The Luis Buñuel Film School

22 02 2010

Luis Buñuel

Buñuel on set

Despite a fondness for cigarettes and bone-dry Martinis, the Spanish-born film-maker Luis Buñuel lived to the reasonably advanced age of 83. Had he gone on for 27 years longer, the director of Un Chien Andalou, Los Olvidados and Belle de Jour would be celebrating his 110th birthday today.

Buñuel’s work is still much admired by cineastes around the world, but its influence on wider film culture can be harder to pin down. His style of storytelling, in which dreams, memories and fantasies are taken at face value, and in which the church and ruling classes are ruthlessly satirised, is so distinct that it would be almost impossible to emulate. In fact, it’s hard to think of a single contemporary director whose work could be convincingly described as ‘Buñuelian’. The Swede Roy Andersson perhaps comes closest; his Songs From The Second Floor (2000) and You, The Living (2007) are both episodic, satirical and dreamlike in a way that recalls the Spanish director. And then there’s David Lynch of course, whose own insistence on ‘catching’ and running with intuitive ideas is close to the approach of Buñuel and his fellow surrealists.     

These exceptions aside though, it’s perhaps best to accept that the director’s lasting influence on cinema will have more to do with method and tone than content or style.

So, what can film-makers today learn from Buñuel’s work? And how can the old master inspire and challenge a new generation of directors?

Here are just a few of the Lessons That Buñuel Taught Us: 

Bunuel That Obscure Object of Desire

'That Obscure Object of Desire'

– Embrace hazard, chance and calamity.

When the lead actress dropped out of That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), shooting ground to a halt. All seemed lost until, commiserating with his producer over a dry Martini, Buñuel came up with the idea of casting two actresses in the same role. In the finished film (the director’s last)  Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina appear in different scenes as the same mysterious temptress.

Similarly, during the production of Simon of the Desert (1956), funding ran out halfway through the shoot. Buñuel responded by filming a new, hastily-scripted ending in which the 4th Century saint is transported to a modern jazz club by the devil. The finished piece, which clocks in at just 45 minutes, went on to win five awards at the Venice Film Festival.

– Be open to the images, dreams and ideas that come your way.

‘All my life I’ve been harassed by questions,’ Buñuel wrote in his autobiography. ‘Why is something this way and not another? How do you account for that?… If we could only find the courage to leave our destiny to chance, to accept the fundamental mystery of our lives, then we might be closer to the sort of happiness that comes with innocence.’

Buñuel’s films are full of images and ideas that defy logical explanation. There’s the butterfly killed with a shotgun in Diary of a Chambermaid; the severed hand crawling across a piano in The Exterminating Angel; the Chinaman’s mysterious box in Belle De Jour and, perhaps most famously, the razor blade slicing an eyeball in Un Chien Andalou 

The director always resisted attempts to psychoanalyse or ‘explain’ his choice of images. He insisted for example, that the reason Fernando Rey’s character picks up a sack as he walks off at the end of a scene in That Obscure Object of Desire is simply because the sack was on set and the gesture ‘worked’. Sometimes a sack is just a sack. And sometimes the best moments in a film can be spontaneous, out-of-place or unexplained.

'Un Chien Andalou'

– Follow an idea and see where it takes you.

Robert McKee’s Story is all well and good, but sometimes you just have to say “To hell with the third act character arc!”, and follow a train of thought as far as it’ll take you.

In The Exterminating Angel, for example, Buñuel imagined what would happen if a group of dinner party guests was unable to leave a room at the end of an evening. There are first, second and third acts somewhere in the narrative, I suppose, but there’s also a flock of sheep, a severed hand, an unexplained suicide and more than one scene that repeats itself. 

In The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie too, Buñuel started with a very simple idea – some friends try to have dinner together and are repeatedly prevented from doing so – and played with it for 90 minutes, inventing increasingly ludicrous situations to frustrate his characters.

– Don’t be seduced by the beauty of the image.

For all of the startling images that they contain, Buñuel’s films are remarkable for their lack of showiness. Camera movements are unobtrusive and (seemingly) simple, often panning or zooming to follow an actor, and even the most disturbing dream sequences are shot in a plain, matter-of-fact way.

Buñuel once said that if he found himself with a ‘beautiful’ shot on his hands, his first reaction was to turn the camera around. Without wanting to start an argument about the relative merits of The Diving Bell & The Butterfly or Micmacs, I can think of quite a few contemporary directors who might benefit from this advice.

– Never give up.

Buñuel’s first two films – Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or – were made in collaboration with Salvador Dali in 1928 and 1930. Despite the notoriety and acclaim that these scandalous works attracted, Buñuel made only one more film in the Thirties (the documentary Tierra Sin Pan in 1932) and nothing else for the next 15 years. The Spanish Civil War sent him into exile first in the U.S., where he struggled in a series of dubbing and editing jobs, and then to Mexico, where he eventually re-established his directorial career.

Arguably, Buñuel started to reach his artistic peak only in his sixties, with films like  Viridiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel (62) and Belle De Jour (1967). His last three films (The Discreet Charm…, The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object…) were made when he was well into his seventies, at an age when most great film directors can barely yell “Cut!”. So, there’s hope for us all yet.

And finally:

– If you can’t think how to end a film (or indeed a ’blog post)…

 (a) Kill everyone (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie).

(b) Put in a big explosion (That Obscure Object of Desire).

(c) Cut to some ostriches (The Phantom of Liberty).

An ostrich, yesterday



2 responses

23 02 2010

You should take a closer look at De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL– while the consensus seems to be that it uses PSYCHO as its source, I would argue that Bunuel’s BELLE DE JOUR is just as much in the mix as the Hitchcock film. Neither one is “used” so much as riffed on, along with Godard, Argento, and who knows how many others.

4 01 2011
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