Until he was about seventy-five, old age was a joke or an abstraction for Luis Buñeul. He had been seriously deaf since his forties, and had carefully cultivated the role of the hermit: lively in his mind, but not living in the world. “Look,” he would say when he caught sight of a decrepit ancient on the street, “Have you seen Buñuel? Only last year he was still going strong. What a collapse.” On the other hand, as this gag itself indicates, he was always capable of boyish humor, the sort of thing that made him a heroic mischief-maker in Spain before he turned his hand to the mischief of the movies. There is a nice late example in My Last Sigh, slightly flubbed by the eager economy of the English version. When the question of an Oscar came up for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Buñuel, straight-faced, told a group of Mexican reporters that everything would be all right, he had paid the $25,000 he had been asked for. “Americans may have their faults,” he said, “but they are men of their word.” Banner headlines in Mexico, scandal in Los Angeles, floods of telexes. Buñuel explains that it was a joke, calm returns. Three weeks pass, and the film receives an Oscar. Buñuel remarks to his friends, “Americans may have their faults but they are men of their word.” The translation drops this admirable punch line.
In his life as in his films, Buñuel managed to cheat time, reshuffling its cards, making it seem tame or trivial. Then, as he says, in the last five or six years, old age began in earnest, la vraie vieillesse. Weakness of legs, eyesight, prostate. Dizziness, lapses of memory, failures of coordination. Hospitals. The diagnosis is easy, he would say. I’m old, that is my chief disease. This would be his answer when you asked him how he felt. You might add, “Well, apart from old, how do you feel?” Then he would grin and say, “Apart from that, I feel terrible.” There is a funny scene in his last film but one, The Phantom of Liberty, which records a personal brush with medicine. A doctor called Pasolini says to his worried client, “I should like to make a small incision. Simple medical curiosity. Whenever you like. When you can find the time.” A pause. “Will tomorrow suit you?”
In his last years, Buñuel was waiting for death with something like impatience—the sort of impatience you show to a child who is slow with his shoelaces. The jokes would still come, though, and he welcomed occasional visitors. “I like solitude,” he wryly says in his book, “as long as a friend comes and discusses it with me now and then.” The last time I saw him he was toying, quite theoretically, with the idea of political preferment in Mexico, that land of rising and falling favor. “If I had the choice,” he mused, “I think I should like to be made director of a Thanatological Institute….”
The irony doesn’t reach us as easily from the pages of My Last Sigh, which is offered as an autobiography. In fact, it is a version of Buñuel’s conversation as reconstructed by his friend and scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and published in French last year. It does tell the story of Buñuel’s life, and includes meditative interludes on topics like drink, dreams, chance, memory, and love. The English text reads extremely well, although it is marred by innumerable elisions, additions, and errors. In this review I have quoted from the translation whenever it doesn’t seem to miss or mislay the point. We shall not, in any case, catch Buñuel’s voice in French or in English—either his actual voice or the voice we may want to imagine for the author of his films. This is another, for him minor, medium. He doesn’t want us to confuse his life and his work, and he is, as he reminds us, not a writing man. The transcription of talk is already a translation, even when the language doesn’t change; it must edge the speaker toward coherence and keep stopping in the face of silence. We do see quite often, though, in both versions, something of the movement of Buñuel’s mind. We recognize him clearly in the reasons he gives for liking the actor Michel Piccoli (“his humor, his secret generosity, his touch of madness and the respect he never shows me”) and in the following confession, which faintly mocks but does not deny an authentic anxiety:
When people ask me why I don’t travel more, I tell them: Because I’m afraid of death. Of course, they all hasten to assure me that there’s no more chance of my dying abroad than at home, so I explain that it’s not a fear of death in general. Dying itself doesn’t matter to me, but not while I’m on the road. I don’t want to die in a hotel room with my bags open and papers lying all over the place.
Luis Buñuel died in a hospital in Mexico City on July 29 of this year; of heart and kidney failure or, as he would have said, of terminal old age. He was eighty-three.
After Hitchcock, Renoir, Lang, and Ford, Buñuel was the last of the great directors who began in silent films. His longevity, like theirs, was exaggerated by the rapid changes in the cinema itself. They all seem to have started in prehistory and stayed with us. And yet Buñuel’s career was different from any other. It opened and closed in France, although he was originally Spanish and became a Mexican citizen. It very nearly halted as soon as it was underway, thanks to Buñuel’s initial unwillingness to direct commercial movies and to Franco’s sudden intervention in the affairs of Spain. After making three highly personal films (Un Chien andalou, L’Age d’or, Las Hurdes), Buñuel produced Spanish potboilers and worked in dubbing and documentaries in France and the US, but didn’t direct a film for fifteen years. Given the striking signature of his completed works, the way they pursue their unmistakable preoccupations, this long interruption becomes a sizable mystery. We can see how it came about, but how did he survive it, keep his vocation afloat?
He says in his book that he was sure at one stage that he would not make movies again. He once told me that he almost got a job teaching history at Princeton—he had a degree from Madrid in the subject—but that the Spanish friend who could have arranged matters simply refused to, because he would rather see Buñuel starve than give up the cinema. Buñuel sees this response as an aspect of his luck, an interruption in one line that fed a continuity in another. I’m inclined to see it as a reflection of his own enduring, if subterranean, determination. Franco incidentally is said not to have disliked Viridiana, although the film was banned in Spain. Still, Buñuel murmurs with deceptive mildness, “given what he’d seen in his lifetime, it must have seemed incredibly innocent to him.”
Abigail Israel’s translation gets a bit of Buñuel’s intended effect here, but only by broadening it considerably: “in his lifetime” and “incredibly” are her embellishments of a barer, drier thought. This procedure is so persistent in this version that I wonder whether an editor’s hand has given the translator a shove. Buñuel is constantly lent words he didn’t speak. A subtitle saying le premier cinéma becomes “Before going any further, however, let me backtrack a bit and talk about the movies.” The word “curiously” keeps popping up to make him sound surprised when he is not.
I can see that Buñuel’s thoughts often seem abrupt—this is in part an echo of a real abruptness, in part an effect of the transcription of talk—but do we want them smoothed out? Many of the text’s additions try to tidy Buñuel up quite drastically, redeem him for poor old flouted logic. “In a different vein altogether,” “While we’re making the list of bêtes noires,” “Leaving movies for the moment,” “As unlikely as it may sound,” “Strange as it may seem”: Buñuel makes none of these connections and concessions. My favorite example suggests a truly desperate attempt to put surrealism back in the cupboard of common sense: “Despite the apparent non sequitur, I love Russian literature.” This is in a chapter where Buñuel lists his likes and dislikes, the randomness of the listing being part of the point, and the charm, of the game.
But then the adornments are matched by all kinds of cuts. Whole paragraphs and sentences of the French version disappear, so that we do not hear of Buñuel’s meeting Malraux or what André Breton thought of Viridiana. Friends are no longer mentioned, good stories and interesting comments—about life in Mexico, about chance and the shape of Buñuel’s career, about his debt to Lorca—are lost in transit. A crucial distinction, Buñuel’s one pronouncement on the largest subject of all is mangled. “Imaginatively,” Buñuel says, “human life has no more value for me than the life of a fly. Practically, I respect all life, even that of the fly….” This becomes “Imaginatively speaking, all forms of life are equally valuable—even the fly….”
The errors are not all the translator’s. She may or may not have muddled St. James and St. John, but did she misspell the maiden name of Buñuel’s wife, or label a still from El as coming from The Young One? On the other hand, the French language does seem to cause problems, as when the Buñuel family is described as only leaving their country house for vacations when in fact they went there only at such times. The verb devoir creates special havoc, is rendered as must have when it means was to, and is differently maltreated elsewhere, generating a whole deck of films inédits. “We were to have made eighteen films together,” Buñuel says of a producer in Republican Spain. This is given as: “We made eighteen films together.” Archibaldo de la Cruz tries to kill (tuer), not to commit suicide (setuer), and when Carlos Fuentes described The Milky Way as un film de combat, anti-religieux, he meant it was a militantly antireligious film, not that it was “an anti-religious war movie.” For the reasons mentioned earlier, I don’t think the text of a conversation is sacred, can’t be retouched at all; but Knopf could have treated Mon dernier soupir less capriciously.
Luis Buñuel was born in 1900, in Calanda in the province of Aragón. His parents were well-to-do—his father had made some money in Cuba before the Spanish-American War—and his childhood was spent, he says, in the Middle Ages. The first automobile was seen in Calanda in 1919. But the family lived most of the time in Saragossa, a city, as Buñuel recalls it, of constantly ringing bells. He attended a Jesuit school which appears to have been indistinguishable from the one which, a little earlier, so left its mark on James Joyce/Stephen Dedalus: retreats, scaring sermons, severe discipline, habits of order that were never to be shaken off. At seventeen, Buñuel left for Madrid, ostensibly to study but in reality, his sister says, to get away from home.
He is very discreet on this subject. Later he forbids his wife’s family to attend their wedding, not because he has anything against them but because families in general seem to him detestable. His detestation, however, doesn’t prevent him from accepting his mother’s money to make films, or indeed from entertaining apparently cordial relations with his parents and siblings. He was the oldest of seven children. His father, he says, was strict but very kind, a man who forgave quickly. Within a few pages of this he is describing his own wraths as of short duration. It is true that the death of his father provoked in Buñuel what he calls the only hallucination of his life. He watches over the body, smokes a cigarette on the balcony, precisely as he does in the opening sequence of Un Chien andalou, and hears a noise behind him, as of a chair thrown against a wall. He turns and sees his father, “an angry look on his face, his arms outstretched.” The vision lasts for ten seconds or so, then vanishes. In the film, the character played by Buñuel returns from the balcony to slash a woman’s eye open with a razor.
We can’t psychoanalyze a man at this sort of distance and with this sort of material, and I couldn’t do it anyway. But we can hardly miss the torment in these images, the layer upon layer of rage and the refusal of rage. “I’ve managed to live my life,” Buñuel says in his book, “among multiple contradictions without ever trying to rationalize or resolve them”; but he overstates his equanimity. He did what I suppose many artists do, although I don’t know another case as clear as his. He saved his nightmares for his work, cherished them by protecting them from all explication or cure, emptied them, more or less unexamined but craftily situated, into his haunted and haunting films.
He speaks in My Last Sigh of “the perfect innocence of the imagination,” which he discovered, he says, at the age of sixty-five—somewhere between Viridiana and Belle de jour, I would suggest. “Since then, I accept everything. I say, ‘All right, I sleep with my mother, so what?’ and almost immediately the images of crime and incest depart, driven off by my indifference.” The almost is a very delicate touch. It is this feeling that accounts for what critics have called the serenity of Buñuel’s last films. The element of untruth or impossibility in the feeling, the sense that the imagination, even if it is less guilty than we have always feared, can’t be as innocent as all that, stains the serenity with unforgettable flecks of unease and disgust. A man who started in film by slashing an eye can’t take it all back. It would be like another miracle at Lourdes, or the recantation of W.C. Fields.
In his personal life things must have been easier, resolved by Buñuel’s permanent commitment to courtesy. It is possible, he would say, to have the whole story of Oedipus playing in your head and still behave properly at the table. By contrast, a surrealist insult, for Buñuel as for Breton, was an extravagant ethical gesture, and not at all to be confused with bad manners. At Chaplin’s Hollywood home Buñuel and his friends once tried to tear down a Christmas tree (shouting, in one version of this exploit, “Down with symbols!”). They succeeded only in scraping their hands, and settled for jumping on the presents instead. “Luis,” someone said, “that is genuine rudeness.” “Not at all,” Buñuel answered. “It is anything but rudeness. It is an act of vandalism and subversion.” He was quick, later, to see the puerility of his behavior and his reply, but would, I think, have wished to maintain the distinction between discourtesy and deliberate provocation. It is one of the discreet arms of the bourgeoisie to pretend that all opposition is merely ill-bred or ignorant, cannot have serious motives.
Buñuel studied in Madrid, switching from agriculture and biology to history. He met Dali and Lorca, and began to go to the movies, liking best of all the comedies of Ben Turpin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. Buñuel was later to write that Keaton could give “lessons to reality,” and the influence of these early films on his work is important. In Buñuel’s world the arbitrary is always ready to pounce, to knock us off high ledges, or even, in The Phantom of Liberty, to strike us dead in the street. His art turns comedy toward panic; keeps the comedy but gives panic an unusual outing.
From Madrid, in 1925, Buñuel moved to Paris in order to change his scenery and practice for a possible future in international affairs. He still had no thought of becoming a director, although he now saw as many as three films a day, until he came across Fritz Lang’s Destiny, which, as he says, illuminated his life. He knew then “without the shadow of a doubt” that he wanted to make movies. He had directed an Amsterdam production of de Falla’s Retablo de Maese Pedro, an opera for puppets, voices, and orchestra, and he now apprenticed himself for a while to the French film director Jean Epstein, with whom he soon fell out, Epstein telling him to beware of the surrealists. Then Buñuel and Dali decided to pool their dreams (“I told him I had dreamed…of a thin cloud cutting the moon and of a razor blade slashing an eye…. He told me that he had seen in a dream…a hand full of ants”) and wrote Un Chien andalou. The film was welcomed by the surrealists, after some hesitation on their part—it was not easy to join that chapel—and Buñuel’s next film, L’Age d’or, to which Dali’s contribution was much slighter, was a fullblown surrealist event, complete with slogans and fighting and broken furniture and the banning of the work by the police.
Buñuel visited Hollywood at this time, and tells what I find the funniest story-in his book about an encounter there. He had made up a synoptic chart of all the possible plot situations in the American movies of the day; setting (gangster, Western, tropical), period, main characters, the fate of the heroine were all foreseen, awaiting permutation. Buñuel’s friend Ugarte was much amused by all this, and knew the system by heart. Returning from a sneak preview of Sternberg’s Dishonored Buñuel is asked by the producer what he thinks. The film is fine, he says. The director is very good. And such an original story, the producer suggests. No, Buñuel has to disagree. The thing about Sternberg is that he takes banal stories and transforms them entirely. The producer is shocked. A banal story! When the star gets shot? Marlene Dietrich, no less. Buñuel politely says he knew in the first five minutes of the film that Dietrich would be shot at the end. The producer begins to get angry. Buñuel takes him home for a drink, and wakes up Ugarte—it is very late. “Listen,” Buñuel says, “it’s about a film.” Ugarte nods, still half asleep. “Setting: Viennese. Period: the Great War. At the beginning of the film we see a whore. And we see clearly that she is a whore. She picks up an officer in the street, she…” “That’s enough,” Ugarte says, getting up, yawning, already on his way back to bed. “She gets shot at the end.”
Buñuel returned to Spain to make one of the most remarkable of all his films, Las Hurdes, a documentary about a diseased and isolated community in the west of Spain, people, Buñuel says, who loved their lost country, “that hell which belonged to them.” After this came the fifteen years’ break I have mentioned. The freshest and least predictable part of Buñuel’s book concerns his memories of the clashes and confusions of the civil war. He is sane without being pious. He was a theoretical anarchist, but bewildered by the actual anarchy on the streets, and his practical sympathies went to the organized communists—the syndicalists, he notes sadly, hated them even more than the fascists. With distressing frequency names come up in his book with the subsequent death of their owners tagging along like a prophecy: these Dominicans were shot, this archbishop was killed, this boy was shot by the Republicans, this couple was executed by the fascists, these priests faced the firing squad. At times the book begins to sound like Charlus’s roll-call of the dead in Proust’s last volume. Buñuel thinks often of Lorca and how frightened he must have been that night in 1936 when he was taken to the olive grove to be murdered.
Buñuel worked in the embassy of the Spanish Republic in Paris, and then, when the civil war ended and the other war began, in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He lost his job in an early witch hunt and a little later, in Hollywood, directed an eerie sequence, starring Peter Lorre and a severed hand, in Robert Florey’s Beast with Five Fingers. Then he moved to Mexico, where he lived until his death, making what were for many years annual trips to Europe. He returned twice from the relative obscurity of his exile: with Los Olvidados, a grim portrait of destroyed childhood, a distant echo no doubt, buried in the Mexican slums, of fights not fought in Calanda, Oedipus betrayed; and with Viridiana, a film famous for its blasphemous travesty of Leonardo’s Last Supper, and notable because, among other things, it introduced into Buñuel’s movies the actor Fernando Rey, who was to become in many ways the director’s screen self, especially in Tristana. Buñuel’s Mexican films are very patchy, some of them awful, others, like El and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, triumphs over tiny budgets and insipid acting. After Viridiana, for which he went back, amid much outcry, to Franco’s Spain, Buñuel made two fine films in Mexico, The Exterminating Angel and the short Simon of the Desert.
He shot Tristana in Spain, and parts of That Obscure Object of Desire; and meanwhile made Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de jour, The Milky Way, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and The Phantom of Liberty in France. In his book he remembers his life but gallops through his movies. When he reaches page 197 (out of 256), he is forty-six and has directed three films (out of thirty-two). He doesn’t feel like talking about the rest of his work—that is not his job, he insists, sounding like the famous writer in James’s “Figure in the Carpet,” ce n’est pas à moi de la faire. He offers casual comments only, tells a few stories.
He was never in any case given to making critical remarks about his films (“all hopeless,” was his favorite way of getting rid of the subject), but he does say two things of exceptional interest in this book. First, he observes that in life and in his films he has been fascinated by repetitions. A character in The Exterminating Angel raises his glass and proposes a toast. Everyone drinks. A few seconds later, as if nothing had happened, the man proposes exactly the same toast again. No one pays any attention to him, and he sits down, disconcerted. My Last Sigh opens with a similar scene, offered as an illustration of the eclipses of Buñuel’s mother’s memory in her later years.
I’d walk into her room, kiss her, sit with her awhile. Sometimes I’d leave, then turn around and walk back in again. She greeted me with the same smile and invited me to sit down—as if she were seeing me for the first time. She didn’t remember my name.
What is striking here is not only the mother’s separation from her son and her past, but the son’s interest in provoking the repetition, like the little boy in Beyond the Pleasure Principle playing fort and da:
Second, Buñuel identifies as a recurring theme in his films the impossibility of satisfying a simple wish—like going home or having dinner with your friends—and still less, we may add, slightly more complicated ones, like making love or killing someone. Or like making a film during fifteen years of unwilling abstinence. Extraordinary obstacles fall across the paths of Buñuel’s characters’ plans: a phone call from a minister, a mysterious inability to leave a room, a corpse in a restaurant, the army on maneuvers dropping in for a meal. In The Phantom of Liberty stories are interrupted because the narrative forgets them, goes off somewhere else. In The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz a man fails to murder a nun because she falls down an elevator shaft as he chases her, stranding him with the innocence he was trying to get rid of.
Repetitions, interruptions. They form an image of a life which moves in erratic circles, which will not go forward; which baffles linear time, as Buñuel’s own life did until his last years. The price is that you yourself are baffled, desire becomes permanent and unappeasable, and lack is all you truly know. Buñuel’s most frequent dream, he says, is that of the train—“I must have dreamed it hundreds of times.” The train enters a station and stops. Buñuel would like to get out and stretch his legs, but is wary, because he knows this dream, the train will go without him if he does. He puts one foot on the platform, everything seems normal, other people are getting off. He decides to risk it, puts the other foot down, and the train departs like a cannon shot, whisking away all his luggage. He is alone on the platform and he wakes up. More speculatively he says, “It is not necessary that we should be here living and dying.” He is not discussing determinism and free will, he is describing the experience of contingency as a shudder, a form of vertigo. It is from this besetting, almost domesticated uncertainty, that Buñuel’s irony springs, and his humanity too, which is a form of conquest, an assertion made not only against the odds but against his better judgment and knowledge. For many people the thought that we cannot have what we want is grounds for giving up wanting. For others, an occasion for bravura and stubbornness—the impossible will take a little while. For Buñuel it is simply a major fact about himself and the rest of us, and deserves all the patient scrutiny he can give it. He became an authority of what we miss.
The small voice of optimism may murmur that life is not all lack, that we sometimes get what we want, and Buñuel knows this too. There is a marvelous scene in The Phantom of Liberty, one of the most lyrical I can think of in the movies, where a young man, tortured by sexual desire for his aging aunt, has taken her to a hotel. There are quarrels, tears, delayed resistance on the aunt’s part. Finally she gives in, asks him not to look, and undresses. The camera finds her naked in bed, but her body, instead of the fading or crumpled carcass we expected, is that of a luminously healthy young girl. The boy can’t believe his eyes, or his luck. There are further quarrels, even violence, but all ends in peace and connection. The imagination really does have its moments of innocence, even of grace.
“I’d love to rise from the grave,” Buñuel says in the last lines of My Last Sigh, “every ten years or so and go buy a few newspapers. Ghostly pale, sliding silently along the walls, my papers under my arm, I’d return to the cemetery and read about all the disasters in the world before falling back to sleep, safe and secure in my tomb.” We should not miss the mockery, of himself and of what we expect of him, in the faint enlargement of his appetite for disaster. Still, the newspapers will no doubt cater amply for appetites bigger than Buñuel’s and he himself will manage something more substantial than these spectral decennial visits. From screens of all sizes, as long as there are screens and people to watch them, his films will seek us out, ruffling the most settled of feathers, and making us wonder how we can possibly keep mistaking the barely acceptable for the thoroughly inevitable, and how we can go on converting our haphazard moral and social constructions, the treacherous trains of our dreams, into prisons that cover the earth.
November 10, 1983