The Wilderness Years: Buñuel in the Fifties

Between his revolutionary debut with the triple threat of Un chien andalou (1929), L’âge d’or (1930), and Land Without Bread (1933) and leaping back into international attention with Viridiana (1961), which won the Palm d’Or and was denounced by the Vatican, Luis Buñuel spent over a decade making movies in the Mexican film industry.

'Death in the Garden'

He directed close to twenty films there, mostly commercial comedies and melodramas with a few personal projects in between, and for a long time that period was considered his years in the wilderness. While films like Los Olvidados (1950), The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) and Nazarin (1959), which foreground the satirical swipes at religion and sex and social mores, have always been championed, most of the other films of that period remained overlooked for years. In part because they were harder to see but also because Buñuel’s presence was much less pronounced. He had to slip in his sensibility.

Two of those films stand out in particular: Robinson Crusoe (1954), an English-language production from an ambitious Mexican producer looking to break into the international market, and Death in the Garden (1956), a French language coproduction shot in Mexico with French stars.

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DVD/Blu-ray: ‘Belle de Jour’

“I’d like everything to be perfect,” moons young husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) to his beautiful wife Séverine (Catherine Deneuve), trotting down a country road in a horse-drawn carriage in the opening of Belle de Jour. “If only you weren’t so cold.” Her apology doesn’t merely fall on deaf ears, it inflames him to sadistic sexual retribution, like something out of a Victorian melodrama by way of the Marquis de Sade. She’s hauled out of the carriage by the two drivers, dragged through the woods, bound and gagged, stripped and whipped, and finally ravished by the servants, at which point her expression changes from the wide-eyed stage terror of innocence abused to the surrender to physical ecstasy.

Catherine Deneuve: Blossoming on the afternoon shift

“What are you thinking about, Séverine?,” asks the same voice, now offscreen and, in a sense, in another movie. “I was thinking about you,” she answers with a sweet but aloof smile, sitting in bed in their city apartment like a porcelain princess while her doting husband readies himself for bed. But the spell is broken and the reverie over. The fantasies of her imagination do not cross over into her real life, where she sleeps alone in a single bed by her choice, the frigid wife of the opening seconds once again. He inches in for a romantic overture and she once again rebuffs him. A year after marriage, she’s still unable to give herself to her husband, a cultured, proper virgin with lurid sexual fantasies behind her physical coldness.

Luis Bunuel’s cheerfully brazen satire of sexual repression, social decorum, and erotic fantasies is in the running for Bunuel’s kinkiest film, and that’s saying a lot. You could say that Belle de Jour stars two Catherine Deneuves: the dreamy, romantic young innocent of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and the uptight, anxious sexual repressive of Repulsion (1965). Buñuel didn’t cast the actress — she was pushed on the director by the producers, Raymond and Robert Hakim, and Deneuve had the impression that he took her with some reluctance — but he uses that cool, aloof Deneuve quality as a defining quality of Séverine, the beautiful young wife of a gallant but often absent (emotionally as well as physically) husband. On the surface she’s the picture-perfect bourgeois wife of a respected young surgeon with an almost reflexive disapproval of every break with respectability and dignity she sees or hears about, especially when it comes to Pierre’s friend Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli), a “rich and bored” provocateur and gleeful chauvinist who doesn’t let Séverine’s disdain prevent him from constantly propositioning her. Yet she escapes her own resistance to physical contact with her husband through similar fantasies and finally follows them to a real-life Paris bordello hidden away in an urban apartment, where she signs up for an afternoon shift (thus her working name: Belle de Jour).

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‘The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’ on TCM

Daniel O'Herlihy

In the early 1950s, before he had become an internationally acclaimed auteur, Luis Bunuel was a prolific director in the Mexican film industry specializing in popular comedies and melodramas for the domestic market. Most of these were for producer Oscar Dancigers, who had ambitions beyond the local market. Dancigers had already produced Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), still considered one of Bunuel’s great films, so when he decided to make an English language film for the international market, he offered Bunuel the chance to direct the project: The result was Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954).

“I didn’t like the novel but I did like the character of Crusoe,” Bunuel noted later in an interview. And he must have appreciated the opportunity. None of his previous films had had a shooting schedule more than 28 days. For Adventures of Robinson Crusoe he had a luxurious three months to shoot his very first color film, for which they left the studio and went to Manzanillo, then a small Pacific seaport near Acapulco with a lush jungle interior. It was shot simultaneously in English (another first for Bunuel) and Spanish with an acclaimed young actor in the lead: Daniel O’Herlihy.

O’Herlihy first made his name as a star of Dublin’s Gate Theater (where Orson Welles also had his first stage success) and made the leap to the big screen in Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) and Orson Welles’ Macbeth(1948). Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, shot in 1952, was his first film lead and the first half of the film is essentially a one-man show. O’Herlihy doesn’t just carry the entire story with a largely wordless performance (his narration, which plays as if read from a journal, provides the audience’s need for dialogue) but presents the evolution of a man stripped of civilization and human companionship, from hope of rescue to resignation to his isolation. As in the novel, the film spans 28 years on the island and (according to the film’s own publicity notes) O’Herlihy had a wardrobe of eleven beards to mark his evolution.

Apart from a fever-dream where his father’s disapproval delivers an I-told-you-so monologue to the hallucinating Crusoe, O’Herlihy is the sole human actor on screen until the arrival of Friday (Jaime Fernndez) late in the film. He talks to animals rescued from the ship for companionship and, at one point, screams into a vast valley simply to hear his own voice echoed back as he shouts the 23rd Psalm. When he “celebrates” his fifth year of solo survival by getting roaring drunk, he hears the voices of revelry as if his cave had become a tavern, but Bunuel keeps the camera fixed on his face, not even allowing us the illusion of company. The slow return to the reality of his isolation is devastating.

Continue reading on Turner Classic Movies. Plays on TCM on Tuesday, February 21.

Also available on DVD.

DVDs for 10/27-09 – Bunuel in the Garden and Woody back in the Big Apple

The “garden” of Death In The Garden (La Mort En Ce Jardin) (Microcinema) is the South American jungle, but there’s death everywhere in this rarely seen Luis Bunuel thriller. Chark, a hard-bitten prospector (Georges Marchal) wanders into a rural mining village and the middle of an uprising against the corrupt military rule. He’s hardly an innocent, but in this mercenary world he’s as close to hero as we’ll find even as he uses the uprising for his own revenge and escape from a criminal frame-up. Some escape; the second half of the film follows Chark and a rag-tag group of mercenaries (including Simone Signoret as an opportunistic hooker and innocents (Michel Piccoli as a naïve but sincere priest and Michèle Girardon as the deaf-mute daughter of a local miner) fleeing the violence of the uprising into the jungle, where they become lost in the “garden” which, true to Bunuel and his cheeky Biblical reference, is both beautiful and deadly.

Georges Marchal and Simone Signoret in "Death in the Garden"
Georges Marchal and Simone Signoret in "Death in the Garden"

This 1956 Franco-Mexican co-production was one of Bunuel’s “commercial” films and he delivers a wonderfully cynical thriller filled with brilliant Bunuelian flourishes (Chark is arrested but dragged to a church on his way to the station, where the cop kicks him in the leg to make him kneel in prayer) and a grim sense of futility. But Bunuel is also a solid commercial filmmaker and he delivers a tight thriller filled with cynicism right out of American film noir and an atmosphere unique to this film. The jungle scenes may be studio-bound, but the thick, smothering foliage creates a hothouse claustrophobia and the soundtrack is dense with the alien world of nature, whether it’s the oppressive white noise of the rain or the constant bird chirps and insect buzzing of day time scenes. The disc is nicely mastered from a restored print with vivid color and includes both French and Spanish soundtracks with English subtitles. There’s a generous new 35-minute career retrospective interview with Michel Piccoli conducted by Juan-Luis Bunuel, as well as an interview with Bunuel scholar Victor Fuentes, commentary by film scholar Ernesto R. Acevedo-Munoz and an accompanying booklet with essays.

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