Luis Buñuel was a genius, the master of the absurd. If John Cassavetes is the Godfather of Independent Cinema, then Buñuel is the Godfather of Surrealist Cinema, starting with his landmark collaboration with Salvador Dali in 1929, Un Chien Andalou. His career was spent laying social conventions to waste. Sometimes he nailed sexual conventions. Sometimes it was class structure. Sometimes it was religion. If there’s a social institution or convention out there, he found a way to poke fun at it. Here are five must-see scenes/films from Buñuel.
1. Slicin’ up eyeballs/I want you to know…
The sliced eyeball scene in Un Chien Andalou (1929) was a ground-breaking piece of cinema. The image of a woman’s eye, cropped tight, being cut in two (juxtaposed against a jump to a clip of the moon being cut in two by a razor-thin cloud) had to be frightening to audiences who were unused to such trickery. And it remains one of film’s most iconic images.
2. The hobo last supper
There is no better example of Buñuel’s skewering of religion and class structure than their perfect fusion in Viridiana (1961) of an unruly band of vagrants replicating The Last Supper.
3. Everyone forgets how to leave the party
Severed hands moving about on their own, misplaced lambs and bears, and rotting corpses stuffed into closets punctuate The Exterminating Angel (1962). But what makes the film so amazing is the question that lies at the heart of it- how much civility would be lost, and how quickly would it be lost, if the bourgeois lost their servants? The fulcrum on which this question lies is the pivotal early scene in which a room full of party guests inexplicably forget how to leave. What follows is folly and madness, accented by brilliant satire.
4. The Phantom of Liberty (1974)
I don’t suppose I could pick any one specific scene that functions as “iconic”. Rather, it’s the totality of the film that works so well. It’s a non-linear plot, full of sound and fury signifying… well… nothing, no matter how much you try to make any sense of it. It just isn’t there, purposely omitted by Buñuel. I imagine if I were to pick just one scene or image, it would be the final scene in which riot police use their tools to impose justice upon…. zoo animals. A personal favorite of mine, The Phantom of Liberty stands out in the Buñuel catalogue because it plays with language and meaning more than his other films.
5. Bleach and skeletons in The Golden Age
Just one year after Un Chien Andalou, Buñuel and Dali collaborated once more (before parting ways) in L’Age D’Or (1930). Several images were striking in this film but none more so (in my opinion, anyway) than a herd of priests standing on a mountain evaporating into skeletons.
At the end of the day, I’d hate to make it sound as if these are the only five films worth watching from Buñuel. The man made a lot of really fantastic movies. If sexual humor is your thing, there’s always Belle de Jour or Diary of a Chambermaid. If you’d like to see The Exterminating Angel’s less successful twin, check outThe Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. If you enjoy watching religion get hammered, Simon of the Desert is brief (45 minutes) and brilliant. There’s something in the Buñuel catalogue for everyone.