Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Annual Bunuel

I've taken a real liking to the films of Luis Bunuel in the past few years, enough so that I feel like I've seen more of them than I actually have.

And as I look back on my notes, I'm not actually seeing them "annually," as implied in the subject of this post (chosen primarily for its play on words). I saw The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in October of 2013, and it wasn't until last June that I saw the film that really sealed my new crush on the noted Spanish director and sometimes surrealist: The Exterminating Angel. But those two movies in four years have, I guess, made me think I'm building toward an appreciation of his filmography in a regular, systematic fashion.

Unfortunately, that appreciation of his filmography took a step backward with Viridiana, which I watched on Sunday night.

I should have known it was unwise to try to watch a foreign language film starting at 9:30 the night after I got a bad night's sleep camping, but the first movie I was planning to watch -- another foreign language movie, a documentary, in the form of The Five Obstructions -- was one my wife saw me starting and said she'd watch with me on another night. So I switched over to Viridiana, another film I had out from the library.

But I don't know that exhaustion played a big role in my judgment of Viridiana, even though I paused it to take short naps about four times in its last 20 minutes. More than anything, I think it was the strangely misanthropic subject matter that bothered me. The two previous showcased Bunuel the prankster, the satirist. This is more Bunuel the sadist. I suppose there's a certain sadism built into a man who made famous the image of a blade slicing an eyeball, but for me, it hasn't come out in his themes until this movie.

The movie is about a nun (the striking Silvia Pinal) about to take her vows, who pays a last visit to her uncle (Bunuel regular Fernando Rey), who has supported her financially but whom she dislikes. Although he initially comes off as generous and harmless, barely even eccentric, there's a good reason she dislikes him if his forthcoming behavior is any indication. Struck by a resemblance in his niece to his late wife, he enlists another woman indebted to him to drug his niece and have his way with her. Although he decides not to violate her at the last moment, he does later on propose to marry her. And it only gets weirder from there.

Let's just say no one comes out clean, no one gets off easy, and the only person who shows a hint of personal charity is punished for it. In case you don't want me to spoil a 56-year-old movie, I won't tell you where it goes from there, except that its direction is reflective of a steep pessimism about human nature.

As this felt like a departure for me for Bunuel, it didn't sit particularly well with me. Both of the previous two films are satires about the bourgeoisie and their proclivities and social habits, one largely whimsical, one a bit discomfiting, but both clearly tongue in cheek in some important way. Viridiana is far more despairing, though I guess it's wicked in some similar ways. However, maybe Viridiana is the norm and those later films were the departure, or perhaps, not the departure but the finding of his true voice. The Exterminating Angel was his very next film in 1962, and Bourgeoisie came some ten years later.

How it all stacks up in the grand sweep of his career is something I still know comparatively little about, as the only other Bunuel film I've seen is the previously referenced silent classic Un Chien Andalou.

Viridiana notwithstanding, I plan to keep deepening my understanding of this always challenging filmmaker ... on about an annual basis.

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