Everyone knows Carlos Saura´s work as a filmmaker: Cría cuevos, La caza, Los golfos; the peerless flamenco trilogy with Antonio Gadés: Bodas de sangre, Carmen, El amor brujo; and so much more. I knew he´s been celebrated as a photographer. But I did not really know that aspect of his work and I was really bowled over by it. His 1950s ones are classics but very powerful to see enlarged. The Chaplin pictures are intimate and beautiful, I include a selection of others like the one of Margot Fonteyn in Seville and the Lola Flores and Buñuel just because they´re fab and I imagine some of you will be interested. Such a great exhibition. His notebooks, full of drawings, water-colours, compositions, plays on light, are a real demonstration of the preoccupations of a 20th century visual artist, and I include a sampling as well.
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.
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
A film buff’s delight, and not only because of the director’s parentage (John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands for those of you who might not yet know). The film begins with some of the narration from Vittorio De Sica’s Indescretion of an American Wife (a.k.a. Terminal Station, USA/ Italy, 1953) with Jennifer Jones expressing her loneliness and her need whilst visually we’re introduced to a handsomel house in Connecticut and a lovely woman, Djuna (Joséphine de la Baume) who evokes some of the beautiful porcelain vacuity of an Ursula Andress or a Sharon Stone.
Djuna meets Paolo (Milo Ventimiglio) in a video store showing Algiers (John Cromwell, USA, 1938) with Hedy Lamarr. He drinks scotch and writes arty screenplays that don’t sell. At a bar, they fall for each other but she can’t see him: she’s got an ‘illness’. He pursues her, wants her; he longs for the danger and excitement he knows she can provide. He follows her to her house and there’s a brilliant scene where she keeps the door chain on, they kiss, the kiss is filmed from above in a striking composition made up of a rectangle of light formed by the partly opened door, but then he recoils in pain, looks through the side of the door and sees her fangs reflected in the mirror (this is a vampire film that does not respect all vampire lore).
He doesn’t quite believe that she can really be a vampire so she gets him to tie her to the bed with enormous silver chains, turn her on and wait for the fangs to come out. The chains ensure his safety but he doesn’t want to be safe and removes them. The scene is delirious and ludicrous and sexy and something else too: one gets a sense that sex can be bloody and dangerous and all the more desirable for that. This is rendered even more perverse by the insertion of the wonderful scene from Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana where Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) drugs his niece Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) and plans to rape her whilst a little girl climbs a tree to get a better view.
Needless to say Djuna and Paolo fall in love. She ‘turns’ him and introduces him to her coterie of chic vampires led by Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), the queen of the ‘international clan’ who is a star actress longing for human applause and whose house they are staying at. The vampires talk about human blood substitutes, the beluga of ethically sourced platelets and True Blood whilst listening to Chopin. She’s clearly introduced him to a glamorous witty world he’d never have had access to and everything seems to be going swimmingly until Djuna’s sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida, she of the frank, gritty, somewhat coarse, rather wonderful Catherine Breillat films) arrives. Mimi is hungry, rapacious, amoral: there’s a wonderful scene where she tries to manipulate Xenia by presenting her with a fan, a virgin, and making sure her water glass is nicked so as to draw blood. Can Xenia resist? Can Paolo resist Mimi?
All of this is filmed as a kind of homage to Hammer Horror and Italian giallo, with particular reference to Dario Argento. Everything about the film seems slightly off, other-worldly, consciously fake and slightly stilted; a feeling exacerbated by everyone except Ventimiglio and Michael Rapaport (wonderful as a sweaty, rapacious agent) seeming to speak their lines phonetically. The music too, though evidently composed for the film, also evokes the cinema Kiss of the Damned renders homage to. It’s nice to see a vampire film that’s once more about romance, loneliness, violence and the polymorphousness and mutability of desire.
In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a Professor of Greek tells his students, ‘Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instants, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves…If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face: let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn’ (pp.44-45).
The characters in Kiss of the Damned feel as the professor does even as they try to take control of themselves. However, the film itself suffers from also reining itself in by genre, convention, allusion and quotation. It sometimes seems more concerned with expressing its particular themes through an evocation of a period and a genre, to exist tightly locked into a matrix of allusion, than to elicit the raw pleasures audiences that go to genre films expect. Kiss of the Damned has sex, gore, desire and romance; and it does thrill – just not enough: not enough terror, not enough beauty.