“Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” – George Orwell (1)
“I dream of a language whose words, like fists, would fracture jaws.” – E M Cioran (2)
Based solely on the evidence of his work – iconoclastic, irreverent, anarchic – one would expect an autobiography by Luis Buñuel to be equally irascible and unrepentant. In his 1967 essay Thoughts After Attending Another Film Society Buñuel Series, Vernon Young wrote of him, “You can lie awake at night and hear his lip curl. His natural ancestor, in film, was Erich von Stroheim, who hated all his characters (except those he played himself); that was the secret of his charm. And like Buñuel, one feels, von Stroheim kept a diary in which, under THINGS TO DO TODAY, he wrote “Remember to be nauseated.”(3) Yet Buñuel’s memoir, My Last Sigh, has been praised since its publication in 1982 as intensely moving and even warm and witty.(4) The man who emerges from these pages is unexpectedly urbane and, especially in the final chapter, wistful and vulnerable - not quite in keeping with expectations of Buñuel’s temperament since his fellow surrealist and co-scenarist on Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Age d’Or (1930) – the painter Salvador Dali – published his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali in 1944. But Buñuel has long since emerged as the better artist, and Dali as a hyper-extended exhibitionist. Perhaps the difference can be attributed to their ages when their respective memoirs were published: Dali was 40; Buñuel was 82. But Buñuel had the presence of mind to recall his mother’s decline into senility, while recognizing the importance of memory to identity:
"You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing."(5)
To be sure, Buñuel wasn’t born to reassure us that we live in best of all possible worlds. Indeed, we were forewarned of this fact in the “prologue” from Un Chien Andalou (following the famous opening intertitle “Il etait une fois…”) in which Buñuel himself appears sharpening a straight-razor, gazing out of his window at a line of clouds scudding across the moon – and the next shot we see is one of the most shocking in film history, the one in which Buñuel slices open a woman’s eye with the razor (it was only a safely dead pig). Buñuel was so uncertain of the response of the audience at the film’s premier that he brought along stones in his pockets to hurl back at the audience should they decide to attack him. But instead of violence, the film provoked an enthusiastic incoherence from the general public (this was 1928 Paris), even as the Surrealists – led by Andre Breton – embraced it as a prime example of their esthetic. Buñuel comments in his chapter “Surrealism (1929-1933)” that his first ground-breaking film made him the target “of a lifetime of threats and insults.” No wonder, since he had written in a prologue to the published scenario of Un Chien Andalou “that the film was nothing more or less than a public call to assassination.” But no one, much as they may have tried, could forget Un Chien Andalou or its creator. Buñuel committed himself to surrealism from the beginning and, unlike many of its founders (except Breton himself), never chose to forsake its ideals. One priceless anecdote illustrates his total commitment to surrealism in the Thirties. Invited to Charlie Chaplin's house in Beverly Hills for a Christmas party, Buñuel and a friend, without warning, attacked and destroyed Chaplin's Christmas tree. I can only assume that Chaplin's magnanimous response to this violent demonstration was a measure of his respect for Buñuel's artistic conviction!
"More than anything else, surrealism was a kind of call heard by certain people everywhere – in the United States, in Germany, Spain, Yugoslavia – who, unknown to one another, were already practicing instinctive forms of irrational expression…There was indeed something in the air, and my connection with the surrealists in many ways determined the course of my life."
This would prove to be the source of Buñuel’s lifelong fame, as well as the later marginalization of his genius. Surely Bunuel must have felt appalled when his films made in France from 1964-1977 were greeted at the festivals with polite laughter and applause rather than boos and catcalls. When he met Breton in New York in the 40s, he wondered at Breton’s recent excommunication of Max Ernst and Dali from the movement. Breton replied: “’It’s sad, mon cher Luis,’ he added, ‘but it’s no longer possible to scandalize anybody!’” (6) Buñuel sadly witnessed the demise of the very movement to which he had added a tremendous impetus: “I’m often asked whatever happened to surrealism in the end. It’s a tough question, but sometimes I say that the movement was successful in its details and a failure in its essentials . . . There’s no doubt that surrealism was a cultural and artistic success; but these were precisely the areas of least importance to most surrealists. Their aim was not to establish a glorious place for themselves in the annals of art and literature, but to change the world, to transform life itself. This was our essential purpose, but one good look around is evidence enough of our failure.”
For the average moviegoer of the 50s and 60s, Buñuel’s periodic re-emergence from the obscurity imposed by his exile from Spain – with such characteristically subversive films as Los Olvidados (1950), Nazarin (1958), and the magnificent Viridiana (1961) – must have seemed like his further “notes from the underground,” examples of his endless intransigence with the status quo. Buñuel supplies our avid need for some continuity during these otherwise dark years with priceless anecdotes. Buñuel dwells – as was his surrealist wont – on his childhood memories in Aragon, his friendship with Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish Civil War, his exile to America and eventually to Mexico, his triumphant return to Spain in 1960 and his subsequent renaissance in France. But the richest anecdotes are those that assist us, however incompletely, in the explication of his splendid films.
For instance, he complains that he had to make The Exterminating Angel in Mexico, which forced him to make concessions in the production design that he wouldn't have made in Europe. Or, my own favorite, he explains why he used two actresses to play Conchita in his last film Cet obscur objet du désir (Buñuel had a fetish for Franglish titles). Since it went entirely unexplained at the time of the film's release, many critics assumed it was more of Buñuel's surrealism at work. Vernon Young confessed that, when the second actress appeared playing Conchita, he laughed out loud. In My Last Sigh, Buñuel writes that it was simply a matter of his first choice for the role (the very French Carole Laure) suddenly being unavailable to finish the film (due to a "tempestuous argument") and his unwillingness to reshoot all her scenes with another actress (the highly Spanish Ángela Molina). So he decided, with his producer Serge Silberman's approval, to finish shooting with a new Conchita:
"In 1977, in Madrid, when I was in despair after a tempestuous argument with an actress who'd brought the shooting of That Obscure Object of Desire to a halt, the producer, Serge Silberman, decided to abandon the film altogether. The considerable financial loss was depressing us both until one evening, when we were drowning our sorrows in a bar, I suddenly had the idea (after two dry martinis) of using two actresses in the same role, a tactic that had never been tried before. Although I made the suggestion as a joke, Silberman loved it, and the film was saved."
Buñuel's steadfast atheism ("I'm still an atheist, thank God!" he wrote in his last chapter) never seemed to shake what I would call his nostalgia for the medieval Catholicism with which his childhood in Calanda was saturated. His obsessive lampooning of Christianity in films as late as The Milky Way (1969) and Tristana (1970) seemed rather old-fashioned - almost charming - even if, for most critics, he seemed to be whipping a dead Messiah. Still, in his last moments he declined the intervention of a priest. He died at 83 in Mexico City.
(1) Orwell, "Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali". The Penguin Essays of George Orwell, 1984, p.254.
(2) Cioran, The Temptation To Exist, translated by Richard Howard
(3) Young, On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art, Quadrangle Books, 1972, p.385.
(4) On the back of the Knopf dustjacket is a blurb from Francois Truffaut: “the nonconformist autobiography of a great filmmaker – moralistic, modest, and extremely witty.”
(5) All quotations from the book are from the 1983 Knopf edition, translated by Abigail Israel.
(6) Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto can be read in its entirety here.