Indiscreet charm

The Films of Luis Buñuel
June 28, 1996

The place of the films and figure of Luis Bu$uel in the canon of European art cinema is an undisputed fact, borne out by the genealogy and circumstances of production of films ranging from Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L'Age d'Or (1930) to Le Fantome de la Liberte (1974) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). If the first of these pairings contributed to the ethical and aesthetic programme of the European avant-garde, even granting cameo parts to the likes of Max Ernst, Paul Eluard and Salvador Dali, the second drew on a pool of almost exclusively European talent to produce the last items in Bu$uel's unique cinematic legacy. Yet, the specific influences on Bu$uel of Spanish art, history and politics and of years of exile working in Mexico were crucial to his evolution and have often been underestimated.

One of the principal virtues of Peter Evans's landmark study is its concern to provide a multiple readership in hispanism and film studies with a precise set of indicators to hispanic contexts and traditions that inform Bu$uel's films. Most particularly, Evans writes at length on a richly endowed repertoire from Bu$uel's Mexican period, investigating the relation of popular, commercial melodramas such as El Gran Calavera (1949) and Susana (1950) to the more widely known art-house films made in Europe. What emerges is an appreciation of Bu$uel's achievement as an auteur that is considerably fuller and more nuanced than previous accounts.

Interpreting films such as Susana and Una Mujer sin Amor as Freudian "family romances" cast in a popular style, Evans assimilates them to the wider paradigm of Bu$uelian thematics identified with the more auteurist films of the Mexican period (Los Olvidados, Lavida Criminal de Archibaldo de la Cruz) and later ones made in Europe (Diary of a Chambermaid, That Obscure Object of Desire). There is, of course, nothing new about explicating Bu$uel with the aid of Freud. What distinguishes Evans's study is, first, its command of a vast body of Freudian theory relating to Oedipal relationships, repression, paranoia, castration anxiety, fetishism, sado-masochism, frigidity, the uncanny, and the comic, and, second, the poise and flexibility with which Evans balances classic Freudian theories of sexuality with post-Freudian models of subjectivity and desire derived from Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze (apropos masochism), Melanie Klein and Karen Horney, Jonathan Rutherford (on masculinity), and, in relation to female subjectivity and desire, work by Juliet Mitchell, Jessica Benjamin, and Louise J. Kaplan.

Viewing Bu$uelian masterpieces through a prism of sexual theory confirms their enduring qualities of witty subversion and pleasurable provocation. Evans's study locates Bu$uel productively in the context of some of the liveliest theoretical and critical debates of recent decades, intervening in areas teeming with controversy. Often inseparable from psychoanalytical concerns, these include areas of feminist inquiry, questions of audience reception and spectatorship, and, of particular interest to Evans, the issue of auteurist hegemony and its limits. The influence of narrative conventions, the constraints of genre, the demands of the box office, the contributions made by actors and actresses and by other participants in the films' construction, are all taken into account in a study that radically alters our perception of the films of Bu$uel, redefining their composite identity and emphasising their creator's role as a pioneer in the exploration of the intertwining labyrinths of subjectivity and desire.

Robin Fiddian is fellow in Spanish, Wadham College, Oxford.

The Films of Luis Buñuel: Subjectivity and Desire

Author - Peter William Evans
ISBN - 0 19 815906 4
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £11.99
Pages - 202

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