Luis Bunuel Portolés was born on 22 February, 1900 in Calanda, province of Teruel in the autonomous community of Aragón, Spain and died on 29 July, 1983 In Mexico City, Mexico. Luis was a Spanish-born filmmaker and naturalized Mexican who worked mainly in Mexico and France, but also in his native Spain and in the United States. Luis is considered one of Mexico’s finest directors, and one of the most important directors in the history of cinema.
Luis was born to Leonardo Buñuel and María Portolés; he had 2 brothers, Alfonso and Leonardo, and 4 sisters, Alicia, Concepción, Margarita and María. Luis had a strict Jesuit education at the Colegio del Salvador in Zaragoza from which he was expelled. Later he went to university in Madrid. While studying at the University of Madrid (current-day Universidad Complutense de Madrid) he became a very close friend of painter Salvador Dalí and poet Federico García Lorca, among other important Spanish artists living in the Residencia de Estudiantes. Luis first studied the natural sciences and agronomy, then engineering, but later switched to philosophy. In 1925, he moved to Paris where he began work as a secretary in an organisation called the International Society of Intellectual Cooperation. Luis later found work in France as a director’s assistant to Jean Epstein on Mauprat and Mario Nalpas on La Sirène des Tropiques and he co-wrote and then filmed a 16 minute short film Un chien andalou (1929) with Dalí. This film, featuring a series of startling and sometimes horrifying images of Freudian nature (such as what appears to be the slow slicing of a woman’s eyeball with a razor blade) was enthusiastically received by French surrealists of the time, and continues to be shown regularly in film societies to this day.
Luis followed this with L’Âge d’or (1930), partly based on the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. The film was begun as a 2nd collaboration with Dalí but became Luis’ solo project after a falling-out they had before filming began. During this film he worked around his technical ignorance by filming mostly in sequence and using nearly every foot of film that he shot. L’Âge d’or was read to be an attack on Catholicism, and thus, precipitated an even larger scandal than Un chien andalou. The right-wing press criticized the film and the police placed a ban on it that lasted 50 years.
Following L’Âge d’or, Luis returned to Spain and directed Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (Land Without Bread, 1933), a documentary on peasant life. This was a convulse period which led, in 1936, to the Spanish Civil War. The times were changing quickly and Luis could see that someone with his political and artistic sensibilities would have no place in a fascist Spain. Luis co-wrote and produced a documentary short about the changing political climes in Spain entitled España 1936.
After the Spanish Civil War, Luis was exiled and moved to the United States. Luis moved to Hollywood to capitalise on the short-lived fad of producing completely new foreign-language versions of hit films for sales abroad. After Luis worked on a few Spanish-language remakes, the industry eventually turned instead to re-dubbing of dialogue. Luis then left Hollywood for New York, getting a job at the Museum of Modern Art (where he re-edited a shorter version of Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary on Hitler, Triumph of the Will).
In his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942), Dalí suggested that he had split with Luis because the latter was a Communist and an atheist. Luis was fired (or resigned) from MOMA, supposedly after Cardinal Spellman of New York went to see Iris Barry, head of the film department at MOMA. Luis then went back to Hollywood where he worked in the dubbing department of Warner Brothers from 1942 to 1946. In his 1982 autobiography [My Last Breath], Luis wrote that he submitted a treatment to Warners about a disembodied hand which was later adapted into The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) with Peter Lorre. Luis also wrote that, over the years, he rejected Dalí’s attempts at reconciliation.
In 1972, Luis, along with his screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and producer Serge Silberman, was invited by George Cukor to his house. This gathering was particularly memorable and other invitees included Alfred Hitchcock, Rouben Mamoulian, Robert Mulligan, George Stevens, Billy Wilder, Robert Wise and William Wyler.
Luis arrived in Mexico in 1946 and got the Mexican citizenship in 1949. The first film he directed there was the Gran Casino (1946), produced by Oscar Dancigers. Luis found the plot boring and it was not hugely successful. Luis later again collaborated with Dancigers in creating El Gran Calavera (1949), a successful film starring Fernando Soler. As Luis himself has stated, he learned the techniques of directing and editing while shooting El Gran Calavera. Its success at the box office encouraged Oscar Dancigers to accept the production of a more ambitious film for which Luis, apart from writing the script, had complete freedom to direct. The result was his critically acclaimed Los Olvidados (1950), which was recently considered by UNESCO as part of the world’s cultural heritage. Los Olvidados (and its triumph at Cannes) made Luis an instant world celebrity and the most important Spanish-speaking film director in the world.
Luis spent most of his later life in Mexico, where he directed 21 films. Those films included:
Ensayo de un crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz) (1955)
Nazarín (1959) (based on a novel by Spain’s Benito Pérez Galdós, and adapted by Luis to a Mexican context)
Viridiana (1961) (coproduction Mexico-Spain and winner at Cannes)
El Ángel Exterminador (The Exterminating Angel) (1962)
Simón del desierto (Simon of the Desert) (1965).
After the golden age of the Mexican film industry ended, Luis started to work in France along with Silberman and Carrière. During this “French Period”, Luis directed some of his best-known works: Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid), free adaptation of the famous Octave Mirbeau’s novel Le journal d’une femme de chambre ; Belle de Jour ; Cet obscur objet du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire) ; and Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) – as well as some lesser-known films such as The Phantom of Liberty and La Voie lactée (The Milky Way).
After the release of Cet obscur objet du désir (1977) he retired from film making, and wrote (with Carrière) an autobiography, Mon Dernier Soupir (My Last Sigh), published in 1982, which provides an account of Luis’s life, friends, and family as well as a representation of his eccentric personality. In it he recounts dreams, encounters with many well known writers, actors, and artists such as Pablo Picasso and Charlie Chaplin, and antics such as dressing up as a nun and walking around town. As one might deduce from these antics, Luis was famous for his atheism. In a 1960 interview with Michele Manceaux in L’Express, Luis famously declared: “I am still, thank God, an atheist.”
Luis almost seemed to repudiate this statement in a 1977 article in The New Yorker. “I’m not a Christian, but I’m not an atheist, either”, he said. “I’m weary of hearing that accidental old aphorism of mine, ‘I’m an atheist, thank God.’ It’s outworn. Dead leaves. In 1951, I made a small film called Mexican Bus Ride, about a village too poor to support a church and a priest. The place was serene, because no one suffered from guilt. It’s guilt we must escape from, not God.”
Luis married Jeanne Rucar in a town hall in Paris in 1934 and they remained married throughout his life. Luis’s sons are Rafael and Juan Luis Buñuel. Diego Buñuel, filmmaker and host of the National Geographic Channel’s Don’t Tell my Mother I am in… series, is his grandson.
Luis Buñuel’s films were famous for their surreal imagery; they include scenes in which chickens populate nightmares, women grow beards, and aspiring saints are desired by luscious women. Even in the many movies he made for hire (rather than for his own creative reasons), such as Susana, Robinson Crusoe, and The Great Madcap, he always added his trademark of disturbing and surreal images. Running through his own films is a backbone of surrealism; Luis’s world is one in which an entire dinner party suddenly finds themselves inexplicably unable to leave the room and go home, a bad dream hands a man a letter which he brings to the doctor the next day, and where the devil, if unable to tempt a saint with a pretty girl, will fly him to a disco. An example of a more Dada influence can be found in Cet obscur objet du désir, when Mathieu closes his eyes and has his valet spin him around and direct him to a map on the wall.
Luis never explained or promoted his work. On one occasion, when his son was interviewed about The Exterminating Angel, Luis instructed him to give facetious answers; for example, when asked about the presence of a bear in the socialites’ house, Luis fils claimed it was because his father liked bears. Similarly, the several repeated scenes in the film were explained as having been put there to increase the running time.
Many of his films were openly critical of middle class morals and organised religion, mocking the Roman Catholic Church for hypocrisy. Many of his most famous films demonstrate this:
Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) — A man drags pianos, upon which are piled 2 dead donkeys, 2 priests, and the tablets of The Ten Commandments.
L’Âge d’or (The Golden Age, 1930) — A bishop is thrown out a window, and in the final scene one of the culprits of the 120 days of Sodom is portrayed by an actor dressed in a way that he would be recognised as Jesus.
Ensayo de un crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibald de la Cruz, 1955) — A man dreams of murdering his wife while she’s praying in bed dressed all in white.
Simón del desierto (Simon of the Desert , 1965) — The devil tempts a saint by taking the form of a bare-breasted girl singing and showing off her legs. At the end of the film, the saint abandons his ascetic life to hang out in a jazz club.
Nazarin (1959) — The pious lead character wreaks ruin through his attempts at charity.
Viridiana (1961) — A well-meaning young nun tries unsuccessfully to help the poor. Also there is is a scene in the film as The Last Supper (of Leonardo Da Vinci).
La Voie Lactée (1969) — Two men travel the ancient pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela and meet embodiments of various heresies along the way. One dreams of anarchists shooting the Pope.
The story of the making of Viridiana is illustrative. Luis’s earlier Spanish and French films from the 1930s were regarded as cinema landmarks — Un Chien Andalou, L’Âge d’or, and Las Hurdes (also known as Tierra sin Pan or Land Without Bread) (1933). The advent of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, however, caused the expatriation of many artists and intellectuals from the fascist dictatorship of Franco, whose military revolt and rise to power had had the strong backing of the Spanish Catholic hierarchy.
Had Luis stayed in Spain, his fate might have been the same as that of his friend, poet Federico García Lorca, who was assassinated at the outset of Franco’s military revolt. After some years of artistic silence forced by the difficult circumstances of his expatriation, Luis, then residing in Mexico, returned in full force to writing and directing with some of his best films, which once more won him international acclaim.
In 1960, for political propaganda reasons, Franco instructed his minister of culture to invite the country’s most famous filmmaker to return to Spain to direct a film of his choice. Luis accepted and proceeded to make Viridiana, promptly departing from the country after finishing the film, but leaving a few official copies. After viewing them, the copies were burned by the dictator’s authorities. The minister of culture was reprimanded for having passed the screenplay in the first place. A copy of Viridiana, however, had been smuggled to France, where it proceeded to win the Palme D’Or of the Cannes International Film Festival. The film was banned in Spain, but got international attention and praise (with some exceptions). The Vatican’s official press organ, l’Osservatore Romano, published an article calling Viridiana an insult not only to Catholicism, but to Christianity itself.
Luis’s style of directing was extremely economical. Luis shot films in a few weeks, never deviating from his script and shooting in order as much as possible to minimize editing time. Luis told actors as little as possible, and limited his directions mostly to physical movements (“move to the right”, “walk down the hall and go through that door”, etc.). Luis often refused to answer actors’ questions and was known to simply turn off his hearing aid on the set; though they found it difficult at the time, many actors who worked with him acknowledged later that his approach made for fresh and excellent performances.
Luis preferred scenes which could simply be pieced together end-to-end in the editing room, resulting in long, mobile, wide shots which followed the action of the scene. Examples are especially present in his French films. For example, at the restaurant / ski resort in Belle de jour, Séverin, Pierre, and Henri are conversing at a table. Luis cuts away from their conversation to 2 young women who walk down a few steps and proceed through the restaurant, passing behind Séverin, Pierre, and Henri, at which point the camera stops and the young women walk out of frame. Henri then comments on the women and the conversation at the table progresses from there.
Luis disliked non-diegetic music, and avoided it in his films, though traditional drums from Calanda sound in most of his films. The films of his French era were not scored and some (Belle de jour, Diary of a Chambermaid) contain absolutely no music whatsoever. Belle de Jour does, however, feature (potentially) non-diegetic sound effects, believed by some to be clues as to whether or not the current scene is a dream.
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