It is quite possible that the most fitting work of art to premiere onstage this year as an appropriate expression of the times is Thomas Ades’s searing opera, The Exterminating Angel. Apocalyptic, cataclysmic, it tells the story of a group of wealthy dinner guests who cannot leave a mansion, pushed back by an invisible force. Civilization soon crumbles and they become savages. The opera is noteworthy as both a work by Ades, certainly one of the great modern composers, and because it is an adaptation of a film by Luis Buñuel. More than most filmmakers, Buñuel’s cinema endures as both landmark filmmaking and as a powerful set of visions which interpret the human condition. His body of work spans from 1929 to 1977, yet feels even more at home now, in this age of surreal gestures and civilization as madhouse. Buñuel was keenly aware that humans are driven by desire, tribalism, and the power of fantasy. It is when these three mix within his cinema that even his lesser films maintain a dangerous undercurrent.
It is not surprising that Ades chose Buñuel as his latest muse. His cinema is one great unleashing of the subconscious. Buñuel’s great debut was the 1929 short film Un Chien Andalou, written with Salvador Dali, which opens with a young man (Buñuel), sharpening a razorblade before using it to slice open a woman’s eye. This searing, enduring image is as striking today as when it first illuminated Paris film screens. It is followed by a series of chaotic images in which a woman finds a severed hand on a street corner, another woman is chased by a lust-driven attacker, ants appear in palms, guns materialize, a man drags a piano carrying dead donkeys and resting priests.
It was this film that brought Buñuel into the orbit of the Surrealists in Paris led by the visionary Andre Breton. Heirs to the Dadaists, the Surrealists were artistic, anarchic interpreters of the subconscious through painting, poetry, literature, photography and cinema. They were artistic terrorists, daring to assault conventional society through spontaneous, provocative expressions. This was the generation still emerging from the ruins of World War I, when European civilization had descended into a bloodbath of roaring steel and toxic gas. For the Surrealists, conformism, nationalism and elite values were mere masks for societies that were quite mad. In his seminal essay Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia, Walter Benjamin described the Surrealist ethos as, “Mistrust in the fate of literature, mistrust in the fate of freedom, mistrust in the fate of humanity.”
The cinema of Buñuel finds itself at home in the 20th century because once more progress has failed to deliver us from the toxins of nationalism, capitalist exploitation and the threat of war. Buñuel’s second major film is a key embodiment of this reality. L’age d’or, made in 1930, is a hallucinatory, sensual attack against bourgeoisie society and tradition. It focuses on two lovers who are so enflamed by desire that they devour each other, but are constantly separated by social demands and etiquette. The film mocks the pillars of the European world in the early 20th century. In an early scene vagabonds in a rocky shore find the skeletons of Catholic bishops, their adornments now decorating bones. In another scene a man kicks a violin down the street and when the film moves into a lavish dinner party, animals walk around the lush mansion unnoticed, servants are killed by flames but the elegant guests carry on. The lovers are reunited, and with ecstatic passion they embrace to the sounds of a nearby orchestra playing Richard Wagner’s exhilaratingly romantic Tristan & Isolde (Buñuel would return to this theme in his gothic rendition of Wuthering Heights, Abismos de Pasion). Their limbs become stumps. Is not passion all devouring? But when they are once again separated the man goes mad and unleashes a rampage in the mansion, destroying luxurious bed spreads and throwing the Pope out a window. True, human contact and love in its purest form is constantly denied in the capitalist world. Consumerism has deadened us. In Buñuel’s vision the denial of true love shall unleash destructive forces. As Octavio Paz wrote of the film, “this film is one of the few attempts in modern art to reveal the terrible face of love at liberty.”
L’Age d’or closes with a provocative take on the Marquis de Sade’s profane novel The 120 Days of Sodom. A castle is revealed in which a group of perverse aristocrats have gathered for a time of debauchery with selected youths. When the aristocrats emerge from the castle, the most perverse of the group looks like Jesus Christ. Ever the iconoclast, Buñuel, hailing from a traditional region of Spain which he described in his celebrated memoirs as Medieval, mocks the shallow iconography of organized religion. He would nod in recognition at the continuing downfall of the official Christian church in the United States, where its most vocal proponents and self-styled guardians of morality rush to support the most immoral of presidents.
Henry Miller was an early admirer of L’age d’or, penning an essay entitled “The Golden Age” in which he declared, “They have called Buñuel everything- traitor, anarchist, pervert, defamer, iconoclast. But lunatic they dare not call him. True, it is lunacy he portrays in his film, but it is not of his making. This stinking chaos which for a brief hour or so is amalgamated under his magic wand, this is the lunacy of man’s achievements after ten thousand years of civilization.” We are of course asking ourselves today if the headlines we read every day are the result of two centuries of the American experiment. Even now, Surrealism acts as a sharp blade and microscope of the inner rages driving us deeper into our present condition. Buñuel’s great American heir, David Lynch, is a key example of this.
1930 was of course a time of political turmoil in Europe, when fascist gangs- not unlike today’s torch bearers- roamed major capitals. One such group initiated a riot during a screening of L’age d’or and branded it as anti-nationalist (which it was) and perverse Jewish propaganda. The film would be banned for nearly 40 years. Six years later Buñuel would see fascism strike his own country as Spain descended into civil war. The Spanish Republic went into battle against the right-wing coup forces of General Francisco Franco, who was backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Again Buñuel’s generation watched as its ruling class became a pack of howling fascist wolves, and the radical banners of anarchism and Communism attracted partisans from all lands to travel to Spain and fight. The fall of the republic sent scores of Spanish intellectuals and artists abroad as Europe itself soon became a war zone. Buñuel would land in Mexico, where the next phase of his strange, but enrapturing work would commence.
Buñuel’s Mexican period is a fascinating body of work where the need to make a living combines with the hidden but ever present passions of the artist. Buñuel would direct melodramas and comedies, even one musical. But each one would contain within it that cynical humor and radical gaze that is so timeless.
In 1950 Buñuel would descend into the urban heart of darkness in Mexico City with Los Olvidados. This is a tragic film of grit and fury, in which a group of Mexican street children survive as they can, through violence if necessary. The adults are themselves victims of a brutally unequal system. The protagonist, Pedro, has a good heart yet finds himself swallowed by a world dominated by the predatory bully El Jaibo. Pedro’s own mother is conditioned by a ruthless, patriarchal system and she raises her children through bitterness masked as authority. In one of the film’s great sequence Pedro dreams of his mother as a vision handing him meat over which he and El Jaibo fight. This is a film where poverty is a product of social forces, and such forces then provoke violence and in El Jaibo’s case, murder. The film was attacked by Mexico’s nationalist elite at the time. Buñuel’s film appeared at time when Mexico’s golden age of film produced recycled soaps full of macho gunslingers, crooning Casanovas and ladies in long skirts swooning to their charms. In Surrealist fashion, Buñuel’s film exploded like dynamite. No society likes to look at itself in the mirror, because our reflections are never pleasant.
While Buñuel would direct a vast array of films, the best being titles like El, a wicked take on male jealousy which Alfred Hitchcock admired, Simon of the Desert, a comic riff on religious blindness about a saint on a pillar, and Viridiana, a baroque masterpiece about a nun who finds her good intentions challenged by the chaos of unchained desires and human nature, it is The Exterminating Angel which finds itself as a metaphor for this age.
It is a savage assault on the ruling classes. It is set inside a Mexico City mansion where a group of aristocratic Mexicans gather for dinner. As they share the usual, banal niceties and backhanded compliments, the mansion’s servants mysteriously flee. When the guests move the party to a small living room to hear a recital, they suddenly find themselves held back by some invisible force that won’t let them leave the mansion. Abandoned by the help, they are now indeed helpless. Before long all etiquette breaks down, tempers flare, desires are released and primal, animal furies reveal themselves.
Today, as much of the country is terrified of the president and his ruling clique, much of the citizenry is beginning to doubt the sanity of the ruling system. In the dinner scene early in the film we meet the various characters of this affair as they sit waiting for their meal while mocking each other in whispers. They even give each other nick names- as we humans tend to do- such as “the Valkyrie” to a quiet blonde played by legendary Mexican actress Silvia Pinal. When the mansion’s servants inexplicably decide to leave and abandon their masters, one cannot help but think of refugees fleeing a decaying old order. Isn’t the world today convulsed by waves of the downtrodden fleeing infernos created by their rulers in the Middle East and Central America?
The Exterminating Angel works as brutal satire because it uses surrealism to expose how beneath our pretensions at being civilized, we can easily snap. Buñuel captures this with biting, anarchic humor. The reserved oligarchs, savage and violent only through gossip and quiet slights, turn into ravenous barbarians when decorum falls apart. Still dressed in their elegant clothes, the elites are reduced to breaking open water pipes from the mansion walls for water and eating paper for sustenance. In another scene a guest resorts to screaming a Masonic call for help.
When Buñuel returned to Europe with his 1967 French classic Belle de Jour, he lost none of the surrealist edge he had refined while in exile. Belle de Jour stars the luminously elegant Catherine Deneuve as a wealthy but bored Parisian housewife who decides try working at a brothel out of private, sadomasochist urges. She has daydreams of being tied and whipped, or smeared with mud. Yet the film is never graphic. Buñuel, being a true surrealist, knew that eroticism and sensuality are most potent within the imagination.
There are many rich subtexts in this film, but it is on the surface another commentary on the vapidity of capitalist society. Deneuve is all style and proper etiquette, but underneath her wondrous smile lie more primitive impulses. Buñuel is never judgmental, but merely observant, like an anthropologist. He knows we are hypocrites, but sees no change in that reality. If revolution will come it will erupt from social conditions and forces, yet our very natures will remain. We are not lost, maybe, but we remain ever so human. One wonders while watching this film what Melania Trump dreams at night, in the imperial loneliness of the White House.
Buñuel’s last film, 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire, is a surreal romance where an older man falls for a younger woman (played by two different actresses). Yet she teases and denies him, and he falls ever more madly in love. We wonder if it is true love or mere, mad desire. Yet there’s another undercurrent in this film, and that is terrorism. Urban guerrillas carry out kidnappings and bombings, with hilarious names like “The Army of the Baby Jesus.” The final scene sees the frame covered in flame. This is the world today. We love, we ache, we obsess, cry and whine, even as the ever present threat of violence stalks every corner.
If Buñuel is now great opera, it is only because his cinema already contains the great human forces that provide drama, humor and a keen sense of the world. This is an age when all desires and prejudices are openly thrown like dynamite sticks on television or internet streams. Even our rulers vomit any unfiltered river that courses through their thought processes. But Buñuel and the Surrealists remind us that nationalism and flags are but artificial borders, because we are all still but merely human. Our hearts are ever so desiring, ever so violent, ever so hopeful, and ever so dark.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.