The Essentials: Luis Bunuel

Anti-establishment to the core and arguably one of the original enfante terrible filmmakers, Luis Bunuel had three preoccupations, no, obsessions that he charted for his entire career: religion, class and sexual desire. Labeled a surrealist early on his career due to “Un Chien Andalou,” his famous collaboration with Salvador Dali (responsible for one of cinema’s most famous images, of a razor blade slicing an eyeball, and made when the filmmaker was just 29) it would be extremely pat to reduce Bunuel’s long and eclectic career to that idiosyncratic work. A blasphemous heretic to the church, several of Bunuel’s films were flagrant censures of religion and the Catholic church, which saw him fleeing Spain more than once during his career. 

But, as we said, religion was hardly his only preoccupation. A diabolical provocateur, Bunuel was an incorrigible scourge of hypocrites, authority and the bourgeoise, even while he continued to operate within the system (he was under contract to Hollywood studios through much of the 1940s, though no work came of it, and won an Academy Award late in his career), his films often proving to be delicious and delirious screeds, even if they were often more soulful than his critics believe.

We’re always looking for a good excuse to indulge in our cinephile tendencies and with Bunuel’s “Tristana” coming out on Blu-Ray this month, via the Cohen Media Group, we felt this was as good as excuse as any to discuss one of our favorite filmmakers. Bunuel’s career is pretty expansive, lasting as it did for almost seventy years, but we’ve picked out ten of his films from across the decades that we believe are the true essentials of his career. Take a look below.

Los Olvidados”(1950)
Much more in tune with Italian neorealism than the surrealism he became known for, Bunuel’s “Los Olvidados” was the filmmaker’s first feature-length film and second international breakthrough made twenty years after the director’s original success and notoriety with “Un Chien Adalou” and “L’Age d’Or.” Translated literally as “The Forgotten Ones” and released as “The Young and the Damned” in the U.S., the picture is uncharacteristically conventional and an uncompromising, grim and tragic examination of the marginalized and destitute children of Mexico’s slums (and not thematically different from 1932’s faux documentary “Land Without Bread,” a look at Spain’s own paucity though without as much contemptible bite). A powerful social-realist story of juvenile delinquents without many redeeming qualities outside of their love for each other, “Los Olvidados” wastes no time depicting the dire and inevitably heartbreaking circumstances that will decide their fate. Centering on two street punks caught in the cycle of poverty and violence in the disease-ridden barrios of Mexico, one has a semblance of decency while the other, recently escaped from juvenile detention, seems incorrigibly malicious, a victim of circumstance. During a fight, the elder unpleasant boy accidentally kills another boy and threatens his younger accomplice to never utter a word. Charting the consequences it has on both teenagers and their friendship, the picture features nary a trace of the director’s fanciful flourishes, though the movie does contain a dream sequence where one of the guilt-ridden boys is haunted by the murder. After an ignominious 20 years where Bunuel had to leave Spain for the U.S. and take odd jobs to pay the rent (working at MOMA in New York, acting as a Spanish Dubbing Producer, getting removed from the production staff of Warner Bros.‘ “Beast With Five Fingers” in 1946), before coming to Mexico, “Los Olvidados” was a major comeback for the director (at the ripe old age of 50 no less) and he would direct a startling 26 more pictures until his death in 1983 at the age of 83. While ‘Olvidados’ was reviled in Mexico initially — the Mexicans saw this foreigner’s film as an insult to their country, so much so that an alternate “happy” ending was shot — Bunuel won the Best Director prize at Cannes that year and the film was immediately reappraised within the country as the director shot back to international celebrity status.

Viridiana” (1961)
Almost 30 years after “Land Without Bread,” Bunuel returned from his Spanish exile with “Viridiana” and it almost made him persona non grata within his homeland all over again. Scandalizing the Church and denounced by the Vatican, the picture was censored by the Spanish government on the grounds of blasphemy and obscenity due to its risqué sexual nature and a “Last Supper” homage depicting ungrateful beggars dining in the same pose as Da Vinci’s famous painting. Commencing with Bunuel’s characteristic perverted sexual predilections, the picture begins with a young nun Viridiana (Silvia Pinal, in their first collaboration), who days before taking her final vows in the convent, goes to visit her wealthy and aging uncle who has provided for her all these years (Fernando Rey, the villain in “The French Connection,” in the first of four key collaborations with Bunuel). Struck by the resemblance to his former wife, the old man soon becomes fixated and then completely obsessed with his niece; begging her to marry him and going as far as to convince her he has raped her, so she will assume the convent will never have her, as she has been tarnished for life. Before the narrative can become Bunuel’s distinctive riff on lecherous old men bewitched with beauty, the uncle dies and the picture seemingly switches gears. Viridana is so deeply disturbed she forgoes her duties to the church and devotes her life to feeding and educating a needy group of vagabonds and paupers in the house that has been left to her and her cousin. But it becomes clear the theme of spoiled idealism remains the same when the beggars show their true colors as vile degenerates and thieves. Another more conventional narrative compared to some of his other works (the filmmaker would vacillate between the two types of filmmaking for the early part of his career), “Viridana,” isn’t as wicked and naughty as some of Bunuel’s more slyly arch films, but the picture is still strikingly audacious. Considered by some to be his masterpiece, the film won the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival – the only film of his career to win the prestigious award.

“The Exterminating Angel” (1962)
Perhaps a close as Bunuel ever came to making a (very satirical) horror film, “The Exterminating Angel” would see the filmmaker veer toward some of his surrealist tendencies concurrent with his gleeful fondness for sending up and putting the bourgeois through their paces. A posh jacket and tie dinner party filled with the upper crust is taking place in an aristocratic mansion when suddenly the servants and help feel the urge to abandon their posts and exit immediately. The dinner guests have little time to be outraged by their discovery when they too soon feel an overwhelming sensation: they cannot leave the party. Inexplicably trapped in some kind of mental psychosis, there are neither locks nor barred windows preventing them from leaving, but all the dinner guests remain bizarrely incarcerated. When they do muster the strength and courage to unify and leave, one by one they fall into a type of hopeless despair. Worse, left on their own, a “Lord Of The Flies”-like scenario begins to emerge with the guests turning on one another with blame, threats of violence, paranoia and duplicity. It’s all very wickedly arch and archetypal, and Bunuel can practically be heard howling with laughter at their plight. Merrily malevolent, as the guests of “The Exterminating Angel” devolve into a courteous savagery the film gets even weirder involving sheep, witchcraft, a bear and a creepy disembodied hand. Black humor is an essential tool in the Bunuel arsenal, but it’s perhaps never as quite as deliciously devilish as it is in this witty and scathing censure of the affluent and privileged.

The Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964)
Not to be confused with the Jean Renoir-directed 1946 film of the same name starring Paulette Goddard, “The Diary of a Chambermaid” marked the beginning of Luis Buñuel’s second French period (that also included “Belle de Jour,” “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”). The film stands out amongst Buñuel’s work as a conventional narrative rather than his characteristic surrealism. This adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s novel also marked the first project with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, with whom Buñuel would work with for the rest of his career. Jeanne Moreau stars as the titular chambermaid, and nabbed the role after meeting Bunuel for lunch, with the director taken by the sway of her ankles (which came in handy for the foot fetish scene). Buñuel once said, “Sexual perversion repulses me, but I can be attracted to it intellectually.” And Buñuel met his match in “The Diary of a Chambermaid.” The film follows Célestine (Moreau) after she moves from Paris to a rural Normandy estate where she works for a family of hypocrites and perverts. This seedier side of the French upper crust includes an avid animal hunter and woman chaser (Michel Piccoli, marking their second of seven collaborations), a haughty and frigid mistress of the house (Françoise Lugagne), and an elderly gentleman who calls on Célestine for his “whims” (which translates to indulging his foot-fetishism). Our heroine is no angel either as she attempts to use her feminine wiles to secure a place above her station while overlooking the possible repercussions of indulging an idle upper class. Transplanting the story from late 1800s to 1930, Buñuel was able to comment on French fascism and extremist politics, blaming the moral decay of the bourgeoisie for the subsequent political demise. The film ends with a political demonstration and protesters shouting “Down with the Republic! Death to the Jews! Long live Chiappe!” The name Chiappe is Buñuel’s revenge against the rightwing civil servant Jean Chiappe, who suppressed Buñuel’s “L’Age D’Or” in 1930. Its flirtation with moral depravity, absurdist satirical touches, and an unflinching Jeanne Moreau make “The Diary of a Chambermaid” a must-see Buñuel film. On a more current note, Marion Cotillard is in talks to star as Célestine in an upcoming Benoit Jacquot-directed adaptation.

Simon Of The Desert” (1965)
Bunuel’s last film in Mexico, and the final part of the trilogy on religion preceded by “Viridiana” and “The Exterminating Angel,” “Simon of the Desert” might seem slight on the surface — it’s less than 45 minutes long. But you wouldn’t want it to be a second longer as it’s small, perfectly-formed and profound. Based loosely on the Syrian saint Simeon Stylites, the film follows his son, Simon (Claudio Brook) , who’s spent 6 years, 6 weeks and 6 days living up on an eight-foot pillar. He’s brought down to try out a new pillar built for him by the locals; only the first in a series of temptations, mostly brought to him by a female Satan (Bunuel muse Silvia Pinal) that will eventually see him transported to a 1960s nightclub New York. While the film is as skeptical and savage about the Catholic Church, and religion in general, as most of Bunuel’s films of this period (Simon heals an amputee, who then uses his hands to hit his child), in Simon, there’s a holy fool at the center of the film for whom Bunuel shows surprising empathy. It’s a reminder that the director’s issue was never with God, but with the people who act in his name. Stylistically, it’s an austere, ascetic piece of work, marking a shift between his Mexican films and later masterpieces like “The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie,” and while it’s little bit more dry in comparison to his more mischievous works, and perhaps a film for completeists only, it’s still well worth seeking out.

Belle De Jour” (1967)
Perhaps as iconic and well-known a film as anything that Bunuel made other than “Un Chien Andalou,” “Belle Du Jour” was atypical for the filmmaker in its success, and a firm evocation of his merits and values. (It was his biggest commercial hit, and won the Golden Lion and earned a BAFTA nomination for star Catherine Deneuve, though the filmmaker attributed its popularity “more to the marvelous whores than to my direction”). Deneuve plays Severine, a young Parisian housewife who loves her husband (Jean Sorel), but is unable to be attracted to him physically, despite her own sadomasochistic fantasies. After advances from one of her husband’s friends, Husson (Michel Piccoli, again), she starts working in a brothel, becoming involved with a younger gangster (Pierre Clementi), but he becomes obsessive, ultimately shooting her husband, and leaving him in a coma. Despite the scurrilous subject matter, there’s little explicit material in “Belle Du Jour,” but it’s still among the most erotic films ever made, the repression, secret desires and fetishes seeping out of every frame. Bunuel knows that true eroticism comes from the mind, not from images, and the surreal tinges meld with psychological realism in a way that’s pretty much unforgettable (not least in the famous box scene). But the film has much more on its mind than just sex; it’s a wry, witty comedy of manners, and a pathos-filled love story, too. And of course, it provides Catherine Deneuve, one of the cinema’s greatest screen goddesses, with her most iconic part. It’s telling that, when Manoel De Olivera directed a belated sequel forty years on with “Belle Toujours,” (without Deneuve), it fell decidedly flat; “Belle De Jour” without Bunuel’s touch simply doesn’t work.

The Milky Way” (1969)
Bunuel began on another cinematic triptych (as he termed it in his autobiography “My Last Sigh“) with “The Milky Way,” one of his most anarchic, provocative and divisive pictures. The filmmaker said that along with “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “The Phantom of Liberty,” the three films had the same themes, “the same grammar; and all evoke the search for truth, as well as the necessity of abandoning it as soon as you’ve found it.” The film centers on two men, making a pilgrimage from Paris to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, who along the way, encounter a number of incidents and characters who depict, or represent, Catholic heresies, from debates over the divinities of Christ, to the crucifixion of nuns, to the virginity of the Virgin Mary (played by “Eyes Without A Face” and “Holy Motors” star Edith Scob). While sounding like a dry exercise, the film is playful and absurd, nodding to Chaucer and reminiscent of Monty Python as it hops through time, while the script (co-written with Jean-Claude Carriere) makes the theological arguments engaging and surprisingly even-handed. Talky in the same way that ‘Bourgeoisie’ is without being quite as enjoyable or ironic, we can see why it’s a film perhaps better suited to the hardcore Bunuel fan than the beginner, but “The Milky Way” is still worthy and conspicuous in the director’s oeuvre.

“Tristana” (1970)
Quintessential Bunuel, “Tristana” is yet another picture about unrequited love and desire also featuring an obsessive and overprotective bourgeois father figure, a May–December romance and touches of surrealism (yes, he couldn’t get enough). It could even be said “Tristana” was a type of take two or spiritual sequel to “Viridana” given all its similarities, but this time the patriarch does not off himself, instead haunting his young concubine with his restless sexual overtures and desire for control and ownership. Catherine Deneuve stars once again as the titular orphaned youth entrusted into the guardianship of an older, well-respected, but impoverished nobleman (Fernando Rey). Since this is a Luis Bunuel film, the man naturally flips head over heels for her and she briefly even sexually acquiesces. But bored of this old man, she eventually leaves him for an artist closer to her age (spaghetti western and original “Django” star Franco Nero). Another critique of Catholicism and modern society with a few surrealistic flourishes, when Tristana falls ill and loses a leg, she would rather return to care of her former guardian – rich now thanks to an inheritance – and stay in that passionless relationship than endure the harsh realities of her circumstances, all the while calculating a deeper plot. Perhaps a minor work overall, or at least one of the lesser sex, control and desire films, “Tristana” is still beguiling and comically strange. 

The Discreet Charms Of The Bourgeoise” (1972)
Along with “Belle De Jour” and “Un Chien Andalou,” “The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie” is one of Luis Bunuel’s best known works, thanks to winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (and winning Bunuel and co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere another for Original Screenplay). And yet it’s perhaps aged less well than anything else he’s made; unlike other more timeless subjects of his satire, the mores and morality of the upper-middle-class sometimes feels likes shooting fish in a barrel, even if the filmmaking remains impeccable. The film revolves around six bourgeois friends, including Bunuel favorites Fernando Rey and Jean-Pierre Cassel (Vincent Cassel‘s father) as they continually try, and fail, to sit down for a meal together. From getting the wrong day, to the death of a restaurant owner, to a police raid, to the intervention of a ghost, the sextet are constantly thwarted, their hypocrisies (and perhaps more importantly, those of the audience) constantly put on show. The film is playful, both cinematically and comedically, and it’s one of Bunuel’s most purely enjoyable films, but can’t help but feel like it’s hitting low-hanging fruit, especially given the weightier themes that Bunuel had cast his satirical eye on before. That said, it’s still a lot of fun, and an important and influential entry in his filmography, but it may not quite deserve to sit among the very, very best of the filmmaker’s canon.

“That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977)
A wicked, devilish and surrealist look at the ravenousness of longing, lust and passion, Luis Buñuel’s “That Obscure Object of Desire” is his ultimate picture and arguably one of his best — a culmination of a lifetime of obsessions rolled into one. Told in flashback and set against the backdrop of a terrorist insurgency in Spain, ‘Obscure Object’ centers on an aging Spanish man (Fernando Rey) who falls in love with and obsessively attempts to win the affections of an aloof, unattainable 19-year-old chambermaid. Played by two different women (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina), this unattainable beauty repeatedly frustrates this man’s romantic and sexual desires with a teasing back and forth that might drive any lover mad (indeed, sexual humiliation of the old and privileged seemed to be a central theme and one has to wonder in his old age if Bunuel was something of a masochist). Ostensibly a representation of the girl’s two disparate personalities (both Bouquet and Molina demonstrate two different types of behavior), it’s perhaps simply too facile to box in Buñuel like this, as the picture has its sly satirical elements and indictments of bourgeois society, as is per his usual. Buñuel’s 30th and final picture, the film earned him two Oscar nominations (Best Foreign Language Film and Best Adapted Screenplay), capping off a terrific and provocative career.

There’s even more to discover from Bunuel: 1960’s English language “The Young One” — his second and last American film; “El (This Strange Passion),” another tale of a May/December romance and obsession; “Death in the Garden,” starring the beautiful Simone Signoret, about a motley crew group of travelers who flee to the jungle after a revolution breaks out in a South American mining town; the absurd and scathing vignettes/loosely linked comedic episodes of “The Phantom of Liberty“; and “Nazarín,” about a priest who leaves his order and decides to go on a pilgrimage. Complete with the filmmaker’s disdain for organized religion, the latter picture won the little-awarded “International Prize” at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959. – Rodrigo Perez, Oli Lyttelton, Diana Drumm 

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