Luis Buñuel and his Cinema of the Absurd and Desire

Luis Buñuel (1900 - 1983)

Luis Buñuel (1900 – 1983)

On February 22, 1900, Spanish, later naturalized Mexican, filmmaker Luis Buñuel was born. Often associated with the surrealist movement of the 1920s, Buñuel created films from the 1920s through the 1970s. Having worked in Europe and North America, and in French and Spanish, Buñuel also directed films spanning various genres. His first picture, Un Chien Andalou — made in the silent era — is still viewed regularly throughout the world and retains its power to shock the viewer, and his last film,  The Obscure Object of Desire — made 48 years later — won him Best Director awards from the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics.

“The world is becoming more and more absurd. Only I continue to be a Catholic and an atheist. Thank God!”
– Luis Buñuel

Luis Buñuel – Early Years

Luis Buñuel was born in the village of Calanda in Aragon, Spain, the eldest of seven children, but grew up mainly in Zaragoza. His father was the large landowner Leonardo Buñuel, and his mother was Maria Portoles, the daughter of a wealthy innkeeper. In his autobiography, he described the society of his hometown as stubborn and marked by class distinctions. Under the care of his uncle, who was a priest, he gained insight into the French and Latin languages as a boy. Buñuel entered the Jesuit school Colegio del Salvador in Zaragoza in 1907. In 1915 he transferred to a state high school. After graduating from high school in 1917, on the recommendation of Senator Don Bertolomé Esteban, he was admitted to the now famous Madrid Student Residence, where he began studying engineering at his father’s request. When he learned that Spanish lecturers in various humanities were being sought abroad, he changed subjects to study literature, philosophy, and history. During his studies he became acquainted with García Lorca [2] and Salvador Dalí,[1] among others. In 1923 he became involved with Sigmund Freud‘s psychoanalysis for the first time.[3]

When a new institution of the League of Nations called Societé internationale de cooperation intellectuelle was to be founded in Paris in 1925, Buñuel applied for a secretary position, which he was eventually awarded. It was during his time in Paris that he first entertained the idea of making films himself. He was influenced by Sergei Eisenstein‘s Battleship Potemkin,[4Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau‘s The Last Man, and especially by Fritz Lang‘s film The Tired Death. In 1926, Buñuel enrolled in a course at Jean Epstein‘s Académie du Cinéma acting school. When he missed the chance to land a small role in one of Epstein’s films, he offered himself a little later for auxiliary work during the shooting of Mauprat. Here he made the acquaintance of cinematographer Albert Duverger, gained insights into the technical realization of films and even took part in some stunts.


It was in Paris that Buñuel first came into contact at all with Surrealism, whose adherents cultivated provocative anti-bourgeois scandal. Because of his inclination towards the world of the irrational and the dream, and because of some publications in the magazine La Révolution surréaliste (The Surrealist Revolution), he felt more and more attracted to this rebellious art movement. During a stay in Spain in 1928, he was made several offers to direct some smaller films, for which he also wrote scripts; however, they were never realized. In 1929 he made his first film, An Andalusian Dog (Un Chien Andalou). The work sprang from the idea of Buñuel and his friend Salvador Dalí to create a film out of two dreams. They wrote the screenplay using the method of automatic writing (écriture automatique) within a week. Their intention was to create a film that would symbolize nothing and allow no logical explanation. After filming An Andalusian Dog in just two weeks (mostly in a Paris studio), Buñuel presented his work to surrealists Man Ray [6] and Louis Aragon, who immediately became enthusiastic about it. After the first public performance, which was a great success, Buñuel was accepted into the French Surrealist group around André Breton. Shortly thereafter, however, he ran into trouble with the group, which seemed suspicious that such a provocative film was always selling out. Since Buñuel had offered the script to the bourgeois Revue du Cinéma and not – as suggested by Paul Éluard – to the Belgian Variétés, the Surrealist group held a real trial against him. He had to undertake to destroy with a hammer the already finished lead typesetting. When it turned out that the magazine had already been printed, he had to write a letter of protest to ten Paris newspapers, in which he declared that he had been the victim of a machination. On top of that, he wrote a prologue for Variétés in which he claimed that the film was, in his eyes, “nothing other than a call to murder.”

More Scandals and the USA

“The story is also a sequence of moral and surrealist aesthetic. The sexual instinct and the sense of death form its substance.”
– Luis Buñuel, about The golden age, Mon Dernier soupir (My Last Sigh, 1983)

A few months later, he began work on his second film, which he called The Golden Age (L’Âge d’Or). Originally, the script was to be written again together with Salvador Dalí. However, since the two disagreed on many issues, they parted ways. Buñuel wrote the screenplay alone and merely incorporated some of Dalí’s ideas into the film, which the latter had sent him by letter. The hour-long work was shown publicly for the first time in 1930 and caused a solid scandal. Buñuel’s film tells the story of two lovers who throw off all ecclesiastical and bourgeois restraints and seek only to come together. Some of the images shocked the audience and attacked the values of the bourgeoisie and Christianity that Buñuel criticized.

In 1930, Buñuel accepted an offer from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to go to the U.S. and familiarize himself with the film technology there. After some interesting insights into Hollywood work, he returned to Europe in 1931, where he shot his third film, the documentary feature Las Hurdes – Land Without Bread, in Spain in 1933. Because in it he depicted and directed the abject poverty in a hopeless area, in the community of Las Hurdes in Extremadura, in the style of a travel documentary, the film was banned in Spain.

War in Spain

In 1934, Buñuel was given the position of head of the Warner Brothers dubbing department in Madrid, while also producing various films, such as Don Quintín el Amargao and La Hija de Juan Simón, which were commercially very successful. His third work as a producer, the tragic film Quién Me Quiere a Mi, on the other hand, flopped. The Spanish Civil War, which broke out soon after, greatly inhibited film work in the following years. Wartime in Spain and Europe was to prevent Buñuel from continuing as a director for years.  In 1939, Buñuel went back to the United States to work as a technical advisor on the Civil War film Cargo of Innocence. When he was unable to find further employment in Hollywood after that, he moved to New York in 1940, where he obtained a position at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1942, a representative of Catholicism saw to it that he was dismissed after Salvador Dalí had called him a communist and atheist in his book “The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí.” This event led to the final break with Dalí. In 1944 he was employed by Warner Brothers; there he took care of Spanish versions of Hollywood films.

Mexico and European Awards

In 1946 Buñuel received offers from Mexico. It became his most productive period, he created 20 films there. The first was called Gran Casino, but it had little success and left Buñuel almost penniless. In 1949 – the year he became a Mexican citizen – Buñuel made the film El gran calavera (The Great Bon vivant), which made money again. He was then able to tackle the project Los olvidados (The Forgotten) with producer Óscar Dancigers. The pessimistic mood of the work was responsible for the film being heavily criticized by the Mexican media, which even demanded the expulsion of the director. However, when Los olvidados was successful in Europe (Buñuel received the prize for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival, among others), the attacks subsided.

The films Susanna (1950), La hija del engaño (The Daughter of Lies – 1951), Una mujer sin amor (A Woman Without Love – 1951), Subida al cielo and Robinsón Crusoe followed. In 1952 he made Él, a work that told the story of a paranoiac – Buñuel later called this one of his favorite films. In the following years he made other masterpieces such as Ensayo de un crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz – 1955) or Nazarín (1958). The latter received the Grand International Film Prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival.

Later Years

“Give me two hours a day of activity, and I’ll take the other twenty-two in dreams.”
– Luis Buñuel, Mon Dernier soupir (My Last Sigh, 1983)

In 1960, Luis Buñuel returned to Spain. Producer Gustavo Alatriste had promised him all the freedom he needed to make a film, whereupon Buñuel developed a script to his own taste. The result was Viridiana, a film about a Spanish convent woman who offers shelter to those in need on a manor. However, the protagonist’s aspirations end in orgiastic and destructive debauchery on the part of the beneficiaries, causing her to fail. For filming in the Madrid of Franco’s regime, Buñuel experienced hostility from Republican exiles. However, the huge scandal that Viridiana caused in Spain because of its subject matter smoothed these waters. At the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, Buñuel’s work won the Palme d’Or, while the Spanish Minister of Information issued a nationwide ban. In 1962, Luis Buñuel made El ángel exterminador (The Strangler Angel), a surreal parable in Mexico. It is about an evening party whose visitors cannot leave the house for inexplicable reasons. When they do manage to escape in the end, they visit the church for a thanksgiving service – and now the game of being trapped in the church repeats itself. Simon in the Desert, his last Mexican film, lasts only 43 minutes. The producer had run out of money during filming. In 1966, he filmed Belle de Jour – Beautiful of the Day in France, based on a novel by Joseph Kessel and starring Catherine Deneuve. This film became one of his most commercially successful works.

And Finally an Oscar

La voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1969) and Tristana were followed in 1972 by The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, in which he again increasingly used surrealist elements and attacked the bourgeoisie. For this he received the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1973. He again took aim at the bourgeois world in The Specter of Freedom, a work composed of a round of episodes. Buñuel later described the films The Ghost of Freedom, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and The Milky Way as a kind of trilogy in which the search for truth, mystery, chance, and personal morals were thematically central. After that, he actually wanted to stop making films. However, friends persuaded him to tackle the film adaptation of Pierre Louÿs’ novel La femme et le pantin in 1977. The work is called This Obscure Object of Desire and is about the amour fou of an aging man (Fernando Rey) with a younger woman – a recurring theme in his films. Curiously, this woman is embodied by two actresses completely different in type (Carole Bouquet, Ángela Molina).

Luis Buñuel is considered one of the outstanding directors of the 20th century. In 1982, his memoirs Mon dernier soupir (My Last Sigh) were published, written by Jean-Claude Carrière. Luis Buñuel died the following year, presumably as a result of cirrhosis of the liver at age 83.

Buñuel’s Style

Buñuel’s technique of filmmaking was strongly influenced by mise-en-scène, sound editing and use of music. The influences on his filmmaking have included a positive relationship to surrealism and a critical approach to atheism and religion. Buñuel’s style of directing was extremely economical; he shot films in a few weeks, rarely deviating from his script and shooting as much as possible in order to minimize editing time. He remained true throughout his working life to an operating philosophy that he articulated at the beginning of his career in 1928:

The guiding idea, the silent procession of images that are concrete, decisive, measured in space and time—in a word, the film—was first projected inside the brain of the filmmaker”.

The Cinema of Luis Buñuel online seminar, with María Seijo. Session 2: Surrealism and subversion, [11]

References and Further Reading:

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