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The Incisive Eye Of Don Luis Buñuel

by J.
At one point during our conversation, we heard footsteps shuffling behind us, and when I turned round, there was Alfred Hitchcock, round and rosy-cheeked, his arms held out in my direction. I'd never met him either, but knew that he'd sung my praises from time to time. He sat down on the other side of me, and, one arm around my shoulders, he proceeded to talk nonstop about his wine cellar, his diet, and the amputated leg in Tristana. 'Ah, that leg ... that leg,' he sighed, more than once.
Luis Buñuel (1984)

Luis Buñuel (1900 - 1983) was the most famous Spanish film director of his generation. Throughout his long career, starting with two famous surrealistic films Un chien andalou (1928) and L'âge d'or (1930), both made in collaboration with Salvador Dalí, his work dealt with two central concerns: religion and eroticism. These two concerns were from the very first expressed through images of mutilation and deformity and death. The most unforgettable image in Un chien andalou is revealed very early in the film. A swarthy man strops an open razor. The stropping of a razor is a lost art, but I remember as a little boy watching my grandfather wiping his razor rhythmically over the leather strop with an almost voluptuous delicacy, to produce a ribbon of blade polished to the point where it was nothing but sharpness, before sweeping the lather away, and, it seemed almost coincidentally, the bristles along with it, in long confident flourishes. In the film the man is standing behind the seated woman who waits impassively for the action to evolve. He takes hold of the woman's head, pressing it against his lower chest with his left hand. The woman's face is filmed in close up. Then the camera closes in as he parts the eyelids of her left eye with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. As he slices into the eyeball with the razor the incision gapes and viscous humour floods from the cut. I first saw the film in the early '60s and I can still recall the thrill of shock and disgust I felt when the blade divided the eyeball. People began to walk out immediately. I was a tough undergraduate and capable of sticking everything, at least everything that a film could show me, so I stayed fascinated and slightly nauseous until the end. What was so disorientating was the feeling I had that I had in fact witnessed what I seemed to have witnessed. At the time I could not see how the shot could have been faked. I knew that it had been, I was certain that it had been, but yet ... there was lingering doubt. But of course it must have been faked. I have never seen such a fascinating sequence of film since. Of course it was faked; now I know how it was done, but the genius of Buñuel was to have achieved the fake and yet ... and yet ... if only you could be sure. From the beginning of his career Buñuel was prepared to look at, and to show pictures that nobody else would have dared to. It was only much later that I discovered that not only had he directed the film of the slicing of the eyeball but he had himself been the man with the razor. Although there is a series of appalling images in the rest of the film they are insignificant compared with the sequence I have described. It is probably significant that Dalí collaborated with Buñuel in the production of these films. Dalí was almost certainly a crutch and possibly a stump fetishist as well, in the classical definition of fetishist, being sexually aroused by the object to the exclusion of the person who might possess the stump or need a crutch - he depicted stumps and crutches in isolation often enough in his paintings to suggest he was obsessed with them - and Buñuel was intrigued by the process of mutilation. Not surprisingly, the moralists of the '30s were shocked by the explicit presentation of such material in film. George Orwell in his excoriation of Dalí condemns the self-conscious nastiness in Dalí's description of his mutilation of the dead donkeys that were to be filmed as a scene in Un chien andalou: Dalí was not satisfied that they looked sufficiently dead so poured glue over their pelts and enlarged the empty eye- sockets with a pair of scissors and cut away their lips to make their mouths even more grisly.

Buñuel was born in 1900. He spent his youth in a small Spanish town, Calanda, preserved unchanged socially and culturally from the eighteenth century. He was the eldest of four children, the others were all girls, and he was educated under the unyielding discipline of the Society of Jesus.

In his memoirs Buñuel op. cit. states:

Our faith was so blind that at least until the age of fourteen, we believed in the literal truth of the famous Calanda miracle, which occurred in the year of Our Lord 1640. The miracle is attributed to Spain's patron saint, the Virgin of Pilar, who got her name because she appeared to Saint John at the top a pillar in Saragossa during the time of the Roman occupation. She's one of the two great Spanish Virgins, the other being the Virgin of Guadalupe, who always seemed to me vastly inferior.

The story goes that in 1640, Miguel Juan Pellicer, an inhabitant of Calanda, had his leg crushed under the wheel of a cart, and it had to be amputated. Now Pellicer was a very religious man who went to church every day to dip a finger into the oil that burned before the statue of the Virgin. Afterwards, he used to rub the oil on the stump of his leg. One night, it seems that the Virgin and her angels descended from heaven, and when Pellicer awoke the next morning, he found himself with a new leg.

It is hard for people born in the later twentieth century to have a sympathy for the kind of mind that Buñuel's upbringing and education imposed upon him. The threads of eroticism, religion, and death were mixed together in a broth which was strongly flavoured but probably not very sustaining. The Spain he grew up in preserved a mediæval mixture of rigid etiquette for the wealthy and rags for the peasants. Buñuel was a gentleman's son and so could not be seen carrying anything at all in the street: when he went to his music lesson he was accompanied by his governess who carried his violin case. Beggars were a common sight and as beggars do wherever they are found, the ones in Calanda no doubt exhibited their deformities to stimulate the pity of the givers of alms. For people in protestant northern Europe, the juxtaposition of fastidious manners against a background of public squalor would have seemed incongruous, all the more incongruous in the context of a rigid conservative Roman Catholicism which controlled sexual activity with such a grip that men had sexual relations with their wives, or since that was obviously insufficient, the matter-of-course alternative, was with prostitutes at the brothel. This life, in turn, brutal, polite, squalid, and cultured, formed the basis of Spanish civilization for centuries, and is reflected in the literary tradition of the picaresque novel where brutal activities conducted in squalor were the main focus of the story. In Lazarillo de Tormes for example, the hero is employed by a blind man to lead him about, but the blind man starves and beats him. To take his revenge, Lazaro, the hero, while sheltering with his master from a rain storm, tells the blind man that they have to jump across a flooded gutter, and lines him up so that when he thinks he is lined up to jump across the water, he is in fact lined up directly in front of a pillar.

... and then I said, now uncle leape boldly as far as you can possibly, for else you may chaunce to wet your selfe. I had not so soone said the word, but that incontinently the poore blinde man was ready to take his race, returning a pace or two backe from the standinge, and so with great force tooke his leape, throwing for warde his body like a bucke, that at last his head tooke such a monstrous blow against the cruell stonie piller, that his head sounded withall as it had bene a lether bottel, whereupon he fell back with cloven pate, halfe dead ...

Such an incident was regarded as comedy. It is as if Tom and Jerry were comical not despite being enacted by real people who suffered the real pain caused by the real violence, but because of it. It is as though the enlightenment never happened, and the moral universe is conserved at the high point of the counter-reformation. Perhaps Buñuel's fascination with dwarfs and the deformed is simply a consequence of the mental and moral world he inherited. It may not be a coincidence that the greatest court painter of all was Spanish, Velázquez, and that his paintings of the family of King Philip IV often contained dwarfs. One of the most complex of his paintings,

Las meniñas, the maids of honour, painted in 1656 shows a visit, perhaps to pay her respects to her parents, by the Infanta Margarita, attended by her maids of honour, her mastiff and her dwarfs and least significant of all, in the background, her tutors. What is significant is that the visit takes place in Velázquez's studio, and the picture is painted from the point of view of the subjects he is painting, the King and Queen. Velázquez, half visible, facing the observer, stands on the left hand side of the painting, partly hidden behind the canvas on which he is working. On the wall at the back of the studio is a mirror that, as though by coincidence, reflects the image of the King and Queen who appear, small and remote behind their daughter and her servant-companions. Velázquez ironically depicts himself as one of the these. Behind them in less prominence stand male attendants, perhaps the Infanta's tutors, who clearly are less important socially. Dwarfs were important members of the court and Velázquez painted them many times, but in Las meniñas they are juxtaposed with the pretty child in a way that emphasises the ambiguity of their likeness both to children and adults, to babies and to lovers, that is the consequence of their small size. It is hardly surprising that Buñuel's films are filled with beggars, dwarfs, and the mutilated.

The other artist with whom Buñuel's minatory vision might be compared is Pieter Breughel the elder. The parable of the blind is a painting of six blind beggars each with hand or staff on the shoulder of the man in front, depicted in the process of falling as the leader has fallen. The faces of the blind men are painted with such unflinching precision that the specialist can diagnose the causes of the different types of blindness that afflicted each of the of the men used as models. Not only are the ravaged eyes and sunken sockets painted with minute precision, the subject of the picture is the most graphic representa tion possible of the consequences of the blind leading the blind. The leader has fallen, his immediate follower is tottering and falling, the next unstable, the one behind him aware that there is something amiss but uncertain as to what it might be, the instability spreading down the line, but in the moment depicted not having reached the last man, is a savage representation of what being blind must really have been like. The picture is anti-sentimental, the men are made ugly by their common affliction; they are dressed in poor dirty clothes; they are falling because of their disability, and the painter has depicted this, leaving us with no moral comment at all, merely a statement that this is what life is like, that this, within our physical limitations, is what life is like for all of us. What makes the picture all the more impressive to us is the fact that Breughel concentrates his genius on depicting a generality about the human life by depicting an aspect of the human condition that we prefer not to dwell on. There is a similarity between the view of the court painter in Spain and the genre painter in the Netherlands, that may be in part due to the intimate intertwining of the histories of the two countries, and part of that intertwining may go some way to explaining the preoccupations of Brueghel and Buñuel with cripples, dwarfs, beggars, and mutilation. Perhaps this kind of culture helps to explain why it might be that a rebellious young man made Un chien andalou in 1928, and a series of more or less successful dramatic films, all subversive, all concerned with religion, and with death.

Buñuel's key film, from our point of view is Tristana, made in 1969. The script was adapted by Buñuel from a short novel by Benito Pérez Galdós. The story of Tristana is set in the twenties and thirties, and the central characters are Don Lope, a Spanish gentleman in late middle age, Tristana, his young niece. Don Lope is an hidalgo, which means literally 'somebody's son'. For such a man work is dishonourable, and consequently, for all his grand airs he is a poor man.

The poverty stricken gentleman starving while attempting to cut a noble figure has been a staple figure in Spanish fiction for hundreds of years: there is a poor squire in Lazarillo de Tormes who never even considers working as a way of escaping poverty. At the beginning of the film Tristana's mother has died, also in comparative poverty, and on her death-bed she besought Don Lope to become her daugher's guardian. Don Lope accepts the burden of taking into his house an innocent young girl. The idiosyncracies of Don Lope's sense of honour are illustrated by several incidents in the film. Shortly after Tristana has gone to live with him he is approached by two of his friends to be the ajudicator in a duel. The invitation is given to Don Lope in his study, and he preens himself, and picking up a sword makes a few cuts in the air, and then the seconds tell him the duel will be concluded at the first shedding of blood. Don Lope, until that moment smirking with satisfied excitement at the prospect withdraws because he feels that no duel can satisfy honour with such a limited prospect of bloodshed.

On another occasion, in the street walking with Tristana in the streets of Toledo, a bag snatcher runs past them, pursued closely by someone who turns out to be a policeman. The policeman asks Don Lope if he saw the fugitive, Don Lope, replied that he did, and sent the policeman off in the wrong direction. Tristana asked him why he had done that and he replied that he would always protect the weak from the strong. His sense of honour does not extend in any way at all towards women, and in short order he seduces Tristana, who without education, or any money of her own, is totally dependant upon him. As might be expected, Don Lope wishes to keep Tristana at home. Early in the film he quotes a Spanish proverb which says that if you want an honest woman you should break her leg and keep her at home. Tristana's main companion is Saturna, Don Lope's housekeeper. Together they manage to go out a little, and on one their outings Tristana meets a young painter called Horacio, and an affair develops, leading finally to Tristana's leaving Don Lope.

Some time later, Don Lope's puritanical sister dies and he inherits the family fortune and becomes rich. Some time later still Don Lope is approached by Horacio who tells him that Tristana is very ill and wants to come home to him. Don Lope accepts Tristana back. Tristana has a tumour on the knee and her leg is amputated. She parts from Horacio, having become very embittered and after a time, in a reversal of rôles she comes to dominate Don Lope, who over the intervening years has aged from well-preserved roué with powdered face and dyed hair and beard, to a dotard. Don Lope recants his atheistic views and they marry. Tristana gradually destroys the old man rejecting his advances even on their wedding night. The film ends with Tristana, by this time having hardened to implacability, being called by Don Lope who is having a heart attack. She goes to his bedroom, looks down on the dying man, and then goes to the telephone, she does not telephone but simply speaks the message to the doctor aloud. Then she goes back to Don Lope's bedroom and opens the windows. It is snowing outside. The unresolved problem in terms of Tristana's motivation is why she went back to Don Lope when she was ill. On one level the motivation might have been purely mercenary. Don Lope was rich enough to pay for whatever treatment she might have needed, and that might have been the first consideration that took her back to him. The response of Horacio after her amputation is one of physical disgust reined in by a desire to do the dutiful thing, all the more pressing in view of her disability. In fact, she sends Horacio away before Don Lope broaches the suggestion that he finds her attractive as an amputee.

'You're looking very lovely,' he says stroking her hair, 'lovelier every day.'
'Don't make fun of me.'
'You know I am incapable of it. You look on the fact that you have only one leg as a disadvantage, and yet you're perhaps even more desirable than before. At least for a lot of people. I remember there was a woman in Paris when I was young. She could often be seen taking a walk along the boulevards on her crutches. She always had three or four men following her.'
'There's no accounting for people's tastes.'

'All my films are pornographic.' Buñuel once replied to a reporter, and Tristana is no exception. Don Lope is an appalling character who destroys himself through destroying Tristana.

The film was shot in the ancient city of Toledo. Fernando Rey played Don Lope, Franco Nero, Horacio, and Catherine Deneuve, Tristana. Catherine Deneuve has a detached quality in many of her rôles, and this detachment is used to good effect in the second part of the film, though to my eyes she is not very convincing as the innocent undebauched Tristana of the early scenes. Fernando Rey gives an excellent performance of the aging hidalgo, and Franco Nero is a serviceable piece of juvenile-lead-acting-timber.

From the point of view of the devotee audience, the practicalities of Catherine Deneuve's performance are quite well managed. She does use her crutches convincingly, though of course there is only the shadow of the frisson we should have felt if the part had been played by a real amputee. The camera does linger on shots of her stump, and on her artificial leg, clad in silk stocking and patent leather shoe, and Tristana spends a lot of time restlessly walking in the corridors of her home. Tristana is not the only person who is disabled. Saturna has a son Saturno who is deaf and dumb, and who has been fascinated by Tristana from the start of the film. There are layers of irony because Buñuel himself was deaf, and much of the film addresses the difference between what is felt and done and what is said. Other layers of irony that become apparent in retrospect are that Tristana refines her ability to perceive subtle differences in similar things, and this leads her to prefer particular individuals belonging to classes of objects, where other people would perceive indistinguishable members of the class and choosing among alternatives that other people would not perceive, she prefers this pillar to that one, this chickpea to that one, but ironically it becomes easy to distinguish between this leg to that one, and to prefer this one.

Buñuel writes '... I engaged Catherine Deneuve, who although she didn't seem to belong to Galdòs's universe, turned out to be absolutely perfect.' A different perspective is given by Aranda:

'Among other things, the French co- producer had insisted on Catherine Deneuve for the title rôle ... In fact Catherine Deneuve irritated him and, joking, he said at the end of the film he made her "worse than the script provided for her to be", to annoy her. But after the shooting was finished he said that "she was a good actress" and considered taking her in his next film. Deneuve had been a model of professionalism and docility, an attitude which was no doubt helped by the salary of some fifteen millions which she earned in a month's work.'

The whole film can be seen as an examination of the proverb about breaking a woman's leg. Tristana is disqualified from independence by her sex, and by her class. Her disability only emphasises the social disability that is imposed upon her. In the end, having her leg broken, and being kept at home hardly keeps her honest.

In Los olvidados (1950) Buñuel presents an amputee in very different light. The film deals the fortunes of a gang of street boys in Mexico City. The protagonist is taken up by a blind man who treats him cruelly. Just out of reformatory, the boys try to rob the blind man who defends himself by lashing out at random with his stick. In another incident the gang find a legless beggar wheeling himself along in a little cart, smoking as he goes. One of the gang asks the beggar for a cigarette, and he refuses to give him one, so they amuse them selves by lifting him out of his cart, and robbing him. Then they roll the cart away and tip it over, leaving him helpless in the street. A still from this scene is depicted in the published script of the film. Life is nasty, brutish, and picaresque. In contrast with Tristana there is no hothouse sense of eroticism here: in this universe, where the issue for everybody is survival, the disabled are no more nor less than products of poverty and misfortune, to be exploited and molested like everybody else, and if they are less able than the rest of us to look after themselves, then that is their hard luck. The echoes of Lazarillo de Tormes are unmistakable. Three films and three visions of cruelty mutilation and death, the unique perspective of the hidalgo turned subversive, surrealist, and pornographer, Don Luis Buñuel.

Notes and references

My Last Sigh
Luis Buñuel (1984)
Jonathan Cape, London.
Benefit Of Clergy: Some Notes On Salvador Dalí
Decline of the English Murder and other essays
George Orwell (1965)
Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, Middlesex
The Pleasaunt Historie Of Lazarillo de Tormes
drawen out of Spanish by
David Rouland of Anglesey (1586)
ed. Crofts, J. E. V. 1924) Basil Blackwell, Oxford
A reproduction of Velázquez's Las meniñas can be found at the Web Museum collection of paintings
Luis Buñuel (1971)
Lorrimor Publishing, London
Details of the film can be found on the Internet Movie Database..
Luis Buñuel: A critical biography
J. Fransisco Aranda (1975)
Secker and Warburg, London
Los olvidados
Luis Buñuel (1980)
Ediciones Era, S. A., Mexico (The script is in Spanish.)
Details of the film can be found on the Internet Movie Database..
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