Bunuel's career was the one of constant search for artistic freedom. The first two films Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'O were shot in the surrealist spirit. The first one was backed by Bunuel's mother, while the second sponsored by aristocratic family. (My Last Breath). Bunuel's carrer had always been influenced by scandals his own films caused. L'Age d'or had been banned, later on Viridiana caused real scandal in Spain. His own country had always been reluctant to accept his films. Spain is religious country, while Bunuel atheist and revolutionary. Moreover Bunuel, who fled the country at the time of Spanish Civil War had to deal with his old enemy Franco, Who was able to stop the production at any time.
If the film is too short, I'll put in a dream, he once told his Mexican producer. The truth is that the Bunuel Mexican producers did not allow him to stick to the surrealist tradition and demanded him to avoid any surreal action (apart from dreams). After making Los Olviados Bunuel was not allowed to include any sequence that would include non realistic patterns. During the sixties Bunuel got another producer who favored experiments and gave Bunuel artistic freedom. I ought to mention that the French auteur theory and independent European American cinema, had probably its influence.
Durgnat talks about The Exterminating Angel as the freest film since Les Hurdes. Bunuel also gained international reputation, which offred him possibilities all around the world. When he couldn't shoot a film in Spain, he made a film in France or Mexico instead. He gained a great control of his films: when making The Milky Way, Bunuel was afraid that the film wouldn't make money. Despite the fact that he shared his fear with his producers, the film had been completed and in the end made a small profit. In That Obscure Object of desire, two actresses play one part - this is unthinkable in commercial cinema.
Weapons and enemies
Today we mostly treat Surrealism as an art movement. As Bunuel describes in My Last Breath, the artistic success was of minor importance. The surrealists wanted to change the world, to transform life itself. The weapon of surrealism wasn't a gun but scandal. We ought to treat Un Chien Andalou as such weapon. It intended to assault, assault both the newly emerged avant garde audiences and burgeoise audiences. Under its shocking imaginery we however find another elements that are common to Bunuel's later films. The need to shock and attack remained in his later films, although in amore subtle version.
Bourgeoisie and revolution
Most of the surrealist artists had a burgeoise background. However thi did not stop them from attacking the bourgeoisie culture and morality. In films like The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm Bunuel attacks their morality and critics them for being superficial. In Angel he forces the characters to get in touch with real life. Bunuel shows sympathy for the young revolutionaries in belle de Jour and That Obscure and pawes the way for them... Fernando Ray in That Obscure Object of Desire articulates Bunuel own words - he expresses admiration for the terrorists (for anarchists at the beginning of the 20th century).
Still atheist, thank God! (Luis Bunuel)
In Un Chien Andalou one of the character drags behind a piano, with priests attached to it. In L'Age d'or the mockery of religious institutions is even more evident. Religion has its place in Bunuel filmography. In Simon of the desert, when the old monk accepts the new pillar from a rich merchant he also accepts the way the cristian church is organised - the rich have always paid to be closer to god (Buache).
When Bunuel takes Simon to a big city, the size of the pillar is ridiculous to what the modern civilisation acquired and Simon has lost his quest with evil. As a surrealist and mystic Bunuel is attracted to the subconscious, unknown and mysterious and therefore also to religion. He however despises the catholic church and mocks it at every possible occasion: While in the earlier films he directly attacks Christianity, as opposing force to the surrealist movement, in the later films he treats the topic with ironic smile. In The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie, the bishop wants to become a gardener. Simon of the dessert is rather a caricature figure.
As I have already suggested dreams were extremely important to many of Bunuel's films. Un Chien Andalou is based on Dali's and Bunuel's dreams. Many critics apllied psychoanalysis to explain film's motives. The problem with such analysis is that we do not know which part of the film is based on dreams and what sequences were designed to shock the audiences and confuse critics - Bunuel testifies that his dream contribution is a cloud slicing the moon, while Dali is a hand with ants. Bunuel and Dali worked hard to take away all logical reasoning and the scenes are purely put together by coincidence. While Dali moved away to more Freudian imaginery (for example in Hitchcok's Spellbound), Bunuel refused any reading of his 'film dreams' for the rest of his life. The hardest one to crack is probably the Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie. In this film we are taken from dream to dream, dream in another dream, the main protagonists talk about their dreams and so on. In Belle de Jour dreams are important for the character's development.
Love and desire
Desire is the driving force of many Bunuel's films. Buache talks about love that is trapped by the conventions of society in Un Chien Andalou. Love also drives Fernando Ray mad in That Obscure... It however changed his life and his everyday upper class routine, he opens to the world, young people, even talks to his servant (Tate, the Art Magazine). In Belle de Jour Deneuve, plays woman whose desires to be controlled lead her to a brothel. Desire and love are the powers in Bunuel's films that make people act, when the desire is fulfilled the film ends tragically. In belle de Jour the young men that Severine falls for gets killed. The two lovers die in explosion, after Conchita lost virginity (this is my interpretation).
In his book My Last Breath Bunuel criticises Fellini for highly stylised and over composed shots in Guiletta. As he confesses he preffered plain shots that would conceal the presence of the camera, that would discard anything constructed from the films. The cuts ought not to be invisible. The camera is usually set at the eyline which is more characteristic of realism movements, and if it moves into a close-up there has to be a good reasons - In That Obscure Object of Desire, at the very end we see the blood stained white sheet in a close-up. (Conchita lost her virginity?). Un Chien Andalou has different structure and uses more close-ups (the eye, the hand with ants).
It is also lit in a way that resembles German expressionism, but the fact is that the old cameras needed much more light. Also the acting is rather expressive. In surrealist films character psychology is nonexistent. (Bordwell and Thompson). In later films Bunuel's characters are either slightly exaggerated or comic like in The Obscure Object of Desire, The Discreet Charm Of Bourgeoisie and Simon of the Dessert or act more realistically (Deneuve in Belle de Jour).
The narrative in Un Chien Andalou is both traditional and breaking all the traditions. The man on the bike approaches the house in continuous shots. Bunuel however breaks the narrative with weird intertitles and actors disappearing and appearing again. In later films the narrative is more formal. But Bunuel inserts dreams that are either very important for the development of a character (like in Belle de Jour), or are totally confusing and add other dimensions to the film (The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie). Furthermore Bubuel manages to make us doubt what we see: in The Discreet Charm we are never sure whether we are in a dream or in the story, in That Obscure Subject we never find out whether Conchita was a virgin or mean femme fatale.
Most of Bunuel's films have a touch of irony and humour. They are exaggerating, cofusing and shocking, but underneath all trhe layers and doublemeanings we find a filmmaker that remained faithful to the ideals of surrealism. A filmmaker that prefers dreaming to staying awake, love to reasoning, rebellion to conformism.