Thursday, October 11, 2012


ÉL              A-                   
aka:  This Strange Passion
Mexico  (100 mi)  1953 d:  Luis Buñuel

Buñuel went to Jesuit school in his native Spain, but came of age in Paris during the 20’s, commenting that “a religious education and surrealism have marked me for life.”  His early surrealist films UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1928) and L’AGE D’OR (1930) were considered shock treatments, a synthesis of Marx and Freud, anarchists of the spirit and liberators of the psyche.  The Surrealists abandoned a straight narrative as a form of repression, preferring to allow the unconscious to speak through images, dreams, and fantasies, seamlessly inserting them into otherwise realistic stories.  Perhaps only Jean Genet surpassed Buñuel in exploring his character’s fantasies.  Freud was reportedly fascinated by Buñuel’s early work, but the Depression and the demand for escapist entertainment left no one to bankroll Surrealism.  Buñuel was all but absent from directing films in the 30’s and 40’s, but worked dubbing, producing, and working in the film department at the Museum of Modern Art.  LOS OLVIDADES (1950) returned Buñuel to an international stage, winning the Best Director prize at Cannes in 1951, offering a brutal portrait of slum kids in Mexico City, exploring their world of savage cruelty, where his meanest character in the film is a blind beggar.  In the tradition of Freud and the Surrealists, Buñuel saw his characters less as victims of their environment than as pawns in their own murderous and sado-masochistic fantasy lives.  His fascination with ugliness and violence (like the Spanish Inquisition) is almost stereotypically Spanish.  A surrealist-tinged melodrama, “El” is the masculine, definitive article in Spanish, where Buñuel and co-writer Luis Alcoriza have devised a deviously clever adaptation of the Mercedes Pinto novel, a near Hitchcockian tale about jealousy, paranoia, and female subjugation, suggesting that in the extreme the person ultimately subjugated is the male himself, locking himself into a narrow, self-imposed prison of his own making, ironically a view shared very much by the existentialists, such as Sartre’s No Exit.  Reportedly French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's favorite film, literally overflowing with Freudian imagery, he was known to show the film to his students as an example of paranoia.        

Buñuel understood obsession like no other, turning it into black comedy, perfectly integrating delusions and fantasies into everyday ordinary existence, where a middle-aged, devoutly religious aristocrat, Francisco (Arturo de Córdova), a man who has abstained from sex his entire life, is assisting the local priest wash and kiss the feet of young male altar boys, when he’s literally stunned to discover the attractive feet of one particularly beautiful woman, Gloria (Delia Garcés).  Wasting no time, he immediately steals the heart of this woman out from under her architect fiancé Raul (Luis Beristáin), where swayed by his wealth they are quickly married.  What happens afterwards is told in a flashback to Raul in a state of near panic, as she finds it hard to believe herself.  On the night of her honeymoon, when her new husband approaches her in bed, perhaps to avoid the inevitable that he has been resisting his entire life, he accuses her of thinking of Raul before falling into an endless stream of jealous rage, castigating her for having previous lovers, blaming them for this incessant hostility, where Gloria is in shock at his behavior, but he later apologizes profusely.  Francisco refuses to allow her to have friends or even see her own mother for fear they will turn her against him, believing he must possess her all to himself, basically locking her up in a cloistered life where he continues to suspect she is being followed by former lovers.  What is initially startling is taken to even greater extremes, becoming inherently ridiculous, but given a Kafkaesque spin when no one believes her and she sees no way out, not even her mother or the local priest, as Francisco portrays himself as such a decent man in the community.  Even Gloria was fooled at first by his elegant and gracious manner, but it’s as if he has a personality disorder, continually turning into his Mr. Hyde persona, actually threatening her life.  In one of the most extraordinary sequences, a likely influence on Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) five years later, the two climb up to the top of a Spanish mission’s bell tower, a supposed favorite place of reflection and meditation for Francisco, offering magnificent views of the city, where he grabs her by the throat and threatens to throw her over the railing.  Both ÉL and Vertigo deal with male hysteria, control and possession of women, leading to an illusory sense of male identity, where both are about the inability of a male protagonist to control a female object of desire, exposing underlying delusions and outright psychoses that have likely been there all along.
It’s important to remember that in the eyes of the church there’s no such thing as divorce, that marriage is a lifelong commitment, an unbreakable oath that is taken before God.  As grotesque a turn as can be imagined, where does that leave Gloria?  While the first part of the film is told from Francisco’s perspective, the second half shifts to Gloria’s vantage point.  In her small religious community, divorce is scandalous, requiring evidence she doesn’t have, much like the scene of a crime, as the family’s honor and reputation would be disgraced and ruined if she abandons her husband, so Francisco continually pleads forgiveness at the feet of Gloria.  To the outside world, their lives seem normal, but to the unstable mind of Francisco, it’s all about domination and submission, and the long term effects of sexual repression, especially well into adulthood.  We get a dizzying account of Francisco’s personal struggle within himself to maintain an equilibrium, where he demands complete obedience from his wife, but even when she dutifully obeys completely, he continues to rage against the world, developing a personal contempt for all humans, as in the end you only end up being disappointed.  His souring view of a rancid world fits into his delusions that everyone is conspiring against him, where people are laughing behind his back, accentuated by the swirling Bernard Hermann-style hysteria from musical composer Luis Hernández Bretón and the sumptuous black and white imagery (especially the sweeping panoramas of the town of Guanajuato, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s voyeuristic gaze of San Francisco) from legendary Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa.  When Gloria finally has the courage to leave him (after several near death experiences), he goes after her with a gun, like a man possessed, his face sweaty and his hair continually falling out of place, where he has the look of madness in his eyes.  When he sees her with Raul, he follows them into a church service, but when he approaches them, his sanity escapes him.  Buñuel cleverly blends a reality of church serenity with a quickly unraveling, out of control, fictitious surreal world, much like Bergman’s HOUR OF THE WOLF (1968), where the parishioners, altar boys, and even the priest start laughing uncontrollably at him, happening all in his head, as if shamed because they can somehow see what a disgrace he has become, where his surging torment within himself only feeds a hallucinated world of visionary horrors.  Buñuel has the last laugh, however, as in the final shot it is the director himself (appearing in his own film like Hitchcock) and not Arturo de Córdova who is under the monk’s robes.  The audience can amusingly decide for themselves whether they think a solitary life in religious penitence has “cured” Francisco of his personal obsessions.     

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