“Luis was a jealous macho. His wife had to be a kind-of child woman who had not matured,” said Jeanne Rucar, Luis Buñuel’s wife, summing up their marriage (Gwynne Edwards, Companion to Buñuel, 2005). Rucar’s personal note has surprising bearing on the director’s oeuvre. Vicious, dreamlike, sly, witty, deviant—Buñuel the artist was all those things. Besides colorful tales of his petit bourgeois upbringing and his ascetic adult life, what truly fascinates is his surrealism. Buñuel left Spain for Paris five years before Un chien andalou (1929), and the French Surrealists embraced his work (even thought he claimed not to know about them while conceiving his debut). L'âge d'or (1930), his second collaboration with Salvador Dalí, followed, to critical acclaim.
What does this have to do with women? In her book on abstract expressionist art in New York, Ninth Street Women (2018), Mary Gabriel describes the Surrealists’ arrival in America. With the war in Europe, many Surrealist artists decamped to New York, Dalí and Duchamp among them. The Surrealist Salon was an outrageous, festive event, but from the start, glaringly chauvinistic. Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner were but one famous couple that soured on its mix of radical aesthetics yet social conservatism. It’s this contradiction, latent in Buñuel’s early career when he was discovering his cinematic language, which comes to the fore in his later work. Buñuel produced most of this mature work in France, after brief periods of working in the United States, and a much longer, highly productive albeit creatively less ambitious period in Mexico, in the 1940s and ‘50s.
The enigmatic, stunning Diary of the Chambermaid (1964), based on the novel by Octave Mirbeau and starring Jeanne Moreau, is a fine example of later Buñuel. A Parisian maid, Céléstine (Moreau), arrives in the French countryside, to find it overrun with dubious characters. Her elderly employer, a count, has her enact the sexual fantasies of his youth. The count’s son openly preys on her, while the brusque, uncouth carriage driver treats her with aloof savagery, until he too makes advances. Not a single man sees Céléstine as more than a sex target. Yet she stands her own. She charms the count, convinces his son she has syphilis, and when she suspects the driver of a brutal crime, she implicates him, while he believes she’s his. Then she marries a retired captain, though she has nothing but disdain for him as well. What is a girl to do? Buñuel clearly delights in the absurdist games, with Céléstine evasive and slippery as a snake. Moreau is a formidable performer, her presence so haughtily forlorn we never know what goes on in Céléstine’s head. Is revenge ultimately hers? Buñuel is after a bigger picture too—one of the film’s last images, of the driver saluting marching soldiers, frames the film to show the rise of authoritarian dictatorships (Buñuel, who had returned to Madrid to work for Warner Bros in mid 1930s, left his country after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War). Yet ultimately, it is Céléstine cryptic actions that leave an impression.
Buñuel followed up with another adaptation: Belle de jour (1967), starring Catherine Deneuve, and from the novel of Franco-Jewish writer Joseph Kessel. Much has been written about the way Buñuel coolly handles Séverine’s (Deneuve) daily transformations from upper-class housewife to a prostitute. With platinum blond hair and ivory pale skin, her face barely breaking into a smile or frown, Deneuve perfectly embodies a woman who is more alive in the realm of fantasy, and of debasement, than in her marital bed. For the more sentimental Kessel, Séverine’s plight was a universal disjuncture between Platonic love and Eros. For Buñuel, it has a more concrete social basis: Séverine’s milieu is so mannered and stale, and leaves her so little room to play, she willfully abdicates it. Belle de jour’s elegant set design furthers the effect: After the prosaic, practical furnishings of the bordello, the baroque décor of Séverine and her husband’s apartment suffocates. There’s more. Buñuel was fairly outspoken about the fact that, since his early upbringing, particularly his Catholic education, he associated sexual pleasure with sin (as noted in his semi-fictional memoir, My Last Breath, and corroborated elsewhere). It did not bode well for his own fulfillment (Buñuel’s wife reported that he did not join her on their wedding night). There is a personal cue, therefore, in Sévérine’s confinement, and in the pangs of guilt she feels at the end.
Tristana (1970), also featuring Catherine Deneuve, was yet another dark take on sexual possessiveness. Its delights are subtler, more cunning than those in Belle de jour. In a way, the film signals Buñuel’s maturity (he was 70, having made nearly 30 feature films). In Tristana, a young orphaned woman, Tristana (Deneuve), comes to live with her uncle and guardian, Don Lope (Fernando Rey). Don Lope treats her with protective guises at first, but soon suffocates her with his demands, and then seduces her. The seduction is dreary—Tristana, in Deneuve’s handling, is every bit as steely and unresponsive as Séverine in Belle de jour. After fragile Tristana falls passionately in love with a painter, she returns only after a tragic accident—by that time she is handicapped, forced to wear a prosthetic leg. A clumsy, dreadful appendix, it becomes a weapon. Buñuel shows his true genius in having Deneuve handle the stump with secret glee, practically gloating at its possession. The spectacle brings to mind the grim Surrealist mirages of Dalí and Max Ernst, the movement’s obsession with dolls, and with puerile amputated, often female, forms. However briefly, we plunge into the macabre realm. Now Tristana, the amputee—with all the implications of Freudian castration, considering Tristana’s denigration of Don Lope’s sexual prowess—discovers she is free. No longer a sexualized object, she liberates herself from men’s protectionism. Ironically, however, just as Don Lope before her, the unfettered Tristana is as every bit a tyrant as was he.
Tyranny from without and within is then one of Buñuel’s enduring subjects, suggesting that Surrealism’s hope to shed the subconscious shackles was a bit naïve. Buñuel hinted at the impossibility of such a liberation in his mid-career classic, The Exterminating Angel (1962), and he returned to it in his later years. Of the films he made in the late 1960s and in the 70s, The Milky Way (1969), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), The Phantom of Liberty (1974), and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), all deal with this theme, to some extent. With larger ensemble casts than the intimate Belle de jour and Tristana, the films of mid to late ‘70s are more controlled. The scenes’ rhythms are brisk, and polite conversations—from politics to ethics, taste and religion—jump around in a disjointed way. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a group of friends try to arrange a sit-down meal, but are interrupted each time. As in The Exterminating Angel, the characters’ bigotry emerges bit by bit. Wives cheat on husbands, friends deceive friends, and a mysterious priest, who appears midway, betrays his habit and stoops to revenge.
Buñuel shows in The Discreet Charm that Surrealism had left a lasting mark on his imagination, even though, after an unpleasant falling out with Dalí in New York (who had exposed Buñuel to accusations of Marxism, in the midst of America’s McCarthyism), Buñuel’s ties with the group became more complicated. Firstly, we see surrealist touches in the dream sequences, which reveal the protagonists’ hidden anxieties. Secondly, in Buñuel’s vision of women as feckless temptresses, but perhaps even more seriously, as embodiment of oppressed, disenchanted revolutionary force. This last figure appears as a young terrorist who stalks one of the friends, an ambassador (Fernando Rey). With a looser structure, Buñuel can now expand his possibilities, to delight in movement and variation, and to suggest multiple readings without trying to communicate too much through character development. His use of female figures is again a good example. The two blond sisters, Simone (Delphine Seyrig) and Florence (Bulle Ogier), who always bicker, bring to mind Jean Genet’s The Maids, a duo whose friction is itself an evocation of bourgeois society’s deeply seated resentments. The actual maid who serves the guests, Ines (Milena Vukotic), is a mysterious figure—like Céléstine, she reveals nothing, but her expression is cunning and slightly menacing. We remember that, when the going gets rough in The Exterminating Angel, the entire staff takes off, to leave the desperate, ineffectual upper class to fend for itself. In this sense, although Buñuel the man was reportedly highly controlling of his wife till the very end, as director, he increasingly imagines the possibility of women as powerful and independent, if not yet fully realized protagonists, whose outspokenness, and willingness to act, challenges the status quo.