Book Review: Luis Buñuel A Life in Letters

David Prendeville

This superb book gathers together a comprehensive collection of some of the most important and widely relevant examples of Luis Buñuel’s correspondence.
Many of the letters in the book have never been published previously and almost all of them appear here for the first time unabridged and in English. The correspondents include Salvador Dalí, Louis Aragon, Federico Fellini, François Truaffaut, Jean Vigo, Joseph Losey and many, many more. The letters are presented in chronological order and are divided into ten chapters that represent the different stages of Buñuel’s long career and fascinating life.
Buñuel, considered the father of surrealist cinema, was born in the small Aragonese town of Calanda in Spain in 1900. He moved to Paris in 1925 and first came to prominence with the notorious Un Chien Andalou (1929), famed for its eyeball slitting scene, and which Buñuel co-wrote with Salvador Dalí.
His follow-up to this, L’Age D’Or (1930), was no less controversial in its scabrous digs at Christianity and the hypocrisy of bourgeois society.
Buñuel returned to Spain after an invitation from a wealthy Spanish businessman to run a production company, Filmófono. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War brought Filmófono to an end. Buñuel fled Franco’s Spain after the Civil War, initially moving to the US where he worked for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He then moved to Mexico in the 1940s.
While exiled in Mexico, Buñuel made the revolutionary surrealist social realist picture (the sort of paradox he thrived on) Los Olvidados. He also made other superb, subversive films such as El and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo De La Cruz – two films that have sadly never been released on DVD and are badly in need of a restoration.
The critical success of Los Olvidados had brought Buñuel back to the attention of the international film scene, garnering rave reviews and winning the Best Director award at Cannes. This eventually led to him being allowed back to work in Spain by Franco, whose Minister for Culture felt it would be a good PR move in the early 1960s.
Buñuel was given carte blanche by his Mexican producer to make whatever he wanted and was rather surprisingly afforded complete freedom by the Spanish authorities as well.
However, the film Buñuel made, the scathing satire Viridiana (1961), was denounced by the Vatican, immediately banned by the Spanish government and all prints of it were ordered to be destroyed. However, a print made its way to Cannes, where it promptly won Buñuel the Palme D’Or. It would not be screened in his native Spain until 1977.
Buñuel spent the 1960s and 1970s predominantly making films in France where he made a formidable body of late career masterpieces including Belle de Jour, Tristana (both of which starred the great Catherine Deneuve), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (which won the best foreign language film Oscar in 1972), The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire. He died in 1982 and stands as one of the very best, most innovative film directors of the twentieth century.
This anthology works as a wonderful companion piece to Buñuel’s own typically hilarious and surreal autobiography My Last Sigh, and gives wonderful examples of the mischievous humour and unique worldview of this great director.
The book offers a wealth of insight into Buñuel’s creative process and how he worked with his closest collaborators. The letters exchanged between him and Dalí in discussing Un Chien Andalou feels utterly priceless in the unique access it affords the reader as to the conception of such a mammoth work of cinema and surrealism. Charting the sometimes extremely fraught nature of the friendship between Buñuel and Dalí, feels almost like an intrusion of privacy, albeit an utterly riveting one.
We also get a glimpse of the projects that never were and the reasons for that. Correspondence over years between Buñuel and Spanish essayist and poet Juan Larrea detail a film called Illegible, Son of a Flute that never saw the light of the day. It’s amazing to witness the journey of this ultimately failed project, which gives a terrific illustration as to the extent of the variables that must be balanced in order to get a film made.
After years and years of trying, Buñuel managed to secure funding for the film, only for him and Larrea to then disagree over matters of the script, and for the project to collapse. We also get a glimpse of a collaboration with Alec Guinness that never was.
It’s also fascinating to see how long Buñuel struggled for work and projects when he was in the USA and, initially, in Mexico. In correspondence with close friends, Buñuel retains an unshakeable optimism that something will come up around the corner. We see this belief sustained through close to a decade of fallow years, making his eventual successes all the sweeter which sets a terrific example for artists trying to make their way in the world.
The book is edited by Jo Evans and Breixo Viejo. Evans is the Professor of Spanish Film, Literature and Culture at University College London. Viejo is Visiting Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Barnard College, Colombia University, USA and Senior Research Associate at University College London.
Luis Buñuel: A Life in Letters is published by Bloomsbury Academic.