Lights! Camera! Surrealism! The life and obsessions of Luis Buñuel
The Irish creator of modern Spanish biography paints a fascinating picture of the film-maker, including his relationships with Lorca and Dalí
Behind the lens: Luis Buñuel on the set of his film ‘Le Fantome De La Liberte’. Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Getty Images
From Un Chien Adalou by Luis Bunuel. The slitting of an eyeball with a barber’s razor (Buñuel used a cow’s eye for the shot) even today, nearly a century later, still has a horrible potency.
Luis Bunuel, la forja de un cineasta universal, 1900-1938
Once upon a time Ian Gibson needed no introduction. But he has been away for a while, so reintroduction may be in order. His last book published in English was his huge, sumptuously illustrated life of Salvador Dalí. That came out in 1997. Since then he has been highly productive: he has written novels, history and biography, but all in Spanish. Sadly, no version of this new book is likely to come out in English for the foreseeable future, but that is no reason to ignore this volume and Gibson’s huge achievement.
Gibson’s roots: the muscular Methodist schoolboy at Newtown School in Waterford showed a passion for languages and sport. In the late 1950s he combined scoring a try at Lansdowne Road with getting first-class honours at Trinity College Dublin under the guidance of the great Hispanist EC Riley. Lecturing in Spanish at Queen’s University Belfast and then at London University wasn’t enough for him; he wanted to write, so he set off in the early 1970s to do a courageous thing: investigate the life and death of Federico García Lorca while Gen Francisco Franco was still in power. He followed dangerous trails and, eventually, produced a huge, two-volume biography of Lorca. He was already writing in Spanish and had to boil down the two parts and translate them into English for Faber. He won literary prizes and has continued until this day with his task of creating truthful, source-fastidious and fearless biographies of Spanish cultural figures, among them the great 20th-century poet Antonio Machado. He is the creator of modern biography in Spain.
Gibson’s central achievement is writing the lives of three great “friends”: Lorca, Dalí and now Buñuel. He has savoured with scholarly precision the sometimes incendiary intersection of their lives in the 1920s and 1930s. In his “big” biographies Gibson does “thorough” rather than “short”, and this Buñuel book is no exception. It covers half of the film-maker’s life in 900 pages, nearly 200 of which are devoted to sources and some 2,000 endnotes.
There are moments when he dwells too long on cultural and even geographical background, when he finds it hard to keep his astonishing, detailed knowledge of a country and an epoch in check. Overall, however, the result is not laborious.
The portrait of Buñuel is extraordinarily vivid and surprising. Sharp subheadings help to drive the narrative forward, from his upbringing in Saragossa and Calanda, a country town where the harsh savagery of Aragonese rural life and the deafening beat of drums at fiesta time went deep into his memory bank. His father was rich: he had made money in Cuba and, in his late 40s, came back to Calanda and married the prettiest girl in town. Luis was the firstborn, cherished and spoiled throughout his life by his doting and beautiful mother, who was to become a rich widow – and a ready source of funds for the young director’s early movies – when he was 23. Luis went to a Jesuit college where he learned to read and speak French from early on. And for all his ferocious anti-clericalism he could still recite the catechism in his 70s.
His mother took him to the cinemas and theatres of Saragossa, the lively Aragonese capital. He loved dressing up; as a teenager he would take to the streets dressed as a priest and – typically Buñuellian, this – was particularly delighted to do so when it became widely known that a mad and possibly dangerous priest was on the loose in the town.
He went to the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, where he rubbed shoulders with Lorca and Dalí. His relations with them were at first vitiated by jealousy, because both had already found their artistic vocations, and begun to attract attention, while he was still uncertain and aspiring. With Lorca he admired the person more than the poet or dramatist – although his obsessive hatred of homosexuals (probably based on fear) complicated his feelings about him. Buñuel’s outlook coalesced better with Dalí’s. The pair were deeply interested in cinema and, in the name of Freud, declared war on the family, religion and patriotism. Both enjoyed writing, and Buñuel had already indulged in some prose surrealism. A collaboration was inevitable: it was to be the astonishing 24-minute film Un Chien Andalou – the title of which, justifiably, upset Lorca.
Gibson gives a full and fascinating account of the scriptwriting process and even includes a full version of the first draft. Buñuel, in his frequently unreliable dictated autobiography, My Last Breath , describes their creative relationship like this: “We were so much at one that there was no disagreement. We worked, grabbing the first images that came to mind and rejecting systematically anything which sprang from conventional culture or education. They had to be images which surprised us, which we could accept without discussion.”
The film (shot in Paris) was a shock success – inducing such screams and fainting fits that Buñuel had to insert a warning after the opening titles that sensitive people should not watch the beginning. The slitting of an eyeball with a barber’s razor – Buñuel used a cow’s eye for the shot – even today, nearly a century later, still has a horrible potency.
Their next film, L’Age d’Or , was so anti-clerical and anti-fascist that it was banned. It was also much less collaborative than Un Chien Andalou . Buñuel had come to Dalí’s beloved Cadaqués ready for work – only to find Dalí so besotted with Paul Éluard’s seductive wife, Gala, that cowriting surrealist films had fallen well down his list of priorities. The Aragonese-Catalan axis never recovered, and Buñuel hammered in the final nail when, in 1934, he removed Dalí’s name from the credits of L’Age d’Or .
Buñuel’s career began to take off in the early 1930s. He spent time in Hollywood and directed a documentary about the primitive, poverty-stricken people of Las Hurdes, in remote Extremadura. But, in 1936, the civil war came, and the proponent of chaos found the disorder, the savagery and the settling of old scores in Madrid deeply troubling. He went to Paris, where he edited propaganda films for the republican side, before moving to the US and then Mexico for the second part of his life, which sadly, for economic reasons, Gibson is unlikely to be able to write.
Buñuel was a fascinating, often nefarious fringe character in Gibson’s lives of Dalí and Lorca. Here he commands the stage: callous – he was often separated from his wife, the Olympic medal-winning gymnast Jeanne Rucar, and rarely bothered to write; anxious about sex – he hated love scenes in films; and posturing – he loved to be seen stripped to the waist brandishing his javelin or battering a punchball in his boxing gloves. He was a man of obsessions but also a highly organised person. This gave him the capacity to turn his obsessions into art.