La mort en ce jardin/ Death in the Garden is the second of what Raymond Durgnat has labelled Buñuel’s “revolutionary triptych”, along with Cela s’appelle l’aurore (1956) and La fièvre monte à El Pao (1959) : “Each of these films is, openly, or by implication, a study in the morality and tactics of armed revolution against a right-wing dictatorship.” Each is also a France-Mexico co-production with big stars. In this one Simone Signoret, Charles Vanel, Georges Marchal and, as Phillip Kemp tells us in the fine essay on the film accompanying the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray, Michel Piccoli, in the first of seven films he would make with the director, more than any other actor.
The film is split in two halves. In the first, diamond prospectors in some Latin American country are arbitrarily revoked their rights to the claims they bought and given twenty-four hours to vacate the area with all their goods the risk of forfeiting them. The ruling powers are authoritarian: might is power; power is law; power is wielded capriciously and unjustly. The people rebel but don’t act cohesively and lives are lost without much ground being won. Both Tony Rayns and Victor Fuentes have written of how in the first half of the film Buñuel drew on his understanding and knowledge of the Miners’ Strike in Asturias in 1934 and also on some of the happening during the Civil War.
The second part of the film is when the main stars have to escape and get stranded in the jungle: the criminal adventurer (Georges Marchal) the prostitute (Simone Signoret), the priest (Michel Piccoli), the rich prospector (Charles Vanel) and his daughter Michèle Girardon) all struggle to survive; and as they do social categories fall asunder, old dreams die, Paris gets torn to burn and illuminate, pen and paper can lead to freedom, The Garden becomes a jungle, prayer books can light fires, ants eat snakes before people do, diamonds get thrown into the sea, the jungle can bring forth jewels and champagne, some go mad, and some survive…at least for now.
It’s a very great film, a complex one that dramatises Buñuel’s perennial themes of exile and entrapment but also deals with authoritarianism, colonialism, people’s natures and their capacity to change, religion as passive upholder of exploitation; and allegories on the Edens in the real world and those in our minds. Phillip Kemp mentions one can trace an attempt to replicate the success of Clouzot’s Le salaire de la peur (1953)/ The Wages of Fear: Charles Vanel is in both. Tony Raynes and Victor Fuentes both see Nazarín (1959) as Buñuel’s subsequent development of the character of the priest, here played by Michel Piccoli and then by Francisco Rabal in the later film.
In a very illuminating interview that is an extra in the Masters of Cinema edition, Tony Rayns says, ‘We can see his very fluent, very neutral, anonymous visual style. The film is filmed almost entirely in follow shots, pans following action. There are not attempts at expressiveness in the compositions. There are no particular emphasis or editing tropes that are there either in the film language or in the composition of individual shots. This is studiedly neutral from Buñuel’s point of view, and that became his trademark style….He didn’t look for emblematic compositions. He didn’t look for shots that would startle us. His version of Surrealism is that the uncanny, the inexplicable, the mysterious, should be integrated as much as possible within the flow of seeming naturalism so that it would be more effective as a startling device. He didn’t want the sudden shock. He wanted the underlying disquiet or the underlying wonderment. For him that’s what Surrealism meant.’
La mort en ce jardin/ Death in the Garden deserves much more attention than I’m able to give it here. All I want to point to now is that Simone Signoret, beautiful and in a gorgeous Eastmancolour, gives a performance that must rank amongst her very greatest (though there’s so much to choose from). Phillip Kemp writes that Signoret proved particularly difficult, ‘because she didn’t want to do the film..She had to go through New York on her way to join us in Mexico so she slipped some Communist documents into her passport, hoping to be turned away by American immigration, but they let her through without a murmur. Once here and on the set, her behaviour was at best unruly, at worst very destructive to the rest of the cast’. If so, she was worth it. Her presence at the height of her beauty and in colour plus her performance are in themselves reasons enough to see the film today (though there are many others). Death in the Garden is now available on blu-ray in a very beautiful transfer as part of the Masters of Cinema series.