“If the film you are about to see seems odd or enigmatic, so is life.”
You’ve probably never heard of Luis Buñuel, and it’s almost certainly not your fault. The loopy-eyed, broad-shouldered, thick-tongued, Spanish, surrealist director who died in 1983 was never a household American name. His films were shot in France, Spain, and Mexico; none were ever blockbusters. He failed to make it in Hollywood—twice. And though his career didn’t take off until he was in his 60s, it’s no stretch to say that Buñuel’s movies have changed the way Hollywood dreams.
Anybody who has watched The Sopranos is familiar with Buñuel’s signature technique. How else would we get such great insights into Tony’s tough-guy mind? Anybody who has seen Fight Club can appreciate the power of flashbacks and jump cuts. The dream sequence in 90’s cult classic American Beauty is classic Buñuel. The dream sequences in The Exorcist, Trainspotting, Blade Runner, and even Dumbo all owe Buñuel a debt.
Which is why Stephen Sondheim, reigning doyen of American musical theater, is now writing a show based on two of Buñuel’s most alluring and enigmatic films: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel. But if 20th-century avant-garde movements aren’t your area of expertise, and surrealist cinema not quite your cup of tea (or mare’s milk, or coconut water, or engine oil, or squid ink), then it might be hard to understand the hoopla surrounding a Broadway musical based on two films about rich people going to dinner.
In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), a group of upper-middle-class Frenchmen (who are also cocaine kingpins, who are also all having affairs with each other’s wives, who may or may not be the target of assassination attempts by terrorists) all try to go to dinner, over the course of several weeks, yet somehow, really just can’t. It’s not like the Frenchmen don’t want to go to dinner. It’s just that the owner of the restaurant they first go to happens to have died earlier that afternoon, and his body is being exhibited at a wake adjacent the dining room. Or it’s that the next restaurant has run out of everything, even tea. Or it’s that soldiers on a military exercise show up to one protagonist’s country estate right before the awaited meal, the soldier’s appearance occasioning yet another round of drinks and delaying the repast. Nothing really happens throughout the film, but the constantly frustrated social ritual of modern dining lets Buñuel comically skewer upper-middle-class habits.
The troops that show up to dinner happen to depart right before the food is finally served. But before the platoon of soldiers can head out to its doom, the private who has come to deliver the message to the colonel that all the troops must leave stands up to announce that he has had a dream. He then—and this is before anyone goes anywhere, or eats anything, or swallows another sip of wine—proceeds to recount the dream to those gathered in the dining room. The scene dissolves into his dreamscape. The camera follows him into a ruined city where he recounts meeting with, and forever losing, his best friend, and then his mother. The dream doesn’t make the least bit of sense, but everyone at the dinner party pays rapt attention to the soldier’s recounting of it. If the situation seems at once deadly serious and absolutely absurd, loaded with power yet absent of meaning, then you’re beginning to get a sense of what dreams meant to Buñuel: nothing, and everything.
And then there’s The Exterminating Angel, a sinister movie in which a group of rich, well-dressed, upper-class, Mexico City residents go to dinner at a mansion, only to discover that they can’t leave the sitting room where they’ve repaired to aprés manger. Not only are they unable to leave the room, but no one from the outside world is able to enter the mansion’s grounds without being turned back by a mysterious, unseen force. Filmed in 1962 without any of today’s fancy effects, the movie is a deeply frustrating parable of the mental confines of wealth, money, and class. It shows what happens when you lock some half dozen rich folks up in a confined space: they turn into animals.
Unable to leave the sitting room, the dinner guests turn on each other. As the days pass without outside aid, they manage to break through a wall and smash open a pipe for water. Two lovers commit suicide. One guest dies in a closet, and his severed hand haunts the dreams of the survivors. One faction tries to murder the host, who they blame for having gotten them into the whole mess. Lambs randomly wander onto the mansion grounds, and then into the sitting room, where they are slaughtered for victuals. There is a bear involved, and a not insignificant quantity of opium. It is an insidious film, which critic Roger Ebert interpreted as political allegory:“The dinner guests represent the ruling class in Franco’s Spain. Having set a banquet table for themselves by defeating the workers in the Spanish Civil War, they sit down for a feast, only to find it never ends. They’re trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac.”
But in a time of increasing socio-political inequality in America, the specter of an unremitting feast without possible end, of a carnivalesque gluttony that forever traps the vain beings partaking in it, is today, only too pertinent.
To be clear, Buñuel is only something of a nihilist, and not exactly a leftist. Though he fought for the Spanish Republic in that country’s civil war, what he hated most was hypocrisy and how simple social rituals like going out to dinner unthinkingly reinforced societal two-facedness. As a surrealist, he was just as happy to skewer doctrinaire party communists as he was to mess with the impressionable minds of the world’s bourgeoisie. On his deathbed, he announced to his communist and atheist friends that he had converted to Catholicism, just to mess with them. The enduring image of his first film, Un Chien Andalou, is that of an eyeball being slit open with a razor blade. Buñuel believed that Surrealism offered an equal opportunity aperture of vision, and his tool is the revelatory power of dreams.
“For Buñuel, it is about looking inwards,” explains Middlebury College Professor Enrique Garcia, a specialist on 20th-century Latin American cinema. “He never wanted to be associated with any system, no matter what. For him, it was about disrupting dominant ideologies with your inner desires. His films ask ‘are you comfortable with how much you have sold out?’ because that repression is what endangers your life.”
Dreams are weird and they have a weird power. Buñuel picked up on that power in his late 20s when he was hanging out in Madrid with the two other surrealists you may have heard of, poet Federico García Lorca and painter Salvador Dalí. Lorca, Dalí, and Buñuel all met in college, and their hijinks and love affairs are the stuff of speculation and legend. They were deeply influenced by Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious, which were just then being translated into Spanish for the first time. In their youth, these three formed an unholy trinity devoted to throwing off the stultifying yoke of early 20th-century, conservative, European culture. Lorca was shot by the fascists in 1936 for being a vocal member of the opposition, but Dalí and Buñuel made it out of Spain’s civil war alive, and into your imagination.
This is probably why Steven Sondheim is so keen to turn two of his films into a musical. Sondheim is Broadway royalty. He studied under Leonard Bernstein and Oscar Hammerstein, brilliant composers and lyricists respectively. Sondheim would go on to become the most acclaimed Broadway composer and lyricist of his generation with iconic shows like Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, Company, Into the Woods, and Sunday in the Park with George. His music has been both praised for its originality and derided for its lack of hummable melodies. Ever the rebel, Sondheim pushed Broadway composition away from the pleasantly superficial tunes of the Great American Songbook musicals, into a more heady, psychological, and even absurd place. The Buñuel adaptation, which has yet to be titled, has aroused intense interest from the press, and rightly so. Scott Rudin, the show’s producer, in a June 2016 interview that aired on the public radio show Fresh Air with Terry Gross, said:“It’s very sophisticated, it’s bracing. It’s kind of shocking. It’s very political. It’s really smart. And I think it has a chance to be as good as anything [Sondheim’s] done.”
Matt Morrison, of Glee fame, has a leading role in the production and in January, 2017, told the Los Angeles Times that the musical’s “melodies are so un-generic, challenging, I couldn’t sleep the night before singing my parts.” Though the production is starting Off Broadway, many critics expect it to make the main stage, and major profits, quickly.
Buñuel, on the other hand, had a harder time when it came to making money with art. His works often courted more controversy than acclaim—translating into censorship rather than ticket sales. Belle de Jour, his 1967 masterpiece and one of his few true commercial successes, stars the frigid and alabaster-skinned Catherine Deneuve as a housewife who moonlights as an upper-class prostitute during the afternoons. All luridness and transgression aside, it’s a movie that served as a master class for an entire generation of directors in the use of flashbacks and jump cuts to explain a character’s motives and give an otherwise unlikable protagonist depth. Buñuel’s cuts are merciless—without explanation or prompting; viewers are shown a barely pubescent Deneuve being groped by an older man as a way of understanding both the frigidity towards her husband and her sexual mania. The movie itself begins with a fantasy sequence in which Deneuve’s husband has her whipped and then assaulted by a servant. And to be clear, it’s Deneuve’s character who’s imagining this.
Viridiana (1961), the first film Buñuel made after being invited back to post-civil-war Spain by Franco’s ministry of culture, is truly lurid and shocking. It centers on a young nun, played by Silvia Pinal, who is lured back to her ancestral home just weeks before she is to take her final vows. There, her uncle drugs her and almost rapes her. A series of hijinks follow. At one point Buñuel arranges a group of bums into a scene imitating The Last Supper as Handel’s Messiah plays in the background. The movie somehow ends with an implied menage a trois between Viridiana, her brother, and a servant girl. The plot sounds ludicrous, but Buñuel pulls it off with the increased reality of a dream.
Franco tried to get the film destroyed and banned it in Spain. The Catholic Church called Viridiana blasphemous. Buñuel didn’t blink at the controversy and the movie won him the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, its highest prize. Today, the film is considered a weird, shocking, and voluptuous take on the sexual and cultural revolution of the 60s.
That is not to say that Buñuel was always a provocateur. He was capable of making an utterly ordinary and conventional film. His 1954 version of Robinson Crusoe, which was produced as a joint venture between Mexican and Hollywood studios, is absolutely boring when compared to plotless surrealist farces like 1974’s The Phantom of Liberty or the whimsical Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Robinson Crusoe follows the plot of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book pretty closely, but even when slamming out conventional money-makers, Buñuel couldn’t resist the urge to litter the film with visual references to his earlier masterpieces. On a beach scattered with cannibalized body parts, a severed hand covered in ants harkens back to a key image in Un Chien Andalou.
And it’s precisely that short film that kicked off Buñuel’s career as a lifelong dreamer, a surrealist behind the lens that aficionados keep coming back to. Every film student has watched, analyzed, and probably written about Un Chien Andalou for its inventiveness, daring, and dream-like atmosphere. Despite the vast influence he’s had on a generation of filmmakers, not very many folks know that it was Buñuel—ugly, weird, perpetually lecherous, often unwatchable, and always strange Buñuel—who showed Hollywood how to dream. His musical adaptation by Sondheim will answer the question of whether or not Broadway can learn the same lesson.