Filmmakers You Should Know: Luis Buñuel

– by JD Westfall, VW’s movie connoisseur –

Often when selecting a film to watch, people will first look at the cast. This has always baffled me, since the cast members rarely have much input into the quality of the film. Rather, I’ve always looked to the directors, writers and producers when selecting a movie to watch.

Therefore, allow me to share one of my absolute favorites, a filmmaker you definitely should come to know: Luis Buñuel.

Let’s take a quick look into two of his masterpieces.

Buñuel’s Two Best Films, according to JD

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Buñuel started his film career via a partnership with one of the greatest surrealists of all time, Salvador Dali. These men were two peas in a pod ­– both born in Spain in the early 1900s, and both greatly influenced by art and surrealism, though their choice of media diverged. While Dali delved into painting, Buñuel veered into the still new medium of filmmaking. Eventually, it seemed fitting for these two to collaborate on a film. What resulted was one of the greatest and earliest surreal films.

To understand this film, one must have an understanding of surrealism. Many people misinterpret the word “surreal,” assuming that anything strange is surreal. The proper definition of surrealism is “a form of art that is dream-like.” And this comes through in spades in Un Chien Andalou, or An Andalusian Dog in English.

It features no discernible plot, instead skipping freely from scenario to scenario. From the notorious scene of a woman’s eyeball being cut with a razor to a man’s hand being consumed by ants to a man dragging a grand piano with dead donkeys on top around a room. Time is also meaningless, the film beginning with a card reading “Once upon a time…” only to later give us another inter-title reading; “Eight years later.”

A bonus of watching this film is that it will give you a better understanding of one of the most famous songs by Pixies. “Got me a movie / I want you to know / Slicing up eyeballs / I want you to know / Girl you’re so groovy / I want you to know / Don’t know about you / But I am un chien andalusia”

Admittedly this film can be difficult to watch, given the insane scenes going on, and also the fact that it’s a silent film, which regrettably few people seem to enjoy. Heathens. Worry not though, because there are still plenty of delightful Buñuel films available for you to enjoy. For example…

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

This is one of the seven films in constant contention to be my favorite movie of all time. Unlike the former film, The Exterminating Angel has a clear, cohesive plotline that is easily followed. However, it still manages a degree of surrealism through the fact that its plot is absolutely bonkers. The film features a group of upper-class snobs attending a dinner party. At one point in the night, they all gather into the music room so the hostess can play piano for them. As they all begin to leave, they find themselves unable to exit the room. At first they don’t realize this, until slowly the truth of their situation dawns on them.

While Buñuel himself refuses to explain the significance of his films (since, as being surreal and dream-like they typically have a realistic interpretation) there are many points that can provide endless fun trying to pick apart and figure out what exactly it’s supposed to symbolize. For example, an important aspect is how these dignified, upper-class citizens slowly break down in barbarism over the course of the night and following day.

So if Un Chien Andalou was too free-form and unstructured for you, give The Exterminating Angel a shot and love the blend of surrealism, comedy, drama and social commentary all crashing together into this magnificent package.

Further Recommendations

Naturally, Luis Buñuel has many more excellent films we could discuss. For example, his double-Oscar nominated hit from 1972 The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (winner of the Best Foreign Language Film award, and nominated for Best Original Screenplay), follows a group of friends simply trying to have a pleasant meal together, only to be interrupted continually by closed restaurants, death, car troubles, unwanted visits by a priest and civil war.

Buñuel also dabbled in other genres outside of surrealism, such as in 1959’s Nazarin, which is a drama focusing on a Roman Catholic priest named Nazario who devotes his entire life to his faith and his church, only to have it continually add further burdens to him in the form of abuse and injustice from others, despite living a life of asceticism and freely giving of himself to help others.

He even dabbled in psychological thrillers, with 1952’s El, which features a man who falls in love with a woman who is already engaged to be married. After much effort, he manages to woo the woman and marries her himself. After this, however, the man’s true jealous nature is revealed, as he continually finds evidence of her unfaithfulness to him. The film straddles the line between drama and thriller, and always has the audience questioning whether her betrayal is real or imagined, and in turn, whether the lead character is actually the protagonist or antagonist. Somehow, the film was laughed at upon its initial release. Happily, today it is almost universally hailed as a masterpiece, a fate much more deserving.

Obviously, Luis Buñuel created many, many more amazing films that we simply haven’t space to go into here (Belle du Jour, Los Olvidados, Viridiana, and on and on and on) but hopefully this rundown can serve as a useful introduction for you into the life and work of Luis Buñuel. I strongly encourage you to give at least a few of films a go.

J.D. became a film buff at age four after viewing his first Buster Keaton movie. Since then he’s found a passion for everything from Shakespeare to Sharknado.

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