Sunday, January 29, 2012


A month spent with some of Luis Buñuel's 1960s output ends with one of his most revered, the controversial 1961 drama Viridiana. Then again, "drama" doesn't exactly feel like the right word. How does one classify this picture? It's got drama, but it also has satire; it has social commentary, but is also a moral parable. It has small touches of Buñuel's usual surreal pranksterism, but yet is also restrained. The director is in complete control of his material, and he doesn't let his gadfly impulses get the better of him.

The marvelous Silvia Pinal stars as the title character. Viridiana is a young woman who has just finished her schooling at the convent. Before she takes her vows as a nun, however, her mother superior insists she go visit her ailing uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey). He paid for her education, but Viridiana doesn't know him. She goes to his home reluctantly.

Don Jaime lives alone with his maid Ramona (Margarita Lozano), her daughter Rita (Teresita Rabal), and two handymen. He is a widower whose only child is a son born out of wedlock whom he hasn't seen in years. Viridiana does not approve of his lifestyle or his choices, but she is forgiving. Her time under his roof is pleasant, and he even indulges her idiosyncrasies. One night Don Jaime witnesses his niece sleepwalking. In this nocturnal trance, she burns her knitting yarn and pours ashes on his bed--a symbol, we are told, of both penitence and death. Don Jaime could use the former, and he is prepared for the latter. His easy acceptance of this odd behavior is partially relief. Had Viridiana been awake, she'd have seen him cross-dressing, trying on his dead wife's shoes and girdle.

He is also thankful for the brief glimpse of Viridiana's virginal thighs. Being asleep, she wasn't aware enough to cover what was exposed. The beautiful blonde attracts plenty of attention from men. As much as the religious woman desires to blot out sin, there is a reactive impulse from the sinner to want to ruin purity. Don Jaime actually has been scheming the whole time to make Viridiana stay and marry him, replacing her aunt, whom she resembles. As much as this is a perfectly lurid melodramatic detail, it's also a carefully chosen symbol. Buñuel is warping the idea of a nun being married to her savior. There is an understated allegorical element to Viridiana where Don Jaime is God, though in this scenario, the Supreme Being is disillusioned with his creation. The noble ideals that inspired his earliest efforts have been replaced by an understandable disappointment in life, and the son he sent out into the world has done his own thing rather than continue the mission*. Rey captures this weariness and Jaime's internal conflict perfectly. His whole being appears to sag as he discusses his disillusionment. He's also equally adept at showing how he, too, is subject to base human impulses. Viridiana's romantic allegiance, might restore some of the goodness to Jaime's life, and her sexual surrender** will give him more immediate personal satisfaction.

Viridiana is caught in a hypocrisy that Buñuel quite rightly sees as systemic of organized religion. Despite a fundamental desire to do what is right, Viridiana often only does so after a guilt trip compels her to. When she attempts to take care of herself, other forces demand that she bury her own desires and give in to theirs. When she rejects Don Jaime, he resorts to drastic measures to trap her in his home.

The writing here, by Buñuel and Julio Alejandro, is sharp. It is never overbearing or obvious. The director is actively thumbing his nose at Catholicism--and Viridiana was banned by the Vatican as a result--but he's not resorting to easy polemics or, heaven forbid, preachiness. He lets the events suggest meaning; action speaks for itself. He also doesn't limit his contempt to just the church. As Don Jaime has likely figured out--and here, we can assume, so has the auteur--humanity is its own worst enemy. Religion has not just been born out of superstition and fear, but also out of a real-world need to impose some kind of moral order on the greater citizenry. Sin is real, even if God is not, and left to our own devices, we will succumb to every selfish impulse and bad behavior available.

This becomes the focus of the second half of Viridiana. Traumatized by all that has happened at her uncle's home, the girl decides not to take her vows. Instead, she will stay at Jaime's house and care for the local poor. She invites the street beggars back to his place and gives them room and board, only asking for piousness and a little work in return. At the same time, the lost son, Don Jorge (Francisco Rabal), comes to take over his father's land. Don Jorge represents the modern world that Viridiana has so far avoided. He is a man of industry and doesn't like seeing his father's land going to waste. He listens to rock music and is in a relationship with a woman (Victoria Zinny) who is not his wife. He is kind to dogs, but not very compassionate toward man. And like every other male, he is attracted to Viridiana.

Funnily enough, for all the anti-religious readings of Viridiana, one could actually apply the opposite to the film's final act. Don Jorge's influence appears positive when you see how he transforms his father's estate, but his personal behavior often hurts people. He disregards the needs of others for his own, a trait that would be easy to blame on his money and his class position, except the disenfranchised lower classes he so disdains are no better. Despite Viridiana's kindness, the men and women she has taken under her care reward her by throwing it back in her face. The first time she leaves the farm, they break into the house and throw themselves a party. As noted in my review of The Exterminating Angel, Buñuel regularly uses dinner table scenes for both comedy and critique. The blind beggars and social misfits are a grotesque parody of how they envision the upper classes behaving. They are sloppy, over indulgent, and downright hedonistic. A leper dresses in the wedding dress of Don Jaime's widow, providing a distorted mirror image of the old patriarch's own cross-dressing. The same sickly beggar has also slaughtered a white dove, a traditional symbol of religious piety. (This is contrasted with the black bull that little Rita sees earlier in the movie, suggesting the devil is coming for them.) The feast ends with the rabble rousers posing as the diners in Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. If these are Jesus' most precious disciples, are they really worth saving? (Though, credit where its due, the punchline of the joke from the woman whose "camera" will take this picture is hilarious.)

Buñuel amps up the melodrama for the scenes that follow, and the effect is disturbing. I am sure he was aware that by allowing Jorge to play the hero, he is giving the audience what they suspect they want. Indeed, even casting the square-jawed actor validates a kind of Hollywood image of a leading man. Francisco Rabal talks like Charlton Heston, and he smolders like Rock Hudson. Yet, are any of us really prepared for the true side effects? For someone to be a hero, another person has to be a victim. If we don't feel queasy seeing innocence spoiled, if we get a charge out of Jorge's coming to the rescue--as pathetic as those efforts kind of end up being--then there is something wrong with us. If we also lusted after Viridiana, if we yearned to see more of Silvia Pinal's flesh exposed, then we are no better than any of the drooling predators on the screen.

The final shot of the film is one of capitulation and defeat. There is no coming back from this trauma, no restoring old-fashioned values. The holy trinity has been replaced by a completely different sort of threesome, and this one has about as much chance of filling the existential void as its predecessor.

* Though the son here could also easily ask, "Father, why hast thou forksaken me?" 

** I suppose one could make a case for Don Jaime's initial lie about having deflowered Viridiana being an attempted distortion of Mary's virginal impregnation, but I am not quite sure how to pull it together. An intriguing parallel, nonetheless. 

BONUS BUNUEL: My reviews of discs from the director not featured in the Criterion collection:

* Susana (1951)

* Death in the Garden (1956)


Sunday, January 22, 2012

BELLE DE JOUR (Blu-Ray) - #593

Luis Buñuel's 1967 adaptation of the Joseph Kessel novel Belle de Jour may be tame by today's standards in terms of what we actually see on screen, but the icy tale of sexual peccadilloes and alternative pleasures still has a psychological resonance, bolstered by the director's casual acceptance of fantasy as a means for expression. It's one of Buñuel's best films, as well as one of the most ideal roles for its beautiful lead actress, Catherine Deneuve. The star of Repulsion [review] and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (and of more recent films like Apres Lui [review]) has often been criticized for her chilly demeanor, but a smart director like Buñuel can take what others see as faults and turn it into a performer's greatest strength.

Deneuve stars in the film as Séverine, a 23-year-old newlywed who, despite having been married to the handsome doctor Pierre (Jean Sorel) for a year, has not yet consummated her marriage. The couple sleeps in separate beds, like the marrieds of a 1950s sitcom, and Pierre's attempts to cross the transom between are met with dismissal. You'd think the dirty dreams Séverine is having would otherwise stimulate her underwhelming libido, but as we see, these fantasies all involve some kind of degradation or violence. One such dream is Belle de Jour's opening scene, and in it, an angry Pierre has Séverine whipped by coachmen before handing her over to one of them to do what he will. Even if Pierre knew about his wife's hidden desires, it's hard to imagine he could do anything about them, he's too upstanding a citizen. Then again, if he knew that all of her fantasies somehow referenced cats, he could maybe buy a few kitties for the apartment. You know, meet his wife halfway.

Unsurprisingly, it's a man whom Séverine despises that changes her erotic life. Husson (Michel Piccoli, Dillinger is Dead [review]) is dating Séverine's girlfriend (Macha Méril, Une femme Mariée [review]). He's a brash character, and he even puts the moves on Séverine. When another woman in their social circle is rumored to be working in a brothel, Husson tells Séverine where his favorite house of ill repute is located. Intrigued, Séverine goes there and signs up for work. She is nicknamed "Belle de Jour" because she has to leave by 5 in the afternoon so her husband doesn't realize something is up.

What follows is Séverine's measured acceptance of her new lifestyle. She resists her first client, but he wants her to assume control, and that's not her thing. Her actual first customer (and by some implication, her first sexual partner) is a Japanese man with some kind of bizarre device that buzzes like a bee. It's hidden in an ornate box, and for all the things that censorship standards wouldn't let us see in Belle de Jour, Buñuel scores by playing on our imagination. I am sure everyone watching has some ideas about what the man has brought with him--though, the other prostitute's refusal to go with him might erase any innocuous interpretations. Whatever it is, it liberates Séverine, and she soon accepts her new job in full, going so far as to fall for one of her regular customers, a young criminal with a golden grill. Marcel (Pierre Clémenti, The Leopard) is just the kind of uncaring bastard Séverine has been seeking. It's only natural, then, that when he starts to care--albeit in his own way--the whole arrangement starts to unspool, and Séverine's life unspools with it.

With Belle de Jour, Luis Buñuel has given us a glimpse into a seedy world, but by virtue of how he shows it to us, it doesn't seem seedy at all. Rather, once Séverine is inside, the landscape changes and this secret society becomes normal. Within the walls of the brothel, her passions are just as accepted as any other. It's only when the internal business goes outside, or someone from the outside comes crashing in--such as when Séverine's alter ego is discovered by Husson, who is played to sleazeball perfection by Piccoli, even down to the man's bruised ego--that any question of the morality of Séverine's sexual adventure is ever raised. The threat of exposure could undermine everything. (Though, it may be worth noting that the one perversion dismissed is anything having to do with underage girls; Buñuel rightly gauges his audience's comfort zone. Also, this lends weight to the brief flashbacks to his heroine's own childhood, when she was abused herself.)

Belle de Jour is less about sex, anyway, and more about the notion of double lives and the difficulties that come with not being able to express who we are. Deneuve is quite affecting as Séverine, a woman trapped by her own fear and the social mores that give them foundation. She is bottled up, and it shows in her demeanor, how she stands, where she casts her eyes. As the movie progresses, and particularly after her time with Marcel, the actress shows Séverine warming up, becoming happy, and becoming surer of herself. This makes it all the more sad and, honestly, scary when it threatens to all come crashing down.

And at the same time, strangely reassuring when, in the end, she gets exactly what she wants, even if not in any way she could have predicted. She has a life of servitude with a man who knows exactly who she is, and she is now free to roam the landscapes of her erotic fantasy world without ever leaving the comfort of her marriage home.

Criterion's 1080p Blu-Ray transfer is encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and presented at a 1.67:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The quality of the transfer is quite lovely, with a fine level of detail and well-rendered colors. Luis Buñuel and director of photography Sacha Vierny have created an aristocratic look for Belle de Jour, with softly rendered backgrounds and a color scheme that resembles old paintings. This comes across nicely on the new high definition upgrade, particularly with the soft grain that permeates the whole presentation. You will still notice minor print damage remaining, some slight scratches on the image at times, but these are rare occurrences and the image quality far surpasses previous North American DVD releases.

Once again, Criterion has enlisted artist David Downton to provide covers for one of their releases (he has previously contributed to their Max Ophuls library [reviews]), and the results are stunning. He has done new artwork for the front cover and the cover of the interior booklet.

More on Catherine Deneuve.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk.

Please Note: The images used here are promotional stills not taken directly from the Blu-Ray.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

SID & NANCY - #20

I don't know if it was coincidence or some kind of neighborly retaliation, but while I was watching Sid and Nancy today, the hippy in the apartment next door started blasting the Eagles' "Desperado" during one of the Sex Pistols concert scenes. Though he and I are of different generations, it appears the division between 1970s sissy rock and old school punk will never close. Were my life a movie, I'd have started shouting obscenities and banging on the wall. Instead, I just waited it out. I had 111 minutes of Chloe Webb's nasal yowl at my disposal. Don Henley could suck it.

I imagine the Sex Pistols still remain a rite of passage for most rebellious teens. I don't know if I had seen Alex Cox's biopic of the band's iconic bass player before or after I bought my copy of Never Mind the Bollocks on cassette, but it was around the same time, at the very least. My family had left for the weekend, I unpeeled the plastic wrapping, and I blasted it through all two stories of our house while I dyed my hair black. I was in big trouble for the hair--if for no other reason that I got black dye all over the place, including the kitchen curtains--but the Sex Pistols was a clandestine revolt successfully enacted. My father and stepmother would most certainly not have approved.

They wouldn't have approved of Sid and Nancy, either. I'd wager viewing the 1986 film has become as essential as the Pistols' one complete album. For those of us who missed the reality, here is a simulacrum. Do you want to see what London looked like in 1978, and how a vintage punk rock gig might have come off? Sure, there are documentaries and bootlegs. There is also Sid and Nancy.

As the mythology goes, there was barely a month between Sid Vicious (played by a young, feral Gary Oldman) joining the Sex Pistols and his meeting Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb, who would go on to star in the TV series China Beach). Sid was a scenester who had befriended Pistols singer Johnny Rotten (a.k.a. John Lydon, and played by Andrew Schofield) after the group's first bassist had departed. As portrayed in the script by Alex Cox (Walker [review]) and Abbe Wool (Roadside Prophets), Sid catered to John's most adolescent of tendencies. They drank and farted and made a public nuisance of themselves. For Sid, however, the music was always secondary to the lifestyle, and the dangerous American groupie offered Sid a chance to increase his image. She was already a junkie when they met, and he seized on her habit and made it his own.

The events that follow are tragic and all too familiar. Bonded by their addictions, the couple became inseparable. Sid's devotion to Nancy was equal to his devotion to heroin. Indeed, one depended on the other, to the point where the band had to try to remove both from his life. They were successful in leaving Nancy behind in England during an infamous U.S. tour, but getting Sid to stop the boozing and drugging proved more difficult. The Pistols broke up before the jaunt was complete, and Sid and Nancy eventually ended up in New York, where they shot junk and made each other miserable. Within a year, Sid had murdered his lover and then died himself, suffering an overdose not long after.

Sid and Nancy benefits from its narrow focus. Unlike most cinematic biographies, this film doesn't attempt to smash a whole life into two hours. Instead, Cox encapsulates two years, letting this doomed relationship serve as his narrative arc. He isn't concerned with trite causalities or psychoanalyzing his subjects. These were self-destructive individuals who found some messed-up form of love via their mutual death-wish posturing. Sid and Nancy is a seedy portrayal of an unglamorous lifestyle. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (True Grit [review], Revolutionary Road [review]) embraces the grime and squalor of the scene, shooting in low light and with a minimum of fuss. While there are some remarkable shots in the film, particularly ones using authentic landscapes as the backdrop (Sid and Nancy talking for the first time under a graffiti-covered wall; the final images of Sid walking along the Hudson River), it never feels like Deakins and Cox are trying to clean up the material. There is zero romance in Sid and Nancy; on the contrary, despite its status as a cult fave amongst latter generation punks or its mislabeling as a love story (albeit a heartbreaking one), it demythologizes Sid Vicious. As seen here, he is an unremarkable personality, a poor musician, and one monumental screw-up--a portrayal that is far from dishonest.

Still, there's a reason that Sid Vicious' face still sells posters and T-shirts to disaffected youth worldwide. As Malcolm McClaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols (and played with an appropriately calculated sleaze by David Hayman in the movie), is known to have proclaimed, if Lydon was the voice of the punk movement, Vicious embodied its attitude. In capturing this, Cox does the best thing any biographical filmmaker can do: he cast the lead roles perfectly. Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb are a ferocious acting duo. Oldman gets Vicious' unique combination of swagger and cluelessness. Both performances appear to be spontaneous and are lacking in unnecessary vanity. Oldman and Webb are nearly unrecognizable on screen, and it's a credit to their abilities that Sid and Nancy didn't go on to define their acting personas.

Twenty-six years on from its original release, Sid and Nancy has aged well, though it's not without its flaws. Cox perhaps wallows too long in the addiction, drawing out his subjects' time in New York far longer than necessary for viewers to get the point. The latter half of Sid and Nancy is unrelentingly bleak, to the extent that it grows tedious. Cox occasionally pierces the darkness with surreal touches, some of which work (Sid and Nancy making out in an alley while trash rains down around them) and some that don't (speeding up the film when Sid scares the mean little kids away). Of course, this goes a long way to keeping Sid and Nancy from being a promotional film for heroin, which is important to the truth of the story but renders Sid and Nancy a little flat at the same time. There isn't any buried nuance here, no surprises to be discovered on repeat viewings. Like Sid's music, only a couple of chords are required to build the melody; at the same time, that simplicity allows for a direct impact more complicated dramas regularly fail to achieve.

Plus, bonus points: no Eagles.

Note: Even though the screengrabs here are from my Criterion disc, my full review was written watching the new MGM Blu-Ray; read the full piece at DVD Talk.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

TRAFFIC (Blu-Ray) - #151

It's hard to believe it's been ten years since Steven Soderbergh's Traffic landed in cinemas. Because not only is it still the gold standard in terms of complex, multi-layered Hollywood storytelling--perhaps rivaled only now by the director's more recent Contagion [review]--but it still feels depressingly relevant. Characters in this film, which tracks the movements of drug smugglers on opposite sides of the Mexican/U.S. border and the people who try to halt them, regularly point out that the war on drugs is a pointless endeavor, and there seems to be little that has happened in the last decade to refute this. In fact, the border clashes between the Mexican cartels are worse than ever. The only thing Traffic didn't predict was the upsurge of crystal meth.

Traffic is essentially three different intersecting stories. In Mexico, a principled police officer named Javier (Benicio Del Toro) becomes involved in his country's push against the Tijuana cartels. He is recruited by General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian), a tough enforcer whose methods are not always on the up-and-up. Across the border, two DEA agents, Ray and Montel (the magnetic, hilarious tag team of Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle) bust a mid-level smuggler (Miguel Ferrer), which leads to the arrest of the man up above him, a fellow named David Ayala (Alec Roberts). David's wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is six months pregnant and left to take care of their other young son on her own. She was unaware of her husband's side business, but she gets acquainted fast.

Away from this frontline combat, Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is leaving Cincinnati for Washington D.C. to take over the mantle of drug czar. Wakefield is a well-meaning crusader who has no idea that, back at home, a much more personal drama than he has ever imagined is playing itself out. His teenage daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is developing a drug habit with her prep school friends and is on a collision course with tragedy.

All of these stories are connected to one another, but the canvas here is so vast, very few of the characters directly interact. Javier never talks to Helena, and neither they nor the agents watching the Ayala family ever shake hands with Robert Wakefield. Screenwriter Steven Gaghan (Syriana) avoids the obvious dramatic flourishes that could have made Traffic a far more slick commercial property, instead trusting the material and the audience to show that, in real life, small players generally remain on their own playground and the big operators very rarely come down to meet them.

Gaghan and Soderbergh are actually adapting a lengthy BBC miniseries, Traffik (1989), which looked at the opium pipeline between England and the Middle East, examining the way all the pieces of this international puzzle fell together and the individual lives that were touched. The American filmmakers see little reason to mess with this basic tenet, and instead focus the narrative to even more precise story points. Each element works unto its own accord, though the reverberations of individual actions contribute to a larger effect. There are small victories, hollow achievements, and arguably, real failings. The irony is that for all the movements the select characters make, very little changes on the larger stage. Editor Stephen Mirrione, who is a bit of an expert at puzzle-films (his other credits include Go, 21 Grams, and 13 Conversations About One Thing), clearly arranges the scenes so they lock together nicely, with smooth transitions that never leave the audience behind no matter where the material is due to turn next.

This is all done not just with a craftsman's eye for detail, but with an artistic exuberance that is surprising for such a sobering subject. Traffic may appear to be dressed in mainstream clothes, but Soderbergh employs plenty of tricks he picked up in the art house, as well. The storytelling has elements of cinema verité, with an almost fetish-like attention to documentary details (the party scenes in Washington even feature real politicians delivering their pet talking points). Soderbergh, who by this point was shooting his own movies under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, likes to get in close and move around, taking the proverbial fly-on-the-wall/bird's-eye-view to peer on each moment from a variety of angles. He also develops a specific approach for each of the three story lines: Mexico is overheated and yellow, Cincinnati is a chilled blue, and California is the sun-kissed center. This style never feels like grandstanding, nor is it intrusive; rather, the aesthetic blends together with ease, adding further to keeping the viewer oriented as to where and when they are in the tale.

The cast of the movie is just as finely tuned as the rest of it. Soderbergh has assembled a remarkable ensemble, and all the performers do some of their finest work. In addition to the names mentioned above, bit roles are also filled out by Dennis Quaid, Salma Hayek, Benjamin Bratt, Albert Finney, James Brolin, and Amy Irving. Benicio Del Toro got most of the attention for his sensitive portrayal of a quiet cop trying to do the right thing, but really, Traffic belongs to the whole team. No one cast member takes off toward the stratosphere or takes attention away from the others. Only Topher Grace (That '70s Show) gets close to overdoing it, but I have softened on that opinion over the years. I guess it's old age, since his obnoxious know-it-all turn as Caroline's privileged boyfriend now seems right on the money. Kids today, I tell you!

Traffic pulled off the neat trick of both being a big-budget box-office success and genuine Oscar bait. Soderbergh, Gaghan, Mirrione, and Del Toro all took home statues on Academy Awards night, proving entertainment need not be dumbed down to appeal to the masses nor overly stuffy to court critical acclaim. Instead, Traffic is in a perfect middle, being simultaneously exciting to watch and informative. Its technique is both artfully considered and entirely natural, making for a movie its admirers will want to revisit again and again.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk.

Please Note: The screengrabs used here are from the standard-definition DVD released in 2002, not from the Blu-Ray.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


Friends of the Spanish director Luis Buñuel must have regularly taken pause before accepting his dinner invitations. In may of the cinematic prankster's films, sitting down for a meal can be the impetus for the most bizarre events. In his 1972 classic The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie [review], his well-to-do diners have all manner of inconveniences inflicted upon them, not the least of which is being mowed down by machine guns. In its sibling, The Phantom of Liberty, the chairs around the dining room table are replaced by toilets. There is also apparently a rather memorable "last supper" in his 1962 film Viridiana, which gives me a serious reason to move that film forward in my review pile.

Perhaps the most extreme scenario, however, is 1962's The Exterminating Angel, in which a dinner party turns into an existential trap, one that lasts for several weeks and takes no less than three lives. Sure, more people "die" in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but the number of partygoers and the extent to which they are trapped in this earlier effort far outweigh what Buñuel would perpetrate a decade later.

The dinner party in question is being given by Edmundo and Lucia de Nobile (Enrique Rambal and Lucy Gallardo) to celebrate an opera performance. Many of the guests are part of the opera company; others are various well-to-do friends of different occupational and political backgrounds. At the start of the evening, things already seem off. The household servants all inexplicably leave, with only the dedicated butler Julio (Claudio Brook) remaining to serve the dinner. The hostess, Lucia, is apparently known for her elaborate practical jokes, but after an accident is met with poorly by one of her more esteemed guests, she cancels her intended trick. It somehow involved a live bear and a trio of sheep. What exactly she meant to do with them is never explained.

Nor does it matter, the cosmos has a more elaborate ruse prepared for the self-absorbed, self-important gathering. Following the meal, everyone gathers in the sitting room to listen to one of the women play piano. When the song is done, it's approaching 3:00 a.m., and the guests start to grumble about leaving. Only, none of them do. Instead, one by one they lay down and fall asleep. It's only when they wake the next morning that they begin to realize how strange their own behavior has been. They make a pretense of going, but once they reach the threshold of the room, they make excuses to stay. When Julio brings them coffee and leftover meat for breakfast, he is then trapped inside the room, too. Nothing is visibly holding them in the space, but nothing can make them cross the line and leave, either.

Food and water is gone rather quickly. The days pass, and so too does hygiene and proper manners. Rivalries and cruelties emerge. Some grow ill, all grow desperate. The types begin to take on their roles. Lovers hide in the closet for illicit rendezvous, while two Masons conspire. Alliances form, the hosts are blamed. One woman begins to hallucinate from the hunger. (In a memorable sequence, a dead man's hand crawls from its owner's resting place to strangle her.) One dirty old bugger tries fondling the women as they sleep. The servant keeps his cool, and so does a doctor (Augusto Benedico), who has helped many of the trapped people with previous ailments. The impossibility of the predicament is only surpassed by the improbability of their ongoing survival.

Unbeknownst to those in the house, the public has gotten wind of the bizarre happening and have gathered on the street outside. They, too, are unable to step through the gates of the estate. They don't know why, either. The only creatures free to roam the grounds are the bear and the sheep, who also seem like they might be starving. Too bad for the bear that the humans are the more dangerous predator.

Buñuel, unsurprisingly, is having fun at the expense of the upper classes. For many, their first concern is for their own vanity, then for the loss of creature comforts. There is barely a thought given as to why this punishment might have been visited down on them. Since whatever force overtook the house compelled the servants to leave, the segregation appears to have a specific intent. As the situation worsens, even vices begin to get revealed. There's the old man, for instance, stealing kisses, and also Edmundo has some opium stashed away. One conniving, effeminate man steals the drugs and shares them with his sister, even though much of the time they also bicker between themselves. They form a faction of their own, and other factions also pop up.

This splintering of the main collective is both realistic and necessary. It is like a drawing room version of Lord of the Flies, and my interpretation would be that Buñuel is showing these people as being trapped by their own stifling social mores and the divisive class structure they benefit from. Their own selfishness has created a vacuum. It's a limbo given shape by their willingness to follow along with the accepted way of things rather than ever questioning the morality of a society that allows so many to have so much and look down on those who don't.  Buñuel extends this further in The Exterminating Angel's final scenes. As the movie closes, there is a repetition of its most bizarre circumstances, but this time tied to religion, which for Buñuel represents another confining structure man has invented for himself--and one that allows for darker forces to take command of the streets.

The film is shot beautifully despite being so confined. Gabriel Figueroa photographs every expensive detail of the de Nobile home, lingering on faces and clothes and allowing us to watch as both become subject to neglect and filth. Compositions tighten and the people become more confined the longer they are stuck together. The look of The Exterminating Angel and the oppressively ostentatious setting reminded me of the old Twilight Zone episode "The Masks" (1965; directed by Ida Lupino). In that show, a rich old man gathers his family together before he dies and isolates them to force them to show their true faces. Perhaps Buñuel's film had a little influence on it. Indeed, the mind boggles at the idea of Buñuel teaming with Rod Serling for an episode or two. His social satire via surrealism could have fit right in. 

Fittingly, the group solves its joint problem by getting over their disagreements and working together. The way out is spotted by the prim blonde beauty Leticia (Silvia Pinal), who had previously been dubbed "The Valkyrie" and "The Virgin" by her so-called friends. No matter which nickname you choose, it fits symbolically. The Valkyrie comes to escort the fallen to their final resting place, the Virgin brings salvation when all humanity is lost. The fact that failure is imminent is down to Buñuel's cynical opinion of human nature more than it is his lack of faith in a porcelain beauty. After all, the man was working in motion pictures, where such a figure regularly held sway. And, hey, if you have to believe in something, why not the good-looking blonde?

Sunday, January 1, 2012


A round-up of the non-Criterion movies I saw in December.


The Adventures of Tintin, a surprisingly fun 3D adventure from Steven Spielberg with all the appropriate nods to Hergé.

The Artista loving and entirely accurate tribute to the silent era of cinema.

A Dangerous Method, Jung and Freud meet David Cronenberg.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, is an absolute corker. Brad Bird delivers the best in the series.

We Bought a Zoo, an effective new feature from Cameron Crowe...but is it any good?


The Art of Getting Bya predictable but solid Young Adult story, with fine performances by Emma Roberts and Freddie Highmore.

Behind the Mask, a mid-40s misfire that attempts to turn the popular Shadow radio serials into...light comedy?!

The Birth of a Nation: Deluxe 3-Disc Edition, D.W. Griffith's historically inaccurate epic is an important piece of cinema, but that doesn't stop it from being racist and boring.

Crime Story: The Complete Series, the Michael Mann police drama set in the 1960s but made in the 1980s.

A Farewell to Arms, Frank Borzage's masterfully melodramatic adaptation of Ernest Hemingway.

Friends with Benefits, not even Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis can make this sex comedy misfire come off as either sexy or funny.

Incident in an Alley, a middling early 1960s crime film based on a Rod Serling short story.

Nothing Sacred, a slight bit of entertainment from 1937, directed by William Wellmen and starring Carole Lombard and Frederic March.

* Seven Chances, an hilarious Buster Keaton short where the great comedian plays a man in desperate need of a wife.