Bunuel and the Bourgeoisie


                                       Bunuel's uncompromising attitude towards the bourgeoisie has been forcefully expressed both in his films and elsewhere. In his autobiography, he has described the opposition of the surrealists to the society in which they found themselves. He was attracted in 1929 by what he regarded as the moral character of Surrealism, whose essence was to reject bourgeois society in favor of completely different values. He describes the wrong with bourgeois morality like this: "I am against conventional morality -- Middle-class morality. One must fight it. It is a morality founded on our most unjust social institutions -- religion, fatherland, family culture -- everything that people call the pillars of society."

                                     Four decades later, when he had turned his back on the surrealists, Bunuel observed that his view of bourgeoisie had not changed. He said, "The final sense of my films is this: to repeat, over and over again, in case anyone forgets it or believes the contrary, that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds." His films, throughout his career, set out to mock, disturb and undermine the established order of things. Indeed, he consistently places the bourgeoisie under the microscope, subjecting it to as close a scrutiny as he would have done the behavior of insects, had be become an entomologist.

                                   High on the list of Bunuel's favorite items for detailed examination, inside and outside, is the bourgeois home, be it country mansion or city house or apartment. The former makes its first extended appearance in "L' age d' or" (Age of Gold, 1930), when, as cars bring guests to the villa of the Marquis of X, the camera picks out the huge wrought-iron gates and railings that surround the fortress-like pile immediately behind them. Thirty two years later, in 1962, a similar episode marks the beginning of the "The Exterminating Angel" as the servants leave the splendid mansion of their master, Edmundo Nobile, and the camera reveals even more massive gates, which close with a huge clang, more suggestive of a castle than house.



                                  In "The Diary of a Chambermaid", released two years later, Celestine arrives at the country mansion of her new employer, Monsieur Rabour, where we observe gates and railings which, though less ornate than those in the two earlier films, are equally strong. In each case we are presented with an image that suggests wealth power of the bourgeois inhabitants of these houses who use that wealth to exclude unwelcome intruders and trespassers. On the other hand, the defenses they construct can also be seen as something that cuts them off from the world at large, turning them in on themselves, emphasizing their self-containment and inward-looking nature.

                                Bunuel's houses, furthermore, are not confined to one country, for the three mentioned above are located, respectively, in Italy, South America and France, the implication being that the bourgeoisie is much the same wherever it exists. And the process continues today, they still protect and isolate themselves from the outside world by means of security locks and alarm systems. They live, in effect, in their own self-contained world.

                                  As gates and railings suggest certain characteristics of bourgeois life, so do the gardens that lie immediately inside them. As the lovers in "Age of Gold" escape into the gardens of the Marquis of X, they do so along a pathway flanked by beautiful trees and, in the foreground, an elegant vase placed on a pedestal. At the end of the garden they approach a neatly cut hedge, behind which cypresses rise at regular intervals, and in front of which there are flower beds and wicker garden chairs placed on either side of a classical statue. In short, the garden of the Marquis of X have a formality and elegance that reflect the importance of these characteristics in bourgeois life as a whole. All is meticulous and studied control.

                                In other films, notably in "Viridiana", Bunuel depicts neglected estates or gardens out of control in order to suggest the state of mind of their owners, but the formal garden described above is as much a part as his depiction of and comment on the nature of the bourgeoisie as the elegant interior of their houses. The other important detail in Bunuel's major films is the great shots of entrance halls, drawing rooms, dining-halls, bedrooms and corridors.



                                The bourgeois dining-room has particular pride  of place in "Viridiana" and "The Exterminating Angel." In the former, the absence of Viridiana and Jorge allows the beggar to enter the main house and make use of the dining-room in order to fill their stomachs. Their meal ends in chaos, with wine spilled, glasses and plates smashed, and food hurled around the room, but even so we are able to form a clear impression of this splendid room. In "The Exterminating Angel", the dining-room in which Nobile entertains his sophisticated guests is even more magnificent. Plates and cutlery are perfectly arranged on the white-table cloth, a great chandelier occupies the center of the ceiling, and paintings and tapestries decorate the walls.


Penultimate scene in "Viridiana" resembling Davinci's "Last Supper"

                               Bourgeois society, because it is basically patriarchal, is also shown by Bunuel to relegate woman to a position of secondary importance. To a large extent, this attitude towards woman was attributed to the influence of the church. In "Age of Gold", the elegant bourgeois woman who accompany their dinner-jacketed husbands to the Marquis of X's dinner party are little more than accessories, helped out of the car on arrival, clinging to their spouse's arm as they enter the house, smiling and paying dutiful attention to the men's conversation but clearly playing little serious part in it. And much the same can be said of the woman in "The Exterminating Angel" and "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie."

                                  Severine in "Belle de Jour" has a flawless beauty and beautiful wardrobe, which make her the most elegant wife in the whole of Bunuel's cinema, but, her bourgeois husband fails to treat her as a woman of flesh and blood, seriously neglecting her deep sexual desires. Women as the victims of male exploitation are also, of course, very frequent. Tristana is used by Don Lupe for his sexual gratification and, because she is financially dependent on him. He undoubtedly regards her as an attractive accessory, a young woman for whom he buys quite elegant clothes, and whom he likes to show off when they go out walking. Similarly, Viridiana, the totally innocent novice nun, becomes the object of the sexual desires of Don Jaime and his more predatory son, Jorge.

                                Drugged by the former so that he can possess her, she is, after his death, subjected to Jorge's sexual innuendo. And when, at the end of the film, she becomes his mistress, sharing him with the servant, Ramona, it is perfectly clear that both woman will be dispensed with when Jorge has become tired of them. While Bunuel Pillories the bourgeoisie for many things, he also highlights its complacency, emotional paralysis and lack of imagination. In "The Exterminating Angel" Nobile's bourgeois companions complacently accept the fact that they are unable to leave the drawing-room at the end of the evening. They merely sit around, remove their jackets when it is time to go to sleep, and, when daylight arrives, attempt to continue their normal activities. After weeks of captivity and lacking food and water, they become desperate and bourgeois sophistication is transformed into animal savagery, but release from their plight quickly restores their habitual complacency, for when we see them in church they are once again their former shelves.


Exterminating Angel: Trapped Inside the Dining-room
                                    The repetitious and stereotyped nature of bourgeois activity suggests, in addition, a lack of imagination. Throughout Bunuel's films, elegant houses echo each other, one dinner-party is much like another, encounters, gestures and conversations are constantly repeated, and little happens that is unpredictable. In such circumstances there is clearly little scope for the imagination, which implies the very opposite of activities that are dull, repetitious and devoid of excitement.

                                    Bunuel also great delight in shocking bourgeois' complacency to the very foundations. In "Viridiana", the drunken behavior of the beggars, which almost wrecks the elegant dining room of Don Jaime's house, is an unwelcome shock to Jorge and Viridiana when they return to the house. And in "Tristana", the episode in which Tristana and Horacio kiss in public certainly ruffles the feathers of the bourgeois family that witnesses it.

                                  Much more common, in Bunuel's films, is the disruption of the normal pattern of bourgeois life by unpredictable and unexpected events, of which "The Exterminating Angel" offers a number of relevant examples. Firstly, before Nobile and his guests arrive at his house for dinner, the servants and cooks decide to leave for unexplained reasons, much to the dismays of their masters and thereby disrupting preparations for the rest of the evening. At the end of the ending, as we have seen, Nobile's guests prepare to leave the drawing-room. And prior to this, we see that their conversation, although distinguished by the shape and formal structure that normally characterizes bourgeois dialogue, is shot through with unintended comments and observations, as if they have no control over what they are saying.
               
                                Bunuel uses dreams and horror stories to disturb the elegant surface of bourgeois behavior, but, in doing so, he also makes a complacent bourgeoisie aware that there are things buried deep in its own unconscious that it may prefer to hide or ignore, but which at any moment may rise to the surface. A rather different threat to bourgeois composure is to be found in political activity of different kinds, as the terrorist attack in "The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie" suggests. Indeed, bourgeois seems in Bunuel's films to be constantly on edge, ever aware of its vulnerability to outside forces that threaten its conservative way of life. For this reason, as we have seen, it goes to considerable lengths to protect itself by means of walls, railings and gates against all manner of intruders, be they, burglars, terrorists or revolutionaries, but the threat of disruption is always present. 



                                Bunuel's scrutiny of bourgeoisie is comprehensive and minute, engaging his attention from his first film to last, even if in later years his attitude becomes not so much outraged as mocking and ironic. Bunuel's background was, by his own admission, extremely bourgeois: much more so than that of many of his surrealist companions. But, in the later years, his life-style, distinguished by austerity, largely reflected his anti-bourgeois stance. It is said that, Bunuel's bedroom was as austere as a monk's cell. The director, seventy-three at the time, slept on wooden boards, covering himself only with a rough blanket. Even though Bunuel's income greatly increased after movies like "Belle de Jour", the simplicity of his life was not affected. 

                                  The surrealists wished to explode the social order and to transform life itself. But, Bunuel seems to have realized from an early stage the ultimate futility of that aim, that 'we do not live in the best of possible worlds', and that the most a creative artist can do is express that view in whatever form he sees fit. 

 Luis Bunuel -- Wikipedia

Luis Bunuel Quotes

Luis Bunuel -- Harvard Film Archive

Bunuel -- Guardian

1 comment:

Simon Rutar said...

Even i don't like much these kind of movies, this is a good review. But i do like music like that.