No opening scene in the history of cinema has had the same impact as the mutilation of the woman's eye in Un Chien Andalou (1929), chosen as the cover illustration for Gwynne Edwards's book A Companion to Luis Buñuel . The act, performed by Buñuel himself, is the prelude to what André Bazin called a "cinema of cruelty", a cinematic mission to shock us into awareness and to make us active participants in the art of film's most provocative Surrealist.
That extraordinary little film condenses most of Buñuel's enduring interests: above all, l'amour fou , the unconscious (especially dreams), class and religion. Edwards has much to say on all of these, and helpfully pinpoints the contexts from which the films draw their aesthetic and thematic energy. He begins, logically, with the contradictory tendencies of Surrealism and medievalism that consistently shaped Buñuel's art.
Buñuel was born in 1900 into a well-to-do family in Calanda, a remote village in Aragón where, as he put it in his autobiography, My Last Breath , the Middle Ages had not yet come to an end. The legacy of that formative period provided a constant shadow over the more progressive impulses of Surrealism, above all, in the movement's challenge to received ideas about self and society.
Edwards covers these early years but is careful not to underestimate Buñuel's peninsular artistic heritage. Arag"n, after all, was also the birthplace of Goya, whose spirit stalks most of Buñuel's films. One of the most striking examples occurs in Le Fantome de la Liberté , where the executions of The Third of May painting are restaged, with Buñuel appearing as one of the Spanish martyrs who cry "Death to liberty!" as the Napoleonic firing squad takes aim.
But beyond this direct visual quote, Goya's dramatisation of the nightmarish unconscious clearly prefigures Buñuel's own excavations of the darker side of humanity, such as in the paranoid jealousy of Francisco in Él (1953) or the id-driven havoc of the beggars in Viridiana (1961).
References to Goya and other major artists, intellectuals and writers who could be said to form part of Buñuel's imaginative world are set beside external influences, above all, that of the Surrealists, whom he joined officially in 1929. Early films, not only Un Chien Andalou and L'Âge d'Or , but also the documentary Las Hurdes (1933), were made in the heat of the Surrealist moment, examples of "compulsive" (a favourite word of the group) art. But even as late as Cet Obscur Objet du Désir (1977), one of the group's defining characteristics, " l'inquiétude " (anxiety), pervades the atmosphere of Buñuel's films.
As Edwards moves chronologically through Buñuel's career, links are made between art and life. The result is something approaching a psychopathology. In post-deconstructionist times, the author has been staking a claim for some recognition of his/her contribution. Edwards's volume makes no apologies for this and is a valuable companion for anyone interested in learning about the life, work and times of one of the world's indisputably great film-makers.
Peter William Evans is head of the School of Modern Languages, Queen Mary, University of London.
A Companion to Luis Buñuel
Author - Gwynne Edwards
Publisher - Tamesis, www.tamesisbooks.com
Pages - 176
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 1 85566 108 X