I went to the ballet last night. But what I woke up thinking about this morning was Buñuel’s Celà s’appelle l’aurore. Why isn’t it better known? In the opening scenes a lady faints, insects swarm around dead fish, a man beats a donkey that won’t move, workers get hurt at a factory through the cost-cutting measures of a careless owner and a young girl gets sexually abused by her grandfather whilst the whole family wails around her. ‘Sadly, she’s now old enough to remember,’ says the Doctor (see images below). Buñuel acknowledged it as one of his favourite films, designating it as a ‘love-yes-police-no film’.1
It’s from 1956, the first film Buñuel made upon his return to France, and is relatively conventional and quite extraordinary. Gaston Modot and others from L’Àge d’or appear. Kosma did the music. The film contains Buñuel’s usual witty anti-clericalism (see image below). ‘It was not well received. The film is just one cliché after another,’ wrote Eric Rhomer, a huge ado about nothing’. But John Baxter, in his Buñuel writes that Rohmer was then so right-wing and Catholic that colleagues like Ado Kyrou called him a fascist. (p.244). Truffaut, writing in Cahiers du Cinéma also dismissed the film: ‘I dislike Celà s’appelle l’aurore because it’s badly acted: that’s all there is to it.’ How wrong he was. There’s much much more to it. But Truffaut was often blind to the political implications of any work.
The film can be read as supporting armed insurrection and all the usual institutions (the church, the police etc) are shown to be corrupt. That aspect of the plot revolves around a young tenant farmer, Sandro (Giani Esposito) recently back from laying his body at the service of the liberation of his country but now about to be thrown out of his job and home because his wife Magda (Brigitte Eloy) is dying with tuberculosis and he’s been neglecting the fields. The landowner is completely unsympathetic. The tenant’s personal problems are none of his business. Turning a profit is. A new tenant (the aged but still handsome Gaston Modot, see image below) arrives with his own family even whilst the wife of the previous one is on her deathbed). The new tenant is kind enough to drive the couple to stay with friends but the wife dies on the way. The husband loses his mind and decides to kill the person responsible for all of this, the rich-landowner and indusrialist Gorzone (Jean-Jacques Delbo). He does, and in the middle of a party where the police chief, the priest and all of the pillars of the establishment are enjoying the lavish hospitality of the careless murderer. After the deed is done, Sandro runs to the Doctor for help. Who does the Doctor side with? Sides must be chosen in the world that Buñuel depicts for us here, so how does one behave morally and ethically in so choosing? ‘Valerio is led by love and friendship to act against his own class by defendng a worker who has committed a revolutionary act,’ write Bill Crohn and Paul Duncan in Luis Buñuel: The Compete Films, p. 105.
There are scenes in the film that without quite taking flight into the sphere of surrealism nonetheless extend it a hand so as to show the finger to an uncaring world. In the scene below, for example, Doctor Valerio (Georges Marchal) is at a nice restaurant trying to comfort his wife (Nelly Borgeaud) after she’s fainted. She hates Corsica: the poverty, the misery, the lack of culture, the way he’s too busy and never has time for her. She wants to go to Nice, family, civilisation. At that moment, almost out of nowhere comes an elegant figure gliding on a bicycle, sitting on the handlebars, playing a violin and smoking a huge stogie. It’s a thrilling image, a nonsensical one. The camera cuts back to the couple but then the violin player appears, this time on foot. The wife screams ‘I can’t stand it. Make him stop’ at the sound of the music. But the violin player carries on even as they get up to leave and until the moment that he gets paid. This is so typical of Buñuel: the insolence, the black humour, but the dignity too. There’s a feeling of esperpento, that life is to be revealed in all its tragedy, objectively and to the point where one can only laugh. As soon as the Doctor hands over the bill the street performer’s playing, which has been a torture to the wife, stops. But not before. He’s a professional. (I’ve gone to such lengths in describing because the clip below is in French with Spanish subtitles, but worth seeing even if you don’t speak either of those languages).
The doctor sides with the people. Lucia Bosé, who appears to bring love and passion to the doctor’s life and beauty into ours (see below), also makes her choice. She risks her well-being by sheltering the fugitive and in doing so proves she’s more deserving of Valerios love than his wife; so frail, so delicate but, with the help of her father, so firm in taking care of life’s little niggles: They’re the ones who informs the police, thus betraying Valerio and condemning Sandro to his short and tragic fate . It’s great. And increasingly relevant to the time we live in.
There are a few images of undoubted interest to Buñuelians that I’d like to draw your attention to below:
Above I’d like to draw your attention to the image of the women, united in their grief for the child who’s been molested, and offering succour and emotional support to the mother prostrated with grief at what she must feel is her fault (she allowed her father, who already had a reputation for that kind of thing, to live with them). Note how the move to the next scene is a dissolve, and how the tragedy and poverty of one class melts into joy and ease of a higher one through the clearly phallic and here central symbol of the palm tree.
Cats appear throughout the film, in the beginning (see first set of pictures, amongst children and decaying fish) wild, abandoned. The doctor picks up and strokes a street cat by the sea. Sandro, caught between the might of the lion, and the homeless kitty he strokes and nurtures, contemplates murder. We see other animals also, each behaving according to their nature; the donkey who won’t budge in spite of the beating (see first set of pictures), later the turtle, offered as a gift, who turns itself over, and walks away in close-up.
The film often shows us the people it sides with behind bars or filmed outside veiled windows, denied the freedom to move, love, even live.
But the film offers resistance (the murder; Valerio refusing to shake the Inspector’s hand) as well as love and brotherhood, even in death (right) and ends on an image of love, camaraderie and hopefulness amongst those who offered help and resisted. The sign on the right is an advertisement for Dubonnet that begins with Du Bon, ‘that which is good’. ‘I acknowledge that tht scene is a bit symbolic,’ says Buñuel. 3
It’s a surprisingly rich film and I’m sure a closer look will un-peel even more layers than I’ve been able to draw out here.
According to wiki, ‘Film critic Raymond Durgnat has called this film the first of Buñuel’s “revolutionary triptych”, along with La Mort en ce jardinand La fièvre monte à El Pao: “Each of these films is, openly, or by implication, a study in the morality and tactics of armed revolution against a right-wing dictatorship.”
- José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent, Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel, edited and translated by Paul Lenti, New York: Marilio Publishers, 1992, p.122
- ibid, p.123
- ibid. p. 124
- ibid p. 126
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