Meaning and Madness: Close-Up on Luis Buñuel's "Viridiana" and "The Exterminating Angel"

Buñuel skewers the status quo with taboo imagery and disturbing scenarios involving sexual mania, religious hypocrisy, and social savagery.
Michael Joshua Rowin
Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Luis Buñuel's Viridiana (1961) is showing June 17 - July 17 and The Exterminating Angel (1962) is showing June 18 - July 18, 2017 in the United Kingdom.
It’s impossible to avoid describing the films of Spanish director Luis Buñuel as “surreal,” and yet to do so is woefully insufficient. This is for two reasons. In the first place, Buñuel never made one kind of film. In the second place, even his strangest films deal with social reality.
Early in his career Buñuel did associate himself with the Surrealist art movement. Among his first productions were the infamous Un chien Andalou (1929) and L'âge d'or (1930), experimental narratives co-written by Salvador Dali in which bizarre and violent psychosexual incidents connect via absurd dream logic. It’s worth bearing in mind that the Surrealists never meant “surreal” to act as a mere label for the uniquely strange. Beyond enacting any specifically “weird” artistic style, the Surrealists were primarily interested in distorting images and words to critique political and social conventions. Buñuel retained this principle in Land eithout Bread (1933), a satire of documentary filmmaking that denounced contemporary Spain’s economic inequality; even many of the films Buñuel made from 1947 to 1960 (in several different countries and languages) were popular genre pictures possessing left-leaning sentiments and morals. 
In 1961’s Viridiana and 1962’s The Exterminating Angel Buñuel developed a new style that was surrealist in both form and content. Employing the language of classical Hollywood cinema, both films skewer the status quo with taboo imagery and disturbing scenarios involving sexual mania, religious hypocrisy, and social savagery; the latter goes so far as to offer no explanation for its major narrative conflict, which seems to defy rationality altogether. It’s no coincidence that Buñuel arrived at this new style when he did. Viridiana was the first film Buñuel made in his native Spain since Land Without Bread. Personally as well as politically outraged by the country’s fascistic government, Buñuel directed Viridiana to initially look like a polite, respectable production before descending into a macabre attack on Spanish institutions. Whereas Buñuel sacrificed a clear message in his early films for visual anarchy, with Viridiana Buñuel brilliantly joined meaning and madness. 
It must be stressed that the brilliance of Viridiana depends largely on its attack on Franco’s Spain—apart from that the film can be understood in a very different manner. The title character (Silvia Pinal) is a young nun who reluctantly visits the dilapidated farming estate of her uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey). He asks her to wear his late wife’s wedding dress—Viridiana looks exactly like the wife, who died on the couple’s wedding night. Indeed, the Don wishes to redeem that tragedy by marrying Viridiana. When she refuses, the Don drugs her wine and fondles her while she lies unconscious. The next day the Don tells Viridiana that he raped her—this is to prevent her from returning to the convent, which demands a vow of celibacy. His plan backfires as a horrified Viridiana makes plans to leave the manor, continuing her flight even after the Don admits he lied about the rape. Just before boarding a bus to the convent Viridiana is informed that the Don has committed suicide.
The last two-thirds of the film act as a warped mirror image of the first third. Shaken by the Don’s suicide, Viridiana renounces her novitiate and goes to live on the manor, where she converts a shed into an almshouse for homeless beggars. But Jorge (Francisco Rabal), the Don’s illegitimate and estranged son, inherits the estate and begins restoring it to its former glory. He is also attracted to Viridiana, for whom he ends his relationship to suspicious and jealous girlfriend Lucia (Victoria Zinny). When Jorge and Viridiana temporarily leave the manor the beggars break in. Partaking in the luxuries they’ve been denied, their sumptuous feast quickly devolves into a drunken, violent orgy featuring fights, copulations, and frenzied dancing to the strains of Handel’s Messiah. Upon Jorge and Viridiana’s return most of the beggars scatter, while a few stay behind in an attempt to rape Viridiana, who is saved by Jorge. In the aftermath of the orgy Viridiana dejectedly gives up her goal of helping the poor. The last scene of the film depicts a disillusioned Viridiana accepting Jorge’s invitation to a game of cards with a servant named Ramona (Margarita Lozano), with whom he has begun an affair. The invitation for Viridiana to “shuffle the deck” with Jorge and Ramona contains a Spanish pun that implies a ménage a trois. (The ending was created when the official Spanish censor marked it for revision—incredibly, he allowed much of the rest of the film to remain as was. After receiving the Palme d’Or at Cannes the Vatican denounced the film, which was banned in Spain for the next seventeen years.) 
Viridiana is both politically radical and philosophically cynical. As a representative of Catholic and Christian morality, Viridiana chooses to help others as a way of vanquishing her personal desires. But the beggars eventually constitute a symbolic return-of-the-repressed: when the superego-like Viridiana leaves the destitute to their own devices, their ids run rampant. Christianity, Buñuel suggests, doesn’t temper sin so much as fan its flames.
The Don represents the decadent and declining aristocracy. Covered in refined trappings, his urges become perverted (sexual attraction turns into necrophilia and incest) and the trappings fall into ruin. The delusional Don believes status makes his demented desires appear socially acceptable, and when Viridiana rejects this false appearance the Don cannot bear to live. In contrast, Jorge more successfully plays the part a cultured gentleman because the appearance of his life is much closer to its reality. Whereas the Don let the manor decay as atonement for his decadence, Jorge restores the manor to showcase his status, wealth, and blithe disregard for modesty. Whereas the Don attempts to conceal and justify his immorality, Jorge remains unapologetic in his licentiousness: he openly dismisses social institutions like marriage and directly propositions the chaste Viridiana. Overall Buñuel paints a portrait of Franco’s Spain as an ocean of savagery and perversion underneath a thin, unconvincing coat of normality. 
But beyond its immediate social context Viridiana is mercilessly pessimistic concerning human nature, and much of the film’s bleakness lies in its lack of dimensionality. For instance, it’s difficult to feel satisfied by her comeuppance when Viridiana remains a thoroughly noble character. She never expresses or betrays self-righteous or vainglorious motivations for her charity, and so the climactic bacchanal that shatters her belief in selflessness comes across as undeserved. Inversely, Buñuel portrays the poor as completely irredeemable: they possess no positive qualities, while the negative ones—rudeness, filth, belligerence, disrespect for property and sexual propriety—fester when not held in check by an authority’s supervision. Indeed, at a slant Viridiana contains a conservative message. According to the film human beings are inherently perverted, lascivious, greedy, mean, and destructive. Only those like Jorge who openly disdain the very conventions that mask their immorality will succeed in life, or at least remain un-disillusioned by it—Buñuel’s refusal to champion Jorge above any of the other characters can easily be missed. 
However one chooses to view the film, Viridiana’s pleasures reside mainly, though not exclusively, in acerbic images of grotesquerie: the jump-rope with which Don Jaime hangs himself, the crucifix that doubles as a jackknife, and the tableau during the beggars’ bacchanal that parodies Da Vinci’s Last Supper. While these sight gags make up in comic audacity what they lack in subtle commentary, a few moments remain fairly ambiguous. In one scene Buñuel juxtaposes shots of Viridiana leading the beggars in the Angelus prayer with shots of the restoration of the mansion. Why does Buñuel contrast the peacefulness of Viridiana’s outdoor orison with the disruptive noise of construction work? In order to underscore the doomed nature of a quest to find a spiritual haven in a materialistic world?
The Exterminating Angel
Compared to Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel contains a simple story that revolves around a prototypically “surreal” conceit. At a bourgeois dinner the hosts and their guests simply fall asleep in the living room as the evening winds down. Upon awakening they cannot leave even though nothing is physically impeding them from doing so. Days go by: the guests destroy a wall in order to gather water from a pipe and roast sheep that wander into the room. Politesse, decorum, and sanity break down as the now-former friends openly voice their disdain for one another; two partygoers commit suicide. Finally, just before the guests decide to kill the host, one guest realizes that they are all positioned exactly as they were just before their strange slip into entropy. They reenact their conversation from the first night and suddenly are able to leave. However, the next day at the end of a church service the hosts and guests disappear from the congregation while the remaining parishioners and clergy find themselves unable to leave. Outside a riot breaks out, with the military firing on protestors.
Because it doesn’t even pretend to develop its characters, The Exterminating Angel is actually a more successful statement than Viridiana. Maintaining the outer cloaking of a conventional cinematic product, the film quickly reveals itself as a farce—and you can’t fault such a farce for not providing a comprehensive view of social reality. In this sense The Exterminating Angel serves as a model for much of Buñuel’s subsequent high-concept work: absurdist anti-religious vignettes (The Milky Way), absurdist satiric sketches of respectable society (The Phantom of Liberty), a group of friends mysteriously unable to eat together (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), an older man led on by an unobtainable younger woman (That Obscure Object of Desire).
In The Exterminating Angel virtually every individual scene stands for the anti-bourgeois whole: my personal favorite has one partygoer coming across another’s life-saving medicine and secretly, unscrupulously tossing it away. One can argue that the film plays a single note that bleats away against the Spanish upper class. That may be so, but the joy of the film is listening to how long and loud Buñuel can play it. The point isn’t simply that social graces dissolve under duress and without their supporting rituals and conventions, but that the depths of high society’s secret depravities are bottomless. Due to such underlying depravity, and no matter how much they may insulate themselves from those they exploit, those on the top will inevitably feast upon themselves. 
Finally, Buñuel’s refusal to explain how or why the guests cannot leave the room is The Exterminating Angel’s biggest coup. Just as Buñuel attacks social convention through satire, so does he attack cinematic convention through surrealism. It’s that audacity of invention and imagination that makes Buñuel’s films as stylistically radical as they are socially radical, and as ineffable and miraculous as they are caustic. It’s why his films continue to resonate beyond their contemporaneous urgency, and beyond the reductionism of all our silly labels.


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