Friday, October 22, 2010

Hell is other people: the discreet charms of Luis Bunuel

[My latest Persistence of Vision column for Yahoo! India]

I figured my friend Amit Varma was being tongue-in-cheek when he wrote, in his Viewfinder column, about the artistic value of the reality show Bigg Boss. But then this sentence struck a chord: "Pundits say that the purpose of art is to reveal the human condition, and in my view few things reveal it quite as well as a bunch of disparate people shut up in a house for a few weeks, away from the rest of the world."

It's a long journey from Bigg Boss to Luis Bunuel, but the Spanish director's 1962 film The Exterminating Angel is about a group of upper-middle class people in a large mansion, finishing dinner and then finding that they are mysteriously unable to leave. The question that naturally arises is: what happens to people in situations where they have nothing but each other's company, and not much else to usefully keep their minds occupied?

"Hell is other people," Sartre congenially noted once. In a documentary titled The Last Script, Bunuel's son Juan Luis remarks that his father "hated groups of people clustered together", and that the idea for The Exterminating Angel first came to him when he saw Gericault's painting "The Raft of the Medusa", which depicted shipwreck survivors adrift. "How horrible that must have been," the great director said, probably less horrified by the prospect of an agonizingly slow death at sea than by being surrounded by other human beings while it happened.

The Exterminating Angel gets to the point right from the opening scene, which has a young member of the kitchen staff fleeing the mansion with a scared look on his face. Inside, other servants talk urgently about "needing" to get out even though they have nowhere to go for the night. Meanwhile the guests saunter in (they've been to an opera together), making polite conversation, but as dinner progresses the small talk becomes vacuous. The host makes exactly the same toast twice; the first time he does it, the others nod in the correct way and flash their pearly whites, but the second time no one pays much attention. We see that ennui is already setting in.

I first saw this film at an impressionable age, when just about any black-and-white European movie made by a respected director was guaranteed to leave me feeling like I had experienced something Worthwhile (even if I was secretly bored by it). But this one was different: it had an art-house reputation, but it was also very accessible, full of bizarre sight gags and dialogue. Not having encountered Bunuel before, I was scarcely prepared for his brand of deadpan madness.

Artists who use the tools of surrealism tread a thin line - exaggerated humour keeps drawing attention to itself and pushing the boundaries, which means it can become forced. But Bunuel uses his techniques so matter-of-factly that you know he's only doing what comes naturally to him. The Exterminating Angel contains many little moments that manage to be absurd and completely truthful at the same time. Early on, when two people are introduced to each other, they nod impassively - but a few moments later they see each other across the room as if for the first time and behave like old friends. A young couple, shortly to be married, pretend that they don't know each other's names and ask each other questions; is this a cute bit of romantic role-playing, or bourgeoisie boredom?

When the guests realise they are stuck in the house and will have to bed down in the living room, the outer markings of civilisation start to fall away - literally. A couple of the men remove their waistcoats, mumbling that these stiff clothes "are for statues, not for people". "Aren't they going too far?" the hostess wonders to her husband in a scandalized undertone.

But as the hours turn into days, everyone goes much further. They form cliques to bitch about each other, make accusations, then shift allegiances and rearrange themselves into new groups. (What could be more typical of human behaviour?) Having shown nothing but warmth towards their host Nobile when they first arrived, they come to suspect him of foul play. Later, there are displays of hysteria, even violence, as they become desperate to get out. A large closet - filled with fancy ceramic vases - is used as a toilet, and when people emerge from it they describe their experience in poetic language, a faraway look on their faces. (Years later, Bunuel will lampoon the embarrassed secretiveness surrounding toilet-going even more forcefully, in a famous scene in The Phantom of Liberty.)

Those who have no appetite for pettiness are dispensable. "I've got no stomach for mumbo-jumbo," says an elderly guest who doesn't care for small talk. Naturally, he will be the first to die. (Imagine a straight-arrow Bigg Boss contestant who refuses to engage in gossip or do anything that will keep the ratings high; he'd be voted out fairly quickly.)

Reading essays about the film, I gathered that the story of the entrapped guests could be a political allegory or a symbol for the class struggle, but I wasn't so interested in it on those levels: I liked looking at the individual people and how they changed over the course of the story; how they became less mindful of their appearance, how their behaviour became more aggressive. Bunuel's films about high-society types are made so effective by his recognition that human beings, for all their self-importance, are essentially animals that have dressed themselves up in fine clothes and learnt how to eat with knives and forks and pass plates around. Thus, his characters start off by following the etiquettes expected of their upbringing, but gradually their primal natures surface. In one scene, the hostess enters a small room where she has a whimpering bear and three sheep tied up together, for "after-dinner entertainment". To my mind, the scene immediately places the sophisticates sitting outside in the position of the most dominant - and cruelest - members of the animal kingdom. Sitting down to dinner in their tuxedoes and gowns, they remind me of the ending of Orwell's Animal Farm: "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which."


Revisiting The Exterminating Angel today (having seen many other Bunuels in the interim), I'm a little underwhelmed: the film rides on the novelty of its conception, but the execution - especially the acting - is somewhat clunky. It lacks the smoothness of the great movies Bunuel later made in the 1970s, notably The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and my personal favourite, The Phantom of Liberty - a film that adamantly refuses to stick with a single narrative thread, following first one story, then abandoning it for another just when things seem to have become interesting.

A few years ago, at Delhi's Cinefan film festival, I spoke for a few minutes with the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, who had collaborated with Bunuel on his last few movies. When I asked him about The Phantom of Liberty, he related the story of how they got the idea for it:
We stumbled on the seed of a scenario that we were both fascinated by. It involved a man and a woman - probably a married couple - having a furious argument. While we don't know the exact reason for the fight, we learn that it hinges on the contents of a letter that is shortly to be delivered to the house. The argument continues - the dialogue is very intense and engrossing, it grips the viewer's interest, and we're wondering what the letter could possibly contain. Then the doorbell rings; it's the postman. He hands the letter over to the couple, they start to open it, but instead of staying with them the camera tracks to the right and follows the postman out the door!
Though that scene didn't make it to the film, The Phantom of Liberty is full of frustrating little cul de sacs. But in a sense, Bunuel was doing this sort of thing since very early in his career - in 1928, in a burst of anarchic creativity, he and Salvador Dali created the short film Un Chien Andalou by putting together half-remembered material from their dreams: Bunuel sees a sliver of cloud bisecting the moon, Dali sees a hand crawling with ants, so fine, throw the two images together and let film critics debate the possible meanings till the end of time!

Little wonder then that his movies feel like fragments of a giant jigsaw. They create a very distinctive world - the sort of world where a priest, on discovering that a dying man was responsible for the death of his parents, first blesses him and then does him in with a shotgun (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). Or where a one-legged girl becomes the subject of a morbid obsession by her adopted father (Tristana), or a young, spry Jesus Christ prances about, smoothing his hair and talking to his mom like any teenager (The Milky Way). Bunuel's work is an acquired taste, but it's a taste that you can very quickly get addicted to - after which it can be difficult readjusting to the real world, or whatever fragments are left of it. I wonder if Bigg Boss contestants feel the same way when they finally exit their giant cocoon.


  1. I've only seen two of his films - The Exterminating Angel and Discreet Charm....

    I agree that this film relies quite heavily on the novelty of the "plot".
    I loved the first 40 mins or so - a novel way of depicting ennui and lack of positive drive that often afflicts those who've led too comfortable a life. As the movie progressed, I just got tired of it.

    Discreet Charm... is a more polished work. Yet, it was quite heavy handed in phases especially the instance where the bishop is turned away when he wears the gardner's clothes, but is welcomed in a clerical outfit! I didn't quite get his point. We all rely on signals while judging people we're unfamiliar with. Clothes are a pretty useful signal. That's the unpleasant truth. There's little point cribbing about the same.

  2. Shrikanth: by that logic, there would be no point "cribbing" about anything, no?

    I don't quite share your benevolent view of clothes as a "useful signal", and I think there's something highly lampoon-able about the human tendency to judge by outward appearances. Hell, if people were to judge me by the clothes I wear (on most days), they'd think I was a wastrel who had never made any sort of attempt to do honest work in his life. (Which might be true to an extent, but still...)

  3. I think there's something highly lampoon-able about the human tendency to judge by outward appearances

    I partly agree. However, when you are unfamiliar with a person, we have to make do with useful, albeit imperfect signals atleast to begin with. I'm reminded of the arranged marriage/dating market where you shortlist potential partners based on imperfect, yet useful signals like "family background", alma-mater among other things.

    On first viewing, I distinctly prefer Renoir's Rules of the Game over both these films. Maybe I'm just biased towards the more classical, relatively realist style of the former. Need to revisit Bunuel's films though. Gosford Park is another film that I ought to get around to watching.

  4. when you are unfamiliar with a person, we have to make do with useful, albeit imperfect signals atleast to begin with

    Sure - though I personally think the "imperfect" trumps the "useful" in most cases. Also, certain types of "signals" are nothing more than a validation of preexisting biases and prejudices.

    In any case, it's perfectly normal for someone like Bunuel - who has an inherent distrust of social mores, niceties and arrangements - to skewer these things. Like I said, if you can see the Essential Animal Condition, you'll find it highly amusing that people can form ideas about others by studying their clothes!

  5. Loved reading the whole piece, but the last line especially is a keeper!

  6. I like Prahalad's comment on this post a lot. Please don't take it off (I guess you don't intend to, else we'd never have seen it). ;-) And we were talking if useful/imperfect signals earlier on!

  7. Indisch: heh. I respect your sentiments, but sorry, couldn't resist clicking the Delte button!

  8. Great post.

    Luis Bunuel is one of the movie directors I have been following faithfully. His movies provide me with the required dose of easy to comprehend surrealism (apart from Ishiguro and R Chakraborti).

    Completely agree with you that this movie rides heavily on the thought and exploration of its consequences rather than cinematography, execution, acting etc. This movie also lacks the typical flow that his other movies display (Phantom of Liberty, Milky Way etc.).

  9. Jai - Your post is convincing me to watch Bunuel. I have seen on Discreet Charm of all he made. And I think I should have seen his earlier work to appreciate Discreet Charm. Reading this post I got reminded of what Frank Darabont said (source of course is imdb :-) )"Human beings are such fooling animals that if you lock two men in a room for a night, by morning they would have found enough reason to kill each other"