Luis Bu˝uel's anarchic passion and use of dream imagery made him one of the most enduring of the surrealist filmmakers. An early collaborator with Salvador Dalý, Bu˝uel also worked in commercial cinema around the world, most notably in Mexico and the United States. A committed atheist and activist, Bu˝uel made films that attacked both the church and the bourgeoisie for their hypocrisy and indifference toward the poor. The director's career spanned close to 50 years, and several of his best-known works were completed in the last years of his life.
Luis Bu˝uel was born on February 22, 1900 in the Spanish village of Calanda in Aragon. A few months after he was born, his family moved to Saragossa. Bu˝uel received a Catholic education, and was a good student who studied the scriptures, excelled in sports, and played the violin. He also exhibited an interest in insects and animals, and this devotion to science provided the catalyst for his loss of faith as a teenager. Bu˝uel's thinking was also influenced by the works of Herbert Spencer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud's method of psychoanalysis.
In 1917, while studying entomology at the University of Madrid, he befriended artists such as the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and the painter Salvador Dalý, who were also students at the university. Bu˝uel soon joined the anarchist movement and changed his major to history. Upon graduation, he spent 14 months in the military before leaving for Paris in 1925. There, Bu˝uel found work as the secretary to a Spanish diplomat, and met the Olympic gymnast Jeanne Rucar, whom he would marry in 1934. A frequent moviegoer since the age of eight, he spent every spare moment at the cinema. He was so impressed by Fritz Lang's Der Mude Tod (Weary Death, 1921) that the film left him "completely transformed. Images could and did become for me the true means of expression. I decided to devote myself to the cinema."
Bu˝uel entered the film academy run by avant-garde filmmaker Jean Epstein, and soon persuaded Epstein to hired him as an assistant for the 1926 film Mauprat. He also worked as an assistant on La Sire`ne de tropiques, starring Josephine Baker, and played a small part as a smuggler in Jacques Feyder's Carmen. In 1927, he briefly worked in the theater as an actor, director, and writer. Bu˝uel developed a reputation for being difficult after he quit Epstein's La chute de la Maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher) after a dispute with the director over Abel Gance, whom Bu˝uel saw as a hack. Now unemployed, he organized the first series of avant-garde films in Spain, the success of which led to the formation of the first Spanish film club at the University of Madrid.
In 1928, Bu˝uel and Dalý discussed collaborating on a film based on their dreams. Financed by Bu˝uel's mother and shot over a period of 10 days, Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) instantly became known as one of the landmarks of surrealist film. Taking its title from a collection of Bu˝uel's poems, the film incorporated a shocking array of sexual, dream, and religious images. Un Chien Andalou was a success in wide release that became popular even among the bourgeois they had hoped to offend. Bu˝uel then decided to "put all my activity at the service of surrealism."
Lack of money and his unwillingness to compromise for commercial cinema led Bu˝uel to consider abandoning film, but he soon found a most unlikely patron. Vicomte de Noialles was a wealthy man who had funded films for Man Ray and Jean Cocteau and who commissioned a film every year for his wife's birthday. L'Age d'or (The Golden Age, 1930) began as a collaboration between Bu˝uel and Dalý, but they parted ways when it became apparent that each man had a different vision for the film. Although it incorporated many of the themes explored in Un Chien andalou - sexual frustration, violence, and hatred for both the church and state - Bu˝uel stated that unlike its predecessor, L'Age d'or contained a "conducting thread . . . that runs from one thing to another via a certain detail." The deliberately provocative film was widely attacked, and led to riots. But the filmmaker was not present to witness most of the controversy, since he had accepted the offer of a six-month contract to work in Hollywood by a European agent for MGM who had seen the film. L'Age d'or was effectively banned throughout Europe for the next 50 years.
In the United States, Bu˝uel associated with expatriates including Sergei Eisenstein, Josef Von Sternberg, Jacques Feyder, Charles Chaplin and Bertolt Brecht. His brief visit came to an end when he refused to screen a film featuring Lili Damita as a Spanish courtesan, and he returned to France in March 1931, days before the end of the Spanish monarchy and the installation of the Second Republic. Bu˝uel's next project, Las Hurdes (Tierra sin pan/ Land Without Bread, 1932), was a surrealist documentary of the exploitation of and indifference toward the poor in the remote, impoverished Spanish village of Las Hurdes. Militant and unflinching, its most striking feature was the matter-of-fact narration that accompanies its unsettling images of death and disease. Bu˝uel later said that he made the film because of "a Surrealist vision and because I was interested in the problem of mankind." The film did not find a distributor until after the Spanish Civil War; the government banned the film and marked its maker as "a dangerous libertine, an abject morphine addict, and . . . the director of this abominable film, a veritable crime against the homeland."
After protracted disagreements, Bu˝uel disassociated himself from the surrealists in 1932 and gave up directing, taking a job dubbing films into Spanish for Paramount Pictures in Paris and Madrid. He also dubbed films for Warner Bros. in Spain. In 1934, Bu˝uel and Jeanne Rucar were married and had their first child, Juan-Luis. For the next two years he made four films for Filmofono, two of which were successful, but the company came to an end following the fascist coup in Spain. Bu˝uel then worked on propaganda for the Republican government in Paris. In 1939, he went to Hollywood to make a film about the Spanish civil war entitled Cargo of the Innocents, but the United States government pressured the Association of American Producers to cease production on films on the subject.
Bu˝uel was hired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to re-edit Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935) and Hans Bertram's Feldzug in Polen (1939), in an effort to emphasize their propagandistic elements. But MOMA came under pressure to fire Bu˝uel upon the release of Salvador Dalý's 1942 autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalý, which claimed that the filmmaker was a Communist. Bu˝uel quit and moved to California with his family, which now included Rafael, born in 1940. For the next two years, he worked on Spanish versions of English-language films for Warner Brothers, and made enough money from his uncredited work on the screenplay for Robert Florey's The Beast With Five Fingers (1945) to take a year off.
Bu˝uel moved to Mexico and returned to directing after a 15-year hiatus to make two musicals, Gran Casino (1947) and El gran Calavera (The Great Profligate, 1949). Los olvidados (The Forgotten/The Young and the Damned, 1950) told the story of a boy who escapes from reform school to take revenge on the former friend who turned him in to the police, and was inspired by Shoeshine (1946), a film by neo-realist Vittorio de Sica. Like de Sica, Bu˝uel used unknown actors and "tried to expose the wretched conditions of the poor in real terms because I loathe films that make the poor romantic and sweet." Los alvidados was hated by the Mexican people, the press, and many of those who worked on it. Labor unions also objected to the film on the basis of what they saw as its harsh treatment of the working class. But in 1951, the film won the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and Bu˝uel was recognized with the award for best director.
The following year the filmmaker won the avant-garde film award at Cannes for Subida al cielo (Climbing to the Sky, released in 1953), a light-hearted comedy about a man's adventures when he is called away from his wedding by his dying mother, who wishes to change her will. Bu˝uel's first color film was The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1952), a Mexican-American production in which he aimed to "show man's solitude, man's anguish in human society." That same year, he made El, a critique of organized religion that was one of his personal favorites, although it was not popular in Mexico. In 1953 he filmed an adaptation of Emily Bronte's novel Wuthering Heights and La ilusion viaja entranvia (Illusion Travels by Streetcar), which concerned two transit workers who make one last trip into the city after they learn that their streetcar is to be retired.
Ensayo de un crimen (La vida criminal d'Archibald de la Cruz/The Criminal Life of Archibald de la Cruz, 1955), concerned a man who acts upon his urge to control women by killing them, and whose confession to the police is dismissed. The film was considered one of the best of the films that Bu˝uel made in Mexico, which did not receive the recognition they deserved until 1966, when five of them were exhibited in Paris. In 1955, he went to France, where he collaborated with surrealist Jean Ferry on an adaptation of Emmanuel RoblŔs' 1952 novel Cela s'appelle l'aurore (That's Called the Dawn) a well received romance that contained surrealist touches such as a shot of a turtle on its back during a love scene and a violinist riding a bicycle and riding a cigar.
Buneul's next Mexican film, Nazarin, told the story of a former priest who decides set out on his own mission, ministering to outcasts. A faithful adaptation of an 1895 novel by Benito Pe'rez Galdo's, the film won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959. Bu˝uel changed the ending of the book so that the protagonist became a Christ figure rather than a visionary, but he later denied that the film signaled a reconciliation with the church. "Personally I was astounded to read certain commentaries," he told Le Monde. "Where do these people dig up what they write? I like Nazarin because it's a film that lets me express certain things I care about. But I don't think I've renounced or foresworn anything at all: thank God, I'm still an atheist."
Bu˝uel then made two commercial films, a political drama entitled Los Ambiciosos (La Fie`vre monte a` El Pao/The Republic of Sin, 1959) and The Young One (1960), a film about a black fugitive who becomes involved with a teenage orphan. An American-Mexican production shot in Georgia, The Young One was also the only film the director made in English. Bu˝uel met a number of young Spanish filmmakers at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival including Carlos Saura, who persuaded him shoot a Spanish-Mexican film in Spain. Viridiana (1961) was a violent spectacle that was very critical of the Spanish dictatorship, and contained a scene parodying Michelangelo's The Last Supper that was later imitated by artists including Robert Altman (who included a similar scene in M*A*S*H*). The film, co-produced with an anti-Franco company, won first prize at Cannes, and was banned in Spain until 1977; other countries considered it a masterpiece.
While in Mexico in 1962, Bu˝uel made El angel exterminador (Exterminating Angel) an award-winning film about a group of bourgeoisie who become trapped inside a wealthy home; the director described it as a portrayal of "the inexplicable impossibility of satisfying a simple desire." Following 1964's Le Journal d'une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid), a period piece set in France in the 1920's, Bu˝uel turned down an offer from David O. Selznick to make a film in Hollywood. Simon del Deserto (Simon of the Desert, 1965) told the story of a Christian ascetic who spends 37 years sitting atop a pillar. The film was based on the life of Simeon Stylites, whom Bu˝uel had learned of from Federico Garcia Lorca; although planned as a feature, lack of funds forced the filmmaker to release it in a 45-minute version.
Bu˝uel's next French production, Belle du Jour (1966), was an adaptation of Joseph Kessel's 1923 novel of the same name, and starred Catherine Deneuve as a doctor's wife who cures her boredom and finds an outlet for her masochism by working in a brothel during the afternoon. Much of the film involves the protagonist's memories and sexual fantasies. Praised by critics in France, England, and the U.S. as a masterpiece, Belle du Jour received the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival in1967.
Bu˝uel intended for Belle du Jour to be his last film; at 66, he was suffering from hearing loss and dizziness. But following the attention he received in Venice, he decided to make another picture. La Voie lacte'e (The Milky Way, 1969) followed two wanderers who meet a succession of people engaged in debate over theology, encountering characters such as the devil and the Marquis de Sade. The film evoked widely varying interpretations on the subject of its religiosity, or lack thereof. Bu˝uel once again declared his retirement upon completion of Tristana (1971), a Franco-Italian-Spanish film that starred Catherine Deneuve as the mistress of an older man who runs away with a painter, only to return to her former lover when she becomes sick.
Bu˝uel continued to make films in France. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) was a comedy that chronicled the frustration experienced by a group of people whose dinner party is continually interrupted or postponed. The film won an Oscar for Best foreign film in 1972. This was followed by Le Fant˛e de la libertŔ (Phantom of Liberty, 1974), a film inspired by the reported desecration of graves and churches by Napoleon's soldiers. Bu˝uel viewed the film as the third in a trilogy that had included The Milky Way and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, explaining that all three works "talk about personal morality, about the mystery that must be respected." Like L'Age d'or, Phantom of Liberty was constructed according to a "conducting thread of seemingly inconsequential events."
Bu˝uel's next film, Cet obscur objet du de'sir (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977) was an adaptation of Pierre Louys' La Femme et la pantin (The Woman and the Puppet) and told the story of two men obsessed with a young chambermaid. An exploration of "feminine perversity," the film featured two actresses as the virginal seductress. After completing That Obscure Object of Desire, Bu˝uel spent a year in Paris before returning to Mexico. Five years later, on July 29, 1983, he died of old age in Mexico City's English Hospital, and was cremated. His autobiography, entitled The Last Sigh, was published that same year.
Glauber Rocha described Luis Bu˝uel as "the possible consciousness: in the face of oppression, the police, obscurantism, and institutional hypocrisy, Bu˝uel represents a liberating morality, a breaking of new ground, a constant process of enlightening revolt." His films contain a clarity of vision and rebellious spirit that still have the power to shock and provoke audiences.