Death in the Garden (Luis Buñuel, Mexico/France, 1956) is now playing on The Auteurs in the US for free.
Luis Buñuel's reputation has been unvaryingly high for decades, and seems set to continue to soar, but an interesting dynamic is detectable in the appreciation of his work. For years, many of Buñuel's Mexican movies were hard to see: today, they are regarded by many as his best films, almost eclipsing the masterpieces he finished his itinerant career with in France. Even the most obscure films, once dismissed as "the Mexican melodramas," have gained plaudits. Apart from their individual merits, it's fascinating to see Don Luis struggle with genre subjects and attempt to bring his personal sensibility to bear on purely commercial material. Even his first Mexican film, Gran Casino (1947), a frankly stupid musical about the oil industry, featuring a tartan-kilted chorus line and love among the derricks, has moments of grotesque poetry.
A Franco-Mexican co-production, Death in the Garden (Le mort en ce jardin/La muerte en el jardín/Evil eden/Gina, 1956), might at first seem like a transitory work, looking forward to the later European productions, but in fact it's more of a throwback to the melodramas. Producer Oscar Dancigers seems to have envisaged a South American action thriller to cash in on the box office of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (1953), and Buñuel the obliging hack was a suitable risk-free director: his customary efficiency, honesty and reliability would commend him to any producer seeking to shoot on distant and difficult locations.
But what can be seen in the film is considerably more interesting than the production history would suggest.
The opening action concerns a dispute between diamond miners and government troops in an unnamed South American state. Charles Vanel, one of the stars of Clouzot's earlier hit, appears as an apolitical prospector with a holy innocent deaf-mute daughter (Michele Girardon), and Michel Piccoli enters as a priest, attempting to suppress a bloody revolution with words of reason—he's basically an unconscious force of political repression, and Buñuel treats him mercilessly. Everyone in the first half of the film is concerned with money, except Piccoli, whose needs are taken care of (he modestly shows off the expensive watch gifted him by the church). Simone Signoret plays a tart without a heart, and even she is not quite the most venal character on show. Leading man Georges Marchal is a lout, but his ruthlessness will make him the natural leader later when the film mutates into a tale of survival in the wilderness.
It's this mutation that gives Buñuel a chance to seize the initiative, and he does so all at once, in a single scene. Forced to flee into the jungle after becoming variously embroiled in the revolutionary turmoil (although none of the characters are political agitators, or political at all—it's all a series of unfortunate events), our characters face starvation. While Marchal goes hunting for food, the others try to light a fire, but the wood is too damp. Marchal runs into snake, and thwacks it with his machete—all this without any Humane Society supervision, the wretched snake having been nailed in place like a serpentine Christ. Marchal returns to camp with his prey, where Poor Piccoli is tearing a page from his bible to help kindle a blaze. But Marchal starts the fire without using Piccoli's pages and the priest folds his torn page back into the Good Book. Looking up, he sees the snake, a crawling mass of ants, dead but still writhing. The image is beyond Buñuelian—it is Dalinean.
The very next scene opens with a shot of Paris, whose street sounds abruptly slur to a standstill as a cut reveals the image to be a postcard held by Vanel, still lost in the rain forest. Yet the traffic was moving a second ago. Our fugitives abandon everything: religion, memories of Paris, desire for money, and dream of soft boiled eggs. During the next day's trek, like Robinson Crusoes, they discover their own abandoned camp fire and think they've got company, until Vanel's daughter finds another of his postcards. Are these the same "dirty pictures" passed around in The Phantom of Liberty, a decade later? Buñuel's films have a way of joining hands...
And then: miracle! A downed aircraft laden with food, wine, jewelry, clean clothes, including some really nice frocks for the ladies. Another very Cruso-esque plot turn, not to mention a foretaste of Herzog. But Vanel has already gone melodramatically insane, and will soon start taking pot-shots at his comrades with a hunting rifle. Not for nothing has it been suggested that Don Luis structures his films around a "Yes...but" formula. "Yes, we've been saved by this crashed plane...but fifty passengers died so that miracle could happen. Yes, our troubles appear to be over... but here comes Vanel, and he's armed..."
The movie is all set to be a paean to the redemptive power of nature, hardship, or love, or something, as the variously avaricious or hypocritical characters are genuinely transfigured by their journey away from material possessions and into the wild. But nothing so simple or benevolent would satisfy Buñuel. His malign universe rains on the just and unjust alike, sometimes doling out spectacularly unfair punishments tinged with a nasty sense of humor we might recognize as the filmmaker's own.
Transflux Films' DVD offers charming interviews with Michel Piccoli, who tells delightful stories and hints at others which he cannot divulge, out of respect for Don Luis's fabled discretion, and Buñuel expert Victor Fuentes. The picture quality is wonderfully crisp and unblemished—my only complaint is that the whole image appears to be cropped, especially on the left (the first S of Simone Signoret's name is missing altogether, and all two-shots seem to greatly favour the characters at screen right). Although the box specifies a ratio of "1:66:1", which seems reasonable for the year (although the double colon suggests that somebody somewhere doesn't know what they're talking about), the actual film is presented in 1.33:1. If the cropping is due to a flaw in the original material, it might be nice if the DVD notes told us about this. Nevertheless, having previously only seen the film in a fuzzy VHS off-air recording from the early eighties, it was a revelation to see it as sharp as this. When it comes to obscure Buñuel, I've learned to take what I can get—but I hope to get something better someday.