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Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles
by Fermin Solis
LUIS BUNUEL made his first film just before the 1929 Wall Street Crash and retired from the director’s chair soon after the advent of the home computer.
His half century of creative provocation began with the grotesque surrealism of Un Chien Andalou (1929), an avant-garde classic of the silent era, and closed with a series of late flourishes: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), The Phantom of Liberty (1974) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).
These are cinematic masterpieces – humorous, poetic and more overtly political than his early work.
I had assumed Bunuel’s stylistic transformation was triggered by his exile from Europe in the 1930s and a 14-year hiatus from film-making but Fermin Solis’s striking and inventive graphic biography takes a different view.
He explores Bunuel’s disillusionment with the surrealist movement, his alienation from the “intellectual aristocracy” of Paris and the experience of shooting his third feature, a pseudo-documentary called Land Without Bread, in the impoverished Las Hurdes region of Spain.
Solis’s style is, like Bunuel’s, economic but precise. Backgrounds are spare but expressive: the streetlights and shadows of Parisian nightlife are rendered in variants of dark grey with splashes of colour; the rugged terrain of Las Hurdes flits between days of muted brown and nights of murky blue and the dream sequences are treated to more vibrant colouring. The representation of gesture and expression is always meticulous.
There are fascinating insights into Bunuel’s friendship with the anarchist artist Ramon Acin and interesting allusions to his film-making techniques. Graphic storytelling is a form suited to action and emotion rather than detailed scholarship but Solis identifies clear links between Bunuel’s childhood, early career and mature film-making.
The context of events is deftly sketched and the flashes of insight into the director’s motivation and state of mind are relentlessly honest and deeply affecting — his strategy of seeking truth in artifice and ruthlessness in the pursuit of incendiary images is exposed in a handful of frames.
Solis is unflinching in highlighting Bunuel’s cruelty to animals and manipulation of non-actors in his quest for social change. When he learns that the people of the village in which he is shooting must cross rivers and harsh terrain to bury their dead, Bunuel suggests re-enacting a child’s funeral. A collaborator objects but he replies: “Don’t you understand Pierre? We have to recreate this in order to denounce it!”
Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is an illuminating and entertaining exploration of a pivotal period in the development of a subversive film-maker, whose work retains its emotional and intellectual power four decades after his death.
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