SHOW
THE BUNUEL MYSTERY
Jean-Claude Carriere, who has worked with him many times talks about the director who claims that the irrational governs the world.
APRIL 1970
Photographs by MARY ELLEN MARK


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Director Luis Bunuel on location in Spain, filming his new movie, Tristana, based on a novel by the Spanish writer Benito Perez Galdos. Says Bunuel, “I place my actors in the camera and follow them in the setting as long as I can."

Luis Bunuel is shooting a new movie in Spain. He is filming the narrow, winding streets and the cloisters of Toledo, a city he knows quite well since he lived there once, not far from the cathedral. The weather is raw. Some days he wears a black beret, which he pulls down tightly on his head. Other days, he wears a peaked cap, and there's always a viewer hanging around his neck. "For no particular reason," he notes. "It's only to prove that I'm a movie director."

Since Viridiana, in 1961, he has been back twice to shoot in Spain. This film is called Tristana. It is a strange story of love and honor, which is based on a novel by the great Spanish writer, Benito Perez Galdos, who died in 1920. Galdos is not all that well-known outside Spain, but his world is very similar to Bunuel's, and the director has already taken the subject for his film Nazarin from him. In point of fact, Bunuel says that "Tristana is one of Galdos' worst novels."

Bunuel sets the action in Toledo among the provincial middle class in the years 1928 to 1935, before and during the Civil War. The project was forbidden in 1963 by the Spanish government when Bunuel first proposed it. And when it came up again in 1969, it was again forbidden, but eventually it was authorized.

Though he is Spanish by birth, Bunuel became a Mexican citizen six years ago. That's why he can make films in Spain even though most of them cannot be shown there. In spite of that, he is very famous in Spain.

In Tristana, he again uses Catherine Deneuve, the star of Belle de Jour, and his friend Fernando Rey, whom he directed in Viridiana. The Italian actor, Franco Nero, is also in the film. When he's not working on the set, Nero's busy with his own Super-8 camera shooting Bunuel from every angle.

Bunuel was seventy in February, but his energy is undiminished. He is quite deaf, but he seems to have come to terms with that. On the set he paces around, explaining things, gesticulating, leaning close to hear. And then all of a sudden he will roar with laughter until tears come to his eyes. Passersby in the Toledo streets ask for his autograph. He grumbles, but signs, murmuring, "Dali would be jealous."

I know something of Bunuel. I met him for the first time in 1963 and have collaborated on four scripts with him: The Diary of a Chambermaid, The Monk (not yet filmed), Belle de Jour, and The Milky Way. Altogether, I have spent more than a year working closely with him and I have watched him shoot often. I have even occasionally taken small roles under his direction, my favorite being in The Milky Way, the role of a bishop who speaks in Latin. "Simply because," Bunuel remarked, "it is more and more difficult to find an actor who speaks correct Latin."

I spent a week with him during the filming of Tristana. This was the first time I had seen him film in Spanish, and the first time that I had watched him shoot a script that I was familiar with but hadn't worked on. I watched him with a fresh eye. I thought of the unbelievable pile of nonsense and the hack articles that have been written about him, and I told myself that the time had come for me to add my stone to the edifice.

A great deal has been written about him -much too much. In an attempt to seize upon all the facets of a highly complicated man, he has been made out to be a tissue of contradictions. He is described simultaneously as an atheist and theist, revolutionary and bourgeois, an intellectual and a peasant, a recluse and an extrovert, fierce and sentimental, irrational and reasonable, a poet and a rationalist, as both very French and very Spanish. He is all these things and more. He is indifferent and resigned to all the junk that is written about him, my own included. His sense of humor protects him.

His unwillingness to talk about himself is matched by the genuine humility with which he talks about his films. He wishes above all to be simple, absolutely simple, and it is not the least of Bunuel's contradictions that he is both profoundly simple and deeply complicated. He makes an effort to be clear and direct. His manner is like his cinematic style straightforward and without the least affectation. It is impossible to fault him on this. He never talks self-importantly about his "work," about which he shows a marvelous detachment. He never looks at his films a second time, nor reads what's written about him. He is angered when he is accused of being warped or a sadist, a profaner of things sacred, a blasphemer or a cruel director, attracted only by the horrible and the morbid. And he makes fun of people who try to set him on a pedestal. He works patiently away at destroying his legend. Yet, whether or not he wishes it, there is a tenacious and subtle Bunuel mystery.

Mystery is his word. He believes that works of art begin in mystery, in the inexplicable. He cannot heap enough sarcasm on those who claim to explain and understand everything, and on the famous "French mentality," the legacy of Descartes and Voltaire, which thinks it can reduce the world to something that is completely intelligible. He likes, whether he is working or dreaming, to give himself over to the images which simply come to him and take him by surprise. "When we were working on the script of Un Chien Andalou with Dali, we had only one rule: Keep only the pictures that we cannot explain rationally."


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But if Luis Bunuel has evolved since Un Chien Andalou, and if the films he makes today do not attempt to reflect the surrealist style faithfully, this same passionate taste for the irrational is still very much a part of him. His "images" loom constantly in his work. Dream and daydream play a tremendous role, mixing with the real until, as in Belle de Jour, they are inextricably joined. I have never understood-and hopefully I shall be lucky 'enough never to understand-why the last five minutes of The Milky Way moved me so.

Bunuel loves to repeat what Andre Breton once said about somebody: "He's a jackass. He never dreams." He claims that the irrational governs the world-and, even more so, the cinema.

The Bunuel mystery.

On the surface, he makes films as everybody else does, out of the same materials. His technique is commonplace. He is completely free of artiness. He avoids pretty picture-making and sneers at critics who speak of his artist's palette or his painter's eye. "Sometimes I just let my cameraman photograph clouds. That gives him pleasure. He enjoys it." He does not attach particular importance to acting. He steers clear of unusual angles or sophisticated camera work. He shoots very fast, commenting that he gets bored after the seventh week. He made The Exterminating Angel in eighteen days, Viridiana in twenty-three. It is frequently said that he neglects details, that he could do better. In the bad days, in Mexico, he put his name to a number of films that he now doesn't want his friends to see.

I watch him shoot. As usual, he arrives on location not knowing exactly where he's going to place his camera. He never prepares a shooting script. He looks around briefly and makes a quick decision. The solution is usually the simplest, or sometimes just the easiest. He may even say, "No, not that way. It's too difficult." He arranges the actors and the extras very carefully, but he doesn't trouble much about the details of the background. He looks through the camera sight frequently. Someone gives him a headset so that he can hear the dialogue, because he's so deaf. He doesn't give the actors any direction before the run-throughs, merely places them and corrects as they go along.

When an actor pleases him-as, for example, Jeanne Moreau in The Diary of a Chambermaid-he doesn't add a thing, allowing the interpreter his own sensibility and his own reactions. But, other times, he might take the actor aside for an hour if necessary, if he hasn't gotten it, and give him directions down to the minutest detail, even a frown. His directions are sometimes astonishing. He told Georges Marchal to disappear behind a coffin in Belle de Jour, "as the sun sets on the horizon." In the same film, Francisco Rabal is supposed to come out of an elevator after committing a holdup, and look around nervously. Bunuel thought he overdid it. Rabal asked, "Okay, what shall I think about?" "Think about your aunt," Bunuel told him. The remark has become part of the legend.

His camera is constantly on the move. He believes a moving camera, even if the movement is minute, creates a sort of hypnotic effect. He gives his cameraman very simple, but very precise directions.

On the set, the atmosphere around him is animated. He sees and senses everything. Bunuel has practiced hypnotism and is very telepathic. This may explain the immediate contact he has with people, the extras, the technicians, the newspapermen. There is a sense of profound harmony, great intimacy, deep mutual respect. And always a great feeling of fun.

As soon as he is ready, he starts to shoot. He leans slightly forward, his legs bent, and sways gently back and forth. Great concentration. Once he's satisfied with a take, he goes on to the next. He uses only from about 55,000 to 65,000 feet of film, which is very little. He has the reputation of being well-organized and very economical, never behind schedule. He takes what he needs, knowing in advance exactly how it will come out. The actual cutting takes only eight to ten days.

He shoots with serenity and sureness and never displays the kind of anguish which sometimes paralyzes other directors. "I place my actors in the camera and follow them in the setting as long as I can. When I don't know what to do anymore, I stop and change the angle."

This sense of calm does not prevail during the period when the script is being worked out. He has often remarked that for him the film is made at the writing stage. It is then that the problems arise and must be solved.

He trusts to chance for his choices of subject. Sometimes he uses original stories (The Exterminating Angel, The Milky Way, Viridiana), or he adapts novels he likes (Nazarin, Tristana, and The Monk, which no doubt he will film one day), or he accepts suggestions from producers but so completely transforms them that they ultimately appear original (Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de Jour). Nobody can guess what will attract Bunuel. Many people have proposed stories thinking they had found "the perfect story for him." He almost always rejects them.

I remember how surprised I was when I learned he had agreed to make Belle de Jour, because, naively, I thought the novel uninteresting. He wrote me immediately: "Just between us, a ridiculous theme, but intriguing. A multitude of whores with terrible conflicts between the super-ego and the id. Just the opposite of what today's cinema holds up before us. A very, very well-laid-out plot, and to boot a very alluring fictitious world." His whole vision of the film is these few sentences. Afterwards, he was astonished at the commercial success of the film, which he thought too complex for popular taste.

The Milky Way was the fulfillment of an old desire to make a film about heresy. He had long been fascinated by the history of heresies, with which he is well acquainted-particularly by the mentality of the heretic, which involves the kind of fanaticism that can accept dogma whole hog, except for a single detail which the heretic adds or subtracts. This detail is what the man feels he, personally, adds to the understanding of the "truth." And for this detail, the man is ready to kill or to die. This phenomenon interested Bunuel first from a strictly religious point of view, but then, also, because it has universal implications.

But Bunuel could not decide how to adapt this idea for the movies. In 1967, we were together in Venice for the presentation of Belle de Jour. He asked me to spend some weeks with him in Spain to see if we could find a story and style that would dramatize it. We packed some theology textbooks in valises and set off.

In Spain, in the hills of Granada in a peaceful hotel, we were completely isolated, fifteen miles from the nearest village. It was autumn and the weather was magnificent. There was nobody in the hotel except some hunters who left each day at dawn and returned very late. We spent several weeks there, far from the world, walking in the forests, and talking about divine grace and original sin. It was a time of great contentment. The scenario worked itself out slowly. After a month, we had about fifty pages. Serge Silberman, who had produced Diary of a Chambermaid, came to see us. He read the fifty pages in a half hour and agreed to make the film. "We're going to take you to a nice house in the country," Bunuel told him, taking him gently by the arm, "a very comfortable house. The people will be dressed in white and won't do you any harm." He was telling him he was crazy to produce a film like The Milky Way. Silberman didn't agree.


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View from a Toledo balcony: cameraman, Bunuel, expressive cast member.

Bunuel exhibited all the doubts and concerns of the creative artist during the writing of the script. He is much more author than director. And yet, paradoxically, he writes only rarely and with difficulty. When he is faced with it, he needs someone else who will actually take pen and paper, after they have talked it out together. I have played that role four times. I am well aware that Bunuel's universe is so particular and so personal that it's useless to offer him ideas tare supposed to arouse his enthusiasm. When a difficulty arises, he thinks up a half dozen possible solutions, and, if he asks for advice, it is only to help choose from among them. His imagination is both brilliant and boundless. I often have the impression when I'm working with him that I am his first audience. He will be silent for a long time, gazing out the window; he lights a cigarette and puts it out (he smokes and drinks a bit too much, which worries him but doesn't seem to do him any harm), then he bursts out laughing, tells a story, gets lost in some digression, and finally finds what he's looking for. Sometimes his critical sense, which is very acute, overwhelms his imaginative side and he suffers periods of depression when everything seems stupid and childish to him. Sometimes he needs help to sweep these doubts away, find his direction again, and give his imaginative side preeminence again.


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Director and star Catherine Deneuve.

He likes to work regularly, five or six hours a day, roughly. That gives me time to sketch out what we've talked over, write dialogue and type up a draft. In the evening, when we go out to the Madrid cafes, there is not a word about work. He is just delighted to be with friends in his favorite spots.

He has an instinctive sense of how a filth script should be constructed. From this point of view, the scripts of El, Belle de Jour, and Tristana could pass as models. He places great importance on the last image of one sequence and the first image of the following one to the relationship of the parts to each other. For him, dialogue poses no problems. Ideally, it is as simple as possible, no cleverness, no play on words. The details, which, as far as he is concerned, "make the film," he finds as he goes along. Sometimes he is conscious of "playing Bunuel" and he fights against it. He will make a joke. He'll say, "If this is too short, we'll put in a dream." He tries to disconcert, to surprise, to do something one would not expect of him. He has said:

"I do not make films for the 'public,' I put the word 'public' in quotes. If this 'public' is conventional, hidebound, perverted, that's not its fault but society's. It's very, very difficult and happens rarely that one can make a film that pleases the 'public,' as well as one's friends and the people whose judgment counts for one." He is one of the rare filmmakers-perhaps the only one-who makes films to please himself.

He includes in the script all the directions, as for costume or decor, that may help him when he comes to shoot, but never the technical directions. He prefers to leave something to discover for the actual filming so that it will not become a mere formality. "If everything is in the scenario, why bother making the film?"

In the movie world, which he detests, he lives like a hermit. When he's not working, he reads and rests in his house in Mexico, where he lives with his French wife, two dogs and his parrot. In his bar there is a framed map of the Paris metro. In the living room, there is his portrait by Salvador Dali, a friend from other days whom he doesn't see anymore.

He has three children. Raphael lives in New York where he runs an off-Broadway theater. Jean-Louis, a sculptor and filmmaker, lives in Paris. Juliette is his youngest and is named in honor of Sade and his Prosperites du Vice.

Luis Bunuel is seldom seen at the film festivals. And even less frequently at the receptions and cocktail parties. He maintains that he manages his time so well that he is able to spend months doing nothing. That's what he says. He'd have to prove it.

He goes to the movies very rarely and, because of his deafness, sees only pictures with subtitles, but he's very impatient and usually leaves after twenty minutes. Nevertheless, he has seen Bergman's Persona twice and The Saragossa Manuscript, a Polish film made by Has, two or three times. He has a weakness for this film and for Potocki's book which inspired it. Several years ago he was very struck by a film by the Brazilian Glauber Rocha, Black God, White Devil, and The Hunt, a film by a young Spanish filmmaker, Carlos Saura. He still admires Fritz Lang and he likes Fellini up to La Dolce Vita.

His true masters, as he acknowledges, are writers, not filmmakers. Bunuel has been nourished by many cultural traditions, first the Spanish, particularly the picaresque novels up to the time of Galdos. And yet many Spaniards find him more French than Spanish. It was in France, particularly during the surrealist movement, that he really found his style. He made his first film, Un Chien Andalou, in 1928 with some money his mother gave him. In 1930, he made L'Age d'Or, which Andre Breton called the only authentically surrealist film ever made.


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These two films, his intimacy with members of the surrealist group, his discovery of the works of Sade and Freud all marked him indelibly, as he is the first to point out. He can talk all night and with great emotion about this time of his life. He tells the story of how he was once denounced by the surrealists because he had sold the script of Un Chien Andalou to a bourgeois literary review. He was subjected to a trial complete with public defender and prosecutor. "I was despondent," he recalls, "and such was the strength of our convictions at that time that I felt I should have to commit suicide." In the end his sentence was to smash the review's printing press with a hammer.

Today Bunuel likes to repeat Breton's words that, "It is now impossible to scandalize anybody." Nevertheless, he asserts that the struggle goes on, because the adversary is still the same, even if he has changed faces. Bunuel is still on the alert, still concerned about being true to himself. A long time ago he understood that to try to be original just for its own sake was not interesting, and once such originality became an end in itself it led to mere pyrotechnics. He is fond of repeating, with the hint of a smile, the words of a Spanish scholar: "Everything that does not come out of tradition is plagiarism."

He doesn't try to be original; he simply is, quite naturally and without any apparent effort. Even more, he doesn't try to scandalize. It simply happens. There's an enormous difference.

That is not to say that Bunuel is not conscious of his power. He has said that, "The cinema is a tremendous weapon and can be dangerous if wielded by a free spirit." But, above all, beyond all the success and all the scandals, he stands aloof from the fashions of the day, especially those he has made himself, and insists on just being himself-the final mark of originality.

Even so, aside from the struggle, it seems to me that much of Bunuel's work recalls the words of Andre Breton in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism: "Everything leads me to believe that there is a certain point in the life of the spirit at which life and death, the real and the imagined, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the exalted and the lowly, cease to be seen as contradictory. One would search in vain in the whole spectrum of surrealist insight for anything except the exact point where one could hope to determine where these contradictions fall away." It is this "exact point" that I have seen in a flash at certain moments in Bunuel's work. For those who know how to watch him, Bunuel no longer seems merely a dealer in contradictions. There is a great deal of discussion about his obsessions and manias as a film creator, but I have never been struck by this side of him. I believe him to be the exact opposite of the author who simply goes on repeating himself. Clearly, there is a distinguishable Bunuelian universe, filled with brilliant and unique images; but this universe is a boundless kingdom. One cannot catalogue it. I asked Bunuel one day if he was aware that he habitually used certain themes and certain favorite images. He smiled, "Yes, there are these elements that recur in my films. But I spot them too late. When I do, I never use them again."

There are a lot of pealing bells, wood fires, animals, drum rolls, and priests in his work. A great many priests. In this regard, a few words about Bunuel's relationship with the Catholic religion are in order. Many people have commented on it, often quite mistakenly and away from the point. They say he is fascinated by Catholicism, that he has a love-hate attitude towards it, and numerous well-meaning souls have suggested that he will end by being "saved," and wind up in the bosom of the Church.

I fear they deceive themselves. The relationship between Bunuel and his religion is, like everything else about him, marvelously simple. Bunuel is deeply and sincerely an atheist. The famous witticism, "I am an atheist, thank God," does not apply to him. It's an old Spanish joke that people have stuck on him. Raised in the Catholic religion and educated by Spanish Jesuits, he long ago rebelled against his religion, which he considers to be one of the major forces responsible for social injustice.


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Bunuel counsels character actor (above) and (below) Italian actor Franco Nero.


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It is nevertheless true that he is uninterested in anything outside the Christian universe, which has been the only one he has ever known. Although he lives in Mexico, he displays a complete indifference toward the art and civilization of the Indians. He is equally bored by Africa and the Orient. He is at ease only with the Christian myths, traditions and legends that he knows intimately. He knows the Gospels well, even if he doesn't admire them. He has read the Church Fathers, the lives of the saints, the history of the great heresies. This reading, this familiarity with the Christian spirit has stamped most of his films. Both Viridiana and Nazarin could be taken as apocryphal parables, and are therefore considered to be dangerous, which explains the embarrassed though divided attitude of the Church toward his films. Simon of the Desert and The Milky Way, aside from their satirical and comic aspects, concern the relation between man and the sacred, or perhaps even more they are about man's efforts to speak to the empty heavens.

In Toledo it is winter. A cold wind blows in the narrow streets. Luis Bunuel is making a picture once again. He often insists, so they say, that this one will be the last: He said it about Diary of a Chambermaid, about Belle de lour, about The Milky Way. But he goes on, because of some interior and private need that he doesn't try to explain. He will go on making films for a long time.

Some Spanish friends come to see him, and also his sister Conchita, who lives in Saragossa. He includes them in some background shots. In the evening, after he has finished shooting, he retires early.

He says the best time of his life was when he was in his fifties, but he doesn't complain too much at being old. He has arrived at a certain serenity. He likes solitude-at least part of the time. He can sit watching an ant on a twig or the clouds in the sky for long periods. If he were to retire to a desert island, the book he would take would be the Souvenirs d'un Entomologiste, by J.-H. Fabre, a nineteenth-century French scholar. He has a passion for this work, in which he sees a love of nature and of all living things equal to his own.

He is, literally, incapable of killing a fly.

He is not preoccupied by death. He would like to have time to prepare himself and to leave his affairs in order because he likes to maintain order in his house and his documents. When a journalist asked him why he did not come back to live in Europe, he responded, "Because of fear of death. I don't mind dying, but not while I'm moving."

On his deathbed, to scandalize his friends one last time, he would like to summon a priest. And afterwards he would like his tombstone removed from time to time so that the newspapers could be brought to him. "It's nothing to die," he says. "What's hard is to be not with it."

He's up in the morning at six. He's first on the set and welcomes the technicians. He asks how they are. He marks the first position for the camera precisely.

He doesn't like it when his generosity, his modesty, his talent for friendship are discussed. But many of his friends say that the great masterpiece of Bunuel is Bunuel himself. He is the man that everyone who is around him would dream of being.

His square face is carved out of beautiful brown stone. Sometimes he grows a mustache, "but never a beard, because I would look like Hemingway."

Square shoulders, strong muscles, a hearing aid in the left ear, clear and wide eyes.

He was born with the twentieth century. I hope he lives as long as it does.

(Translated by Alice Mayhew)



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