Luis Buñuel (1900–1983) led one of the most interesting lives of any director and, consequently, the flow of his career often changed channels. Thematically, however, his films seem to adhere to an idiosyncratic personal (and highly unusual) reality. With a Jesuit upbringing and university education under his belt, Buñuel left Spain to assume his role in the Surrealist movement in Paris. His two films with Salvador Dalí (Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’or) were followed by his short Spanish documentary Land without Bread, but his 1930s work in film was mostly dabbling.
Buñuel fought for the Spanish republic against Franco and then escaped to America, working in the MoMA Film Library for three years under the department’s founder, Iris Barry. Barry’s secretary at the time, Margareta Akermark, a rather grand Swedish woman with a raucous sense of humor, told a tale of Buñuel sneaking up on her during a screening of Un Chien Andalou, where the heroine’s eyeball is sliced with a razor, and somewhat creepily consoling her that it was only a cow’s eyeball. Those were the good old days. Buñuel did make a private return appearance in the early 1970s. I was sitting at my desk in the Film Study Center when suddenly looming over me was this unique and instantly recognizable face. It seems he wanted to inquire, 30 years after his departure, which of his films we had acquired. We had at the time what was known in film archive parlance as a “hot print” of L’Age d’or, for which we had no rights. Quick-witted as always, I informed our then-curator Donald Richie about our surprise visitor. Donald immediately got the director to sign over permission for us to show his film.
After a brief sojourn in Hollywood, where he couldn’t find meaningful work, Buñuel moved to Mexico, where he was able to make over a dozen narrative features, including Los Olvidados. His reputation grew, and he began making larger-budget films in Europe in the early 1960s as he entered his seventh decade. Much of his reputation as a master filmmaker rests on the six color films he made in France, beginning with Belle de Jour.
I’m afraid I’m too literal-minded to ever be fully accepting of the strange, often fantastical universe Buñuel created. I appreciate his imagination and feel he has been even truer than most auteurs to his vision of the world, from his Surrealist days, through his Mexican low-budget commercial potboilers, to his highly personal, internationally acclaimed French successes. In Belle de Jour he has the 24-year-old beauty Catherine Deneuve think thoughts and engage in behavior totally at odds with her image in Jacques Demy’s romantic musicals (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort). In his autobiography, My Last Sigh, Buñuel doesn’t say anything about what might have prompted him to cast Deneuve in this role. (Obviously, Roman Polanki’s Repulsion, three years earlier, had shown that kinkiness and depravity were within her range.) Buñuel biographer John Baxter has suggested that Deneuve was foisted on him by the producers and through the influence of her then-lover, Francois Truffaut. In any case, she was part of the package (he also didn’t like the original novel), but the film was a big break that opened the final and most illustrious phase of his career. Buñuel and Deneuve worked together again on Tristana three years later. The director himself, speaking of his final decade of filmmaking, saw his work enigmatically as “the search for truth, as well as the necessity of abandoning it as soon as you’ve found it.”