Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The essential Buñuel

Buñuel’s films are like Buñuel, who is unlike anything. Buñuel didn’t impose his stamp on the different systems of film production he passed through, instead he highlighted what was Buñuelesque in each of these successive systems. What is Buñuelesque of course is that the obscure parade of objects neither initiates nor exhausts desire and that there is a fundamental asymmetry between men’s desires and women’s (the former is a puppet and the latter is double and, in That Obscure Object of Desire, quadruple). But what is Buñuelesque in the end is that things are sufficiently complex (and funny) in themselves to avoid the need to further complicate them. Whatever is given at the outset, Buñuel strips it to the bones of its internal logic. This is why his last films are so enigmatic: this is indeed bourgeois middlebrow French cinema, the ironic no-frills X-ray of a doomed genre to which the old master has given, in extremis, extreme unction.  
Like all films where nothing exists but the logical sequence of situations, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) transfers very well to television. Nothing distracts from the essential, since only the essential is left. To the point where you suddenly have that obscure desire to make a list of all the objects Buñuel has dispensed with. What you then get is a strange picture in the negative of everything that usually encumbers our perception (wrongly held as ‘natural’) of the cinema. 
Music, of course. No music in Buñuel. No need for music. A need, conversely, for very precise sound effects (which he usually does himself). It is the heady sound, the even rhythm of a continuous dream with no little music hinting that it may become nightmare or comedy. The Buñuelesque dream is not the dream of the bear cub in The bear, it has the exaggerated clarity of a (shred of) dream that we talk about because we can remember it. And this dream is talked about because there is nothing in Buñuel that does not happen between human beings. 
Music would be wrong for another reason. It would create what the director – this is Buñuel’s ethic – refuses more than anything: complicity, connivance between the audience and the film. It’s a matter of understanding (and laughing) not judging. Never does a scene really begin until there are at least two characters on the screen; it is between them, and them alone, that it takes place. Buñuel, the last great director of the unconscious drive and of the social, has no business with the solitude of this or that individual. With him you’ll never see any of that facile stagey business where at the end of a scene the camera seizes on the pout or the grin of a character that remains alone. Martin, Don Mateo’s servant, supplies a very funny example of this: he would like to comment on the action, put in his pennyworth, in short represent the spectator (and good sense) in this story which he witnesses in silence though not without reflection. Twice he even interferes (each time muttering misogynistic aphorisms). Twice he is drily called to order. ‘No comment’ (musical or otherwise) could be the film’s watchword. 
If we were to continue this little game of spotting, by their absence, the easy things Buñuel denies himself, we’d also be talking about shot-counter-shots or subjective shots. There aren’t many. As if the eternal intertwining of woman and puppet were the picture’s sole subject, the eternal subject and the only one worth anything. And as if, from the very fact of being eternal, this subject were no longer to be treated as a modulated sequence of rising and falling intensities but as an obsessive drifting that can only end – for the time being – for want of combatants. 
This is Buñuel’s last film. There’s a lot of talk about terrorism and even about an ARGIJ (Armed Revolutionary Group of the Infant Jesus) which would be no blot on the current landscape. Terror isn’t absent from the film; it is subtly displaced forwards in the brusqueness with which the camera endlessly nabs the characters at the point when they’re setting out on their endless encounters ‘with one another’. It is in the way the film ends, accidentally, because there must be an ending, in the public alleyway. It is with a smoke screen hiding the characters from us that Luis Buñuel closes what he had begun by slicing an eye. Like in the theatre. 
First published in Libération on 29 November 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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