Friday, March 14, 2003

El (This Strange Passion) is one of a handful of masterpieces from Luis Bunuel's "middle period" of the 1950s -- long after his auspicious 1928 debut with Un Chien Andalou, and just prior to his great creative period of the 1960s.

From the time of his official "comeback" in 1950 with Los Olvidados, Bunuel worked steadily in Mexico and Spain crafting a series of what might be called "Surrealist melodramas." Genre films they no doubt were, but as was true with Douglas Sirk in America, they brought out the best in him. He turned them inside out.

"With El," he later told an interviewer, "I worked as I always did in Mexico: a film was proposed to me and instead of accepting it outright I tried to work out a counterproposal. Though my proposal was still commercial, it nevertheless seemed a better way of expressing some of the things I wanted to say."

Soap operas and melodramas were, after all, what that stalwart Surrealist phrase l'amour fou, or "crazy love," was all about. Bunuel took tales of heated love and thwarted desire and turned them into personal statements about obsession, repression, bourgeois propriety, Catholicism, and fetishism.

El, in fact, manages to get all this in the very first scene. During Holy Week, Don Francisco Galvan de Montemayor (Arturo de Cordova) is taking part in a Catholic foot-washing ceremony when he very suddenly falls in love -- with a pair of feet. The middle-aged Don Francisco is a wealthy businessman, a devout Catholic, and, we come to find out, still a virgin. The problem isn't that he can't find anyone; he's handsome, vigorous, confident and a sharp dresser. The problem is that no one has ever been good enough. He's a romantic purist. These beautiful feet, then, present a challenge. He's a believer not just in love at first sight, but at first and last sight; having held out for a lifetime for the woman of his dreams, he is committed to possessing her for eternity.

The feet belong to Gloria (Delia Garces), who resists his charm but is just fearfully attracted enough by his self-assurance to leave her fiance Raul (Luis Beristein) for him. Of course, she doesn't quite know what she's in for, but her wedding night gives her a good idea: no sooner does Don Francisco embrace her than he works himself into a jealous rage over the possibility that she loved someone before him. For the duration of their honeymoon, he tortures himself with paranoid fears that Gloria is being stalked by a man she barely knows. In the couple's married life, reconciliation leads to violence, arguments end with gunfire, and a day's peaceful outing concludes with Don Francisco's Vertigo-esque threat to pitch Gloria from the top of a bell-tower. Gloria's efforts to change the situation come to naught; the rest of the world, including her own mother, are too impressed by Don Francisco's devotion to ever see through him. Far from satisfying Don Francisco, love turns this professional control freak into a raving nut and his new bride into his prisoner. Fernando goes berserk; first in a clumsy attempt at suturing Gloria's vagina and then later in church, where his ordered world implodes before his eyes.


"What happens with the cinema is that people have written and said a great deal about its technique," Bunuel told an interviewer in his later years. "There's a lot of hot air in all that: cinema is easy to do, and has no secrets ... The specialists solve the technical problems. To be a good director in the cinema is the same as being a good writer -- to have clear ideas, to know what you want to say and to say it as directly as possible."

This wasn't just the view of a wily old man, eager to blaspheme his own status as a sacred cow. Long before he got anywhere near a camera, film had always been for him a matter of simplicity, of pursuing a clean, uncluttered style that didn't rely on unneccessary effects.

"No one ever talks about the technique of films like [Buster Keaton's] College," he wrote in an early film review, "and it is because it is so indissolubly mingled with the other elements, that no one even notices, just as if you live in a house you do not take note of the calculated resistance of the materials which compose it." How easily one could say the same thing about so many of his own films, except that people did talk about his style; a style that was so effective because it eschewed "style" altogether. He made complex films that proceed with remarkable economy; so much so that it sometimes throws viewers off-guard, especially with his editing. Rather than a title-card that says "Six years later," he uses a "straight cut" that not only tests your alertness but gives the story an appropriately dream-like touch.

There is, to be sure, some fancy camerawork in his movies -- non-synchronous sound, freeze-frames, slow-motion, jump-cuts, and warped dream images were all things he either originated or toyed with, usually before anyone else -- but what really defines Bunuel is not the way he manipulated the lens but how he arranged images in a suggestive, even shocking way. We never actually see Don Francisco trying to stitch up Gloria, for example; we just see him him take a needle, thread, razor and rope into the bedroom. The suggestiveness of juxtaposed objects: key to dreams, key to the Surrealists, and the key reason why Bunuel's compositions are so distinct and recognizable. Will anyone ever forget the ants crawling out a hole in a man's hand in Un Chien Andalou? The poor blind street musician in Los Olvidados, staring into the face of a rooster? The laughing portrait of Christ in Nazarin? The group of beggars in Viridiana, having a pagan orgy to the strains of Handel's Messiah?

In time, Bunuel would have total freedom to choose his own mad projects and say everything he had only hinted at before. But as El reminds us, the hints themselves could be pretty damned powerful.El reminds us, the hints themselves could be pretty damned powerful.

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