Viridiana (1961)

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Third time with Luis Buñuel after UCA and The Exterminating Angel.

Despite finding small fault with TEA for its only patchy bizarreness, I think I prefer V for burying its surreality inside a measured and economical plot. Images here – like the frequent comparisons of feet (the uncle bashfully toeing a sandy path, later in his wife’s wedding shoes, V’s milkily seductive legs), the inevitable dogs tied to wooden carts, even the knife inside the crucifix – retain the vivid imprint of LB’s imagination but tend to illustrate rather than puncture the tale. I don’t know much about LB’s developing artistic association with Surrealism but we’re certainly a long way from his and Dali’s desire, in UCA, to stage unconnected and uninterpretable images; V weaves a rich but surprisingly understated narrative about the Catholic Church and its morality and the social dynamics of Franco’s Spain.

That said, the film is still strikingly symbolic. The uncle interprets V’s somnambulistic exchange of knitting wool for dustpan ashes as a prophecy of his death and her penitence. It seems, though, that she is repenting on his behalf: he claims to have neglected charitable impulses for fear of ridicule, so V turns his house – after his shocking, even vindictive suicide – into a shelter for the destitute. Her perceived fall from grace (“I have nothing to reproach myself for but I have changed”), after his gothically perverted advances on her innocence, compels her to abandon her convent. Yet her embrace of secularity is itself a kind of fall, as the carnivalesque cavalcade of drunkards, lepers, paupers and miscreants abuses and pollutes her almost Winstanlean utopianism.

Don’t quite know what to make of the juxtaposed crescendos of fervent ave marias and manual labouring, the latter induced by the Uncle’s son to rejuvenate the house with modern technology. There are obviously superficial comparisons of “work”, but in closeup the builders appear almost destructive, while the supplicants harmonise in an unsettlingly rapturous drone. Perhaps a suggestion of kindred reconstructive powers: spiritual and architectural regeneration for house and state.

The little girl’s presence is equally elusive and suggestive. At the beginning she’s a kind of sprite, a meddlesome presence calling both host and guest out on their dishonesty. She’s later given a kind of occult agency or precognition: her testimony to the apparition of a black bull through her closet go unheeded; after the death of the uncle, a servant confiscates her skipping rope, berating her for sacrilegious jollity under the haunted tree and warning that “If something awful happens it will be your fault.” A pauper is later seen wearing the rope as a belt – it appears that she herself has opened the door to a beast.

I liked the bit when the cat was very clearly and inelegantly chucked, from off-camera, onto the rat.

The climax is a minor masterpiece: a gradual devolution, among the guests, from a tentative investigation of the house to a riotous bacchanal. I liked the editing in TEA; here the escalations are stitched together hilariously, like the kind of through-your-fingers omnishambles I associate with Father Ted or Black Books. The Last Supper photograph is triumphant; the blind man smashing the table is heart-stopping. The way this Bakhtinian depravity melts rapidly into a second, icy-cold attempt to rape V is equally shocking – a sobering realisation. The way she is finally hung out to dry, her crown of thorns immolated and her hair let seductively loose in a suggestive concession to her rapaciously masculine cousin, constructs a fittingly brisk, uncompromising and muted conclusion.

Utterly unhackneyed, which says as much about what has come since as it does about what came before.

8

 

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

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Second time with Buñuel after Un Chien Andalou.

[Pompous engagement banquet. After an ominous exodus of the help, the wrinkled affair crumples against a mysterious invisible barrier that blockades the guests in a single room. The night turns into a month of the weirdest slumber party ever.]

Like a bizarro Christie plot. Opening reminded me of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death; here too the stultified self-preservatory instincts of the upper classes are satirised, though without any ghastly intrusions. Horror vacui interiors and unconvincing machismo. The hysteria builds as one guest blindly postulates that the outside world has been destroyed and that they are the only survivors of some apocalypse.

Definitely Sartre’s No Exit, too, in the way this escalation reveals the inhumanity not just behind but inside the masks of decorum (one woman’s self-deceptive “the lower orders are insensible to suffering”). Liked the dead bird in the purse amid masonic allusions and incestuous intrigue. Editing often enhances the caustic tone, as in the cuts between the sequestered silver-screen embrace and the corpse in the cupboard.

After UCA, the most startlingly surrealistic moments are definitely the most satisfying. The more directly assaultive dream sequence is the highlight, a blast of brimstone for each face screwed tight with naïve worry. Also in particular the pursuit of the severed hand, the appearances of the sheep and the bear. Surprisingly, I thought, a lot of the satire is verbal (including some ironic praise of “the spirit of improvisation” from the guests, and a clamour that “we don’t want reason – we want to get out!”), which made images like the butler tipping debris and waste just over the boundary-line stick out. Loved the climactic zoom out from the prostrate sleepover victims to a laughable call for a duel.

Unfortunately the sober tone creates a lot of slack that the script’s skewerings can only take up to a satisfactory extent. It’s considerably less funny than I was expecting, and not very shocking. Quite fun and upbeat but also pretty predictable after premises are established. A lot of the stooges like cabalistic hooey and masonic conspiracy seem quite quaint now. Still, on this count, the frequent references to curing “apathy” among the squabbling elites does still sound a bitter note.

7