Along with this I still have this absurdity of being foreign, noble, an orphan, of living in a castle lost in the countryside, and I am in the hands of a great, hypochondriac lord who looks like Chateaubriand’s father. What do you want me to do about it? Did I choose this place? I hate it.
(Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, 1954-2013)
The Number Two
I can see what first attracted Buñuel’s attention in [José-André] Lacour’s novel: a “non-conformist” tone pushed to madness. “He was undoubtedly encouraged by a certain hunger to destroy, to destroy for nothing, for the insult that it throws in the face of things, and less so by a penchant to create and to love that had no outlet other than in a certain pain inflicted on beings and things and by which, surely without him realizing it, he again became the accomplice, the neighbor, the brother of things and beings…” (readers will appreciate this). There are also the points against governments and societies, against religion and the clergy and, finally, this association of men brought together by chance and who, enemies in the past, rediscover in the heart of nature the meaning of human solidarity, the ideal of all atheism-based thought.
Buñuel’s metaphysics is a metaphysics of ambiguity and complexity, but this complexity finds the ideal material of its expression in what is most opposed to it – the satisfied certainty of the bourgeois, of the clergy (Susana, El, The Criminal Life of Archibald de la Cruz) or of anarcho-atheists (L’âge d’or, That is the Dawn, Death in the Garden). The betrayal of the words of the novel is accompanied by a betrayal of the spirit, meaning by a “de-mythification.” The values preached in the book are demolished here. They are the reflection of a certain impartiality before events and the goal of Buñuel’s work is the search for a greater truth, of an absolute that, once attained, consequently finds itself destroyed. An event never has a meaning that the human mind can conceive: El is the living confirmation of this, there is not a single scene in the film whose importance we can specify without being mistaken and, if we formulate an opinion, the following fact will undoubtedly contradict it. In Buñuel’s films, the truth is the juxtaposition of an opinion and its opposite, an action and its opposite, a thought and its opposite, an attitude and its opposite.
Death in the Garden is in the same vein: there is no social critique here, criticism is impossible in this work where each shot orders us: “Do not judge because you don’t have the possibility or the right;” the governors of Cuchazo are both dictators and weaklings, murderers and cowards, but are they not right to forbid all private prospecting? Nationalized prospecting would make the natives wealthy – more admirable than these upstarts who have no other ambition than filling their pockets before going back home. There's a stunning scene when the machine gun platoon charges the inoffensive mass of cowardly workers and moves out of the way to let its most dangerous enemy, Chark, pass by! Castin, this mediocre fellow, in love with a prostitute, spending all his time in church, is no less complex than his companions, Djin and Tito Jonco, amateur double dealers; as for Padre Fernandez, his character evokes not so much Breton, Sade, Artaud or Claudel as Bernanos. The Spaniard who spent ten years of his life with the Jesuits is deeply attentive to religion but he does not allow for the idea of Providence. Every time our priest sets to predicting the future or giving his word, he finds himself contradicted by the facts. But Buñuel has particular fun showing us the incompatibility between the divine and the human. The first duty of a Christian is to help his fellow humans and save them from death; as no plant in the jungle can burn, the priest resolves to tear some pages from his missal, though his first duty as a priest is to respect the Holy Book. The boa constrictor having been devoured by ants, he calmly puts the torn pages back in their place. But he gives the chalice to those who are thirsty. The Padre seems to act like every good Christian should but his behavior puts him at odds with the theory he professes. Take the scene where he tries convincing Castin to give himself up to the police. Castin responds: “It’s an innocent man who’d give himself up.” A few minutes later, he is forced to make the villagers who have broken into Djin’s house believe that he was the one who needed the prostitute’s care. “He’ll understand what it means to be innocent and to pretend to be guilty,” lets out Djin. As for the old myth about human solidarity far from the social world, it appears even more ambiguous: Castin, Djin, Maria, Chark and the Padre are only brought together because their union is their only chance for survival. That’s no joke – the final massacre and the dissensions after the plane’s discovery are proof of it. But why does Chark backtrack to bring food to his famished companions? He could have left them forever without it costing him anything.
The unusual is only a subtle form of ambiguity, both are extensions of the same origin, the components of Buñuel’s universe: man cannot know the truth because it is always beyond his grasp. Ambiguity, duality as well as the unusual, and the extraordinary are by definition what we feel without managing to explain them. Surrealism only added to the bourgeois and Jesuit influences that marked Buñuel’s early years, drawing his attention to things of this world that go beyond the limits of what is rational, to the point that he was forced to conclude that there are no others. This aesthete’s attitude becomes in Buñuel work – and in his work alone – a vision of the world, adapted in every way to the reality that justifies it: Land Without Bread is the most typical example of this surrealist neo-realism. Love of the bizarre is not an aesthetic attitude but the natural way of acting with a knowledge of the world and a generous appreciation of what it contains. “I find that there is no better means of expression than cinema to show us a reality that touches us directly everyday.”
There is nothing cheerful or flattering about this universe. But the pessimism is not arbitrary, Buñuel likes his neighbors, like every major filmmaker: his bitterness is linked to his complete impartiality which forces him to accept a tragic idea of the world. To François Truffaut who, very correctly, said to him, “You like to disturb to the point that we could almost tell you that you do films the way Gide does novels: to unsettle,” he responds: “I force myself to do nothing disgraceful or reassuring. We must not make people think that everything is for the best in the best of worlds. We don’t have to break everything and make subversive films but I would like Bread, Love and Dreams better with a few less dreams and bit less optimism.” Buñuel’s temperament is marked by a fundamental honesty. He recognizes the authority of the material edifice over man’s soul but, rather than delighting in it, he lets out a cry of pain. Isn’t the rooster at the end of The Brute the living symbol of a universe that is foreign to us? The animal theme that we find again in The Brute as well as in Death in the Garden (the stunning fauna in the jungle, the boa constrictor, the cat, the plane, etc.) and all the other Mexican and French films is charged with a terrible meaning. The animal – a soulless being that strolls through events and things of the universe without understanding anything – singularly recalls the contradictions of our own existence. A pessimist, for sure, but Buñuel is not just that: the danger is wanting to ignore our own insufficiency, palliating it with a comfortable theory, the work of the intellect, on which we can rest easy; faced with this hypocrisy, he proposes the recognition of our own state and bases our grandeur on our weakness; we must know how to live our lives and construct them on perceptible facts.
Originally published as Le chiffre deux in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 56, November 1956