Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 12 - Luis Bunuel, Film Director
Saturday 31 October 1998
A whole chapter of the book - the kind of space most directors in their memoirs would devote to Oscar nominations or camera set-ups - deals with drinking and smoking, activities in defence of which Bunuel is as passionate as he is in his attacks on the Church and bourgeois conventions in his films.
"A dry Martini," writes Bunuel, "is composed of gin and a few drops of Noilly Prat. Connoisseurs who like their Martinis very dry suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin."
Even on this topic, and at the age of 82, Bunuel could not resist a possibly blasphemous thought: "Dry Martinis should resemble the Immaculate Conception," he writes. "As St Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative power of the Holy Ghost pierced the Virgin's hymen `like a ray of sunlight through a window - leaving it unbroken'."
Bunuel's passion for tobacco, meanwhile, equals his love of alcohol. "It's a joy for all the senses. What lovelier sight is there than that double row of white cigarettes, lined up like soldiers on parade, wrapped in silver paper? I love to touch the pack in my pocket, open it, savour the feel of the cigarette between my fingers, the paper on my lips, the taste of tobacco on my tongue. I love to watch the flame spurt up, love to watch it come closer and closer, filling me with its warmth."
This is a film director's description of smoking. The almost fetishistic relish of detail recalls, for some reason, the lingering shot of Catherine Deneuve's patent shoes as she walks up the stairs to one of her afternoon assignations in Belle de Jour, or Bunuel's exceptional tracking shot, head and shoulders only, following Deneuve down the street in the same film.
But Bunuel was no guilty voyeur, like that other great Catholic film director, Alfred Hitchcock. He was a cheerful participant in life. Through all the years of exile from his beloved Spain, he never despaired. There was always a bar, and friends with whom to engage in a passionate exchange of views. "I can't count the number of delectable hours I've spent in bars," he writes.
A more famous Bunuel quote - "I remain an atheist, thank God" - explains why he and Franco never hit it off, and why the director spent several years dubbing American movies, before moving to Mexico, where he added a personal touch to mundane commercial projects.
Bunuel's mission to shock and enrage never deserted him. Whether in the famous image of a razor blade slicing through an eyeball in Un Chien Andalou, his 1927 collaboration with Salvador Dali, or in his 1960 film, Viridiana, which Franco's government backed at the Cannes Film Festival, clearly unaware of the scenes of foot fetishism and the parody of da Vinci's Last Supper, involving beggars and drunkards, Bunuel just couldn't resist it. When the Spanish government finally saw the movie, he was exiled from his birthplace for the rest of his life.
In the Seventies, Bunuel had a glorious late flowering, but the films he made in France, such as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), were not the films of a mellow old man. His sense of the ridiculous and his talent for subversion were as vivid as ever.
As a young man, his iconoclasm could have been dismissed as the equivalent of breaking wind in church. But to retain that kind of rage into old age - that's heroic.
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