), the fact that they never ever actually make out is, at one level, the highest — and most excruciating — sexual pleasure.
This, after all, is Ideal Love — Love that doesn’t actually happen in the end. At the same time, if we had any doubts about this, painful reality hasn’t obliged anyone by going away. On the contrary, no less a negative force than Urban Terrorism blasts its way into people’s lives and, in this story, ends them.
It’s not clear to me how much of this subplot is taken from the 19th-century novel, but certainly there’s nothing essentially 20th century about terrorism. Incidentally, if we’re thinking about misanthropy, terrorism in the name of any cause must be hard to beat. But also remembering that Buñuel and his onscreen avatar, Fernando Rey, are by now “of a certain age,” it seems squeamish to deny that at least a small element of the subtext in Obscure Object is frankly autobiographical: sex is now entirely in the head and the world is in a worse uproar than ever.
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Not wishing to end on a note of literal impotence, I turn finally to what is, in any case, my favourite Buñuel film. Belle de Jour is also taken from a ready-made novel and, thematically, has also produced other adaptations, though not nearly as many as one might have guessed, and none — for me — as interesting as Buñuel’s. The Joseph Kessel book, first published in 1929, has had a very bumpy ride, as has the later film. Indeed, if Martin Scorsese had done nothing else in his career, he would still be a hero in my eyes for getting the film re-released in the 1990s under the auspices of his nonprofit Film Foundation.
Meanwhile, the sexual tone of Kessel’s original was very much of a piece with Buñuel’s earliest work, revealing as it does an apparently impossible blend of aims, some of which we’ve already been examining here. One could add that, at about the same time,(1928), and with much the same motives, D. H. Lawrence produced Lady Chatterley’s Lover and this may just help some art lovers get closer to Buñuel’s project and, indeed, even sympathize more readily with it.
Of course, there are those for whom this line of thinking will only confirm their worst fears. Nevertheless, in Belle de Jour Buñuel has, I think, achieved his finest hour, because here he makes the truly radical move of going beyond the discussion of desire in male terms only:Severine (Catherine Deneuve) loves a husband (Jean Sorel) who is faithful, kind and — we strongly suspect — too “nice” to give her a good fuck.
If even by today’s standards this seems too crudely stated, I recommend a quick glance at Fatih Akin’s Head On/Gegen die Wand (Germany/Turkey 2004). Akin must by now be a great-grandchild of the Buñuel generation; but, however we choose to see him, he pinpoints the same confused male
morality: “nice” blokes do not “fuck” their wives, or, indeed, any woman for whom they have developed serious feelings.
Severine’s desire for a reciprocated physical passion is, it must be stressed, not immediately clear. Buñuel here is in very confusing form — is she dreaming all this sadomasochistic stuff? If so, does she actually become a prostitute, etc? And, when we get there, what of that ending? Is this marriage heading somewhere better now? Or has the husband been restored to health only to carry on with his previous style of passionless devotion?
My own response is that no particular answer here matters as much as the fact that a very challenging and potentially very liberating moral question has, at last, been raised. It doesn’t even matter whether it’s an especially middle-class morality under scrutiny. What’s at issue, I think, is nothing less than a global revolution vis-à-vis gender relations. Will women’s desires go on being treated as the property of men? Women of the world — and female film directors especially, perhaps — must have first call on our attention as they answer this much deeper question. Perhaps the best tribute to Buñuel is that — far from being a misanthrope — he is foremost among those who have helped a new kind of fun, and a new kind of loving, to begin.