Saturday, November 15, 2008

Viridiana and Me

Some films, as I'm sure you're all aware, don't really lend themselves to easy interpretation. With certain directors, this is something you learn to expect going into one of their films. Davids Lynch and Cronenberg, for instance, have made it clear to me that "I don't quite get it" is a perfectly acceptable reaction to their work (this enigmatic quality is something that Cronenberg seems to be currently inching away from, whereas Lynch apparently just said "Fuck it, that's what I do").

But I've been watching both of those guys for years, and I've learned how to watch them, as much as you can learn such a thing. Other directors, however, I approach with trepidation. If I don't "get" this movie, what does that say about me? Liking or not liking a film is one thing, but I'd like to know what it is I'm liking or not liking. Does the fact that I think both Hour of the Wolf and Persona appear to be a bit thick mean that I'm missing something. In both cases, I've come to learn that the answer is no (that Hour of the Wolf speaks to me as a work of art, and Persona doesn't (or hasn't yet) is something I'll have to work out for myself, possibly with the aid of a psychiatrist), but I didn't know that when I first watched them. My nervousness in this regard probably has a lot to do with the fact, typically, I don't read a hell of a lot of film criticism, and even less film theory. Most of the time, I go into a film practically stone cold. That's not to say that you might see me browsing in my local Blockbuster(TM), where I'll pick up Beware of a Holy Whore and say, "Huh! Never heard of this one. Think I'll give 'er a spin!" But it does mean that what I know about Fassbinder the next time I watch one of his films you could comfortably fit inside my favorite hat...and I don't even have a favorite hat!! I'm probably putting myself across as some kind of film illiterate, which I'm not at all, but, as they say, I know what I know, and I'm fully, painfully aware of what I don't know.

All of which brings me, sort of, to my subject tonight, which is Luis Bunuel's Viridiana, a film I approached gently, for fear that it, too, would mercilessly expose me as the bone-stupid rube that I am. Here, I'll show you what kind of no-nothing douche I am by telling you what I know about Luis Bunuel:

1) He was Spanish

2) He was an atheist

3) He didn't like rich people

4) He never worked with Tom Berenger

5) He directed that movie about the serial killer who sliced up people's eyes. What was that one called, Maniac? Maniac Cop? Maniac Cop 2?

And of those, only the second two really seem to apply to Viridiana, which, ever so briefly, is about a woman named Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), who is preparing to take her final vows and become a nun. Her Mother Superior tells her that before that happens, she should visit her Uncle Jaime (Fernando Rey), whom she barely knows. Jaime, Viridiana's last living relative and a very rich landowner, is a widow. Shortly after Viridiana arrives, he attempts to seduce her, even begs for her hand in marriage, making her put on his dead wife's wedding dress (and that's hardly all, but, for those who haven't see the film yet, some of its perversity should be experienced in pure form). Viridiana rejects him, and attempts to flee back to her convent. She's stopped at the train station by the police, who inform her that her uncle has committed suicide. After that, Viridiana decides to stay at her uncle's estate (as does Jorge -- played by Francisco Rabal -- the son Jaime neglected his whole life, but to whom he willed his entire fortune), where she takes the local homeless, crippled and diseased under her wing, and to whom she functions, or attempts to function, as a personal savior. It's at around this point that one should remember that Bunuel was an atheist.

Okay, so he was atheist. I'm not an atheist myself, but, regardless of what Bill Maher thinks about folks like me, knowing this fact about Bunuel does not lead me to imagine him rotting in Hell, writhing in blood-soaked agony, all the while marveling at the sinful erection this image has produced (either that, or I get so angry at learning of Bunuel's atheism that I run right out and punch a gay person). Anyway, my friend and fellow blogger Rick Olson has more than once pointed out to me (indirectly) the interesting fact that one of Bunuel's closest friends, in his declining years, was a priest. Does that mean Bunuel experienced a conversion late in life? No, but that fact does help explain his treatment of faith and Christianity in Viridiana. Bunuel is, without question, blasphemous in this film, and his view of the power of faith is withering. But Viridiana herself is never anything less that wholly decent, loving, and kind -- hopelessly so. Even her Mother Superior, in her two scenes, is portrayed as a good and reasonable woman, however stern. How jarring is it, in this day and age, to see a film made by an avowed atheist that doesn't make its points through cheap shots at Christianity and condescencion, and by proudly flaunting its ignorance of the religion? I'll tell you how jarring it is: really jarring.

What puzzles me about Viridiana has to do with Bunuel's treatment of class. Rich Jaime is perverse, almost dangerously so, but he's a sad figure, not at all like the hateful cartoon played by Fernando Rey in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. And his newly rich son Jorge...what is his deal, anyway? He's kind to dogs, I know that.
Do you know who is portrayed as a hateful cartoon? All the poor and handicapped people. Frankly, Viridiana feels like Crimes and Misdemeanors tripped and fell on the dinner scene from Freaks. If the "freaks" in that film were hateful. Okay, that last one didn't work. The point being, class in this film is trickier than in any other Bunuel film I've seen, and I haven't worked that part out yet. If I could be bothered to open a goddamn book every once and a while, maybe I wouldn't be having this problem, but that's what I get.

In Viridiana, I'm following Bunuel about halfway, but after that things get a little bit slippery, harder to pin down, and as a result I'm tempted to conclude that Bunuel wanted to make a film, and maybe didn't care too much about earning plaudits from those who would simply congratulate themselves for agreeing with him.

27 comments:

Ed Howard said...

I think you're right about this film, in that Bunuel is being deliberately ambiguous and playful in his treatment of both class and religion. It's not at all clear whether the film's basic story is a celebration of Viridiana's shift from religious devotee to worldly woman, or if it's a tragedy about the hopelessness of sustaining idealistic values in a cruel world. At different times, I'm inclined to think about it either way. That last scene, with its implication of a menage a trois, plays out with such a playful wink that it's hard to tell how Bunuel intends us to take it -- should we be appalled or delighted by Viridiana's newfound sexuality? I think this ambiguity is part of the effect he's going for.

It also might be important to consider the context surrounding the film production. Bunuel had been exiled from Spain for years prior to making this, and he was invited back by Franco in order to make it. His acceptance of the offer was something of a scandal among liberals, at least until they saw the film and realized that he was basically handing a giant "f*ck you" to the Spanish dictator and his allies in the Catholic Church. The film was promptly banned, and it only still exists today because a few intrepid souls managed to hide prints by burying them in the ground or smuggling them out of Spain. Most of the prints were destroyed.

There's a great cartoon which shows Bunuel the prankster calmly accepting Franco's invitation among howls of protest, followed by the "gift" blowing up in Franco's face.

bill r. said...

Regarding that last scene: I decided not to bring it up, because I really didn't know what to make of it. I didn't get "menage a trois" when I watched it (which was this morning), but I did see shock and jealousy in Viridiana's eyes when she saw Ramona in Jorge's room. And now that you mention a menage a trois, I have to concede you must be right, but I would have a hard time finding anything delightful about Bunuel's view of it. Neither Ramona nor Viridiana seem much taken with the idea, but will probably go through with it because they both love Jorge.

But where did that ending come from? What an out-of-left-field capper. Viridiana is approached for sex throughout the film, but she never seems to want to have anything to do with it. Then again, she was almost raped twice. Perhaps she's just tired of fighting.

Marilyn said...

I would say that I am a full-fledged Bunuel freak, and I wrote a review of Viridiana (and other Bunuel films) on FonF that might help you with this film. But I will quote part of it here, "Many of Buñuel's films rail against the hypocrisy and uselessness of the bourgeoisie, the Catholic Church, and the State. While these themes remain fairly constant throughout his genuine oeuvre (as opposed to the dozens of films he made for a buck in Mexico as a journeyman director), some of his films are informed primarily by his surrealist philosophy, and reflect his lifelong fascination with dreams. Viridiana is just such a film."

Marilyn said...

In honor of this post, Marilyn Monday will be - no, not Catherine Deneuve, that's to predictable - but rather Carole Bouquet, who starred in Bunuel's last film, That Obscure Object of Desire.

bill r. said...

Viridiana is primarily surrealist? In what way? I'm far less well-versed in Bunuel than you, Marilyn, so you're probably right, but when compared to certain other Bunuel films I've seen -- The Exterminating Angel, The Discree Charm... and Un Chien Andelou -- Viridiana seems positively tame in that respect.

Also, I'm noticing a pattern regarding Marilyn Mondays. I'll have to start making it easier on myself by making my Sunday posts all about how pretty I think Naomi Watts is.

Marilyn said...

Surrealist in the sense of it being a dreamscape. The film is filled with Freudian obsessions about sex and murder that would inform many of Bunuel's films. The idea that the mind is free to think what it likes and express those thoughts was something that got Bunuel thrown out of Franco's Spain.

Krauthammer said...

I Think Bunuel was definitely a surrealist, in that he was explicitly a part of the surrealist movement. Friends with Dali, ect. ect. But I'm not sure that all his movies can be just called surrealist, he has his own little notes there.

I've only seen Viridiana once, so I could be wrong, but the treatment of religion really surprised me as well, but for different reasons. I knew that this was a "blasphemous" film going in, but I thought that it would attack what people like Bill Mahr tend to attack, ridiculing religion as stogy and violent. While there's some of that, I felt that the main attack on Christianity was its tradition of charity, which I was not expecting at all.

bill r. said...

Krauthammer, that's my point: Bunuel's religious targets were not at all what I'm used to. There were no cheap shots or broad, bigoted generalizations. No, Bunuel's main criticism in this film seems to be that religion is far too optimistic.

Marilyn said...

All of his movies are not surrealist - for example, Belle de Jour is a straight-up work of eroticism. Here's a great article on it by Kimberly Lindbergs.

Viridiana, however, is another matter. I'm quoting from a pretty good article on surrealism from Wikipedia:

"Freud's work with free association, dream analysis and the hidden unconscious was of the utmost importance to the Surrealists in developing methods to liberate imagination. However, they embraced idiosyncrasy, while rejecting the idea of an underlying madness or darkness of the mind. (Later the idiosyncratic Salvador Dalí explained it as: "There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.")

"The group aimed to revolutionize human experience, including its personal, cultural, social, and political aspects, by freeing people from what they saw as false rationality, and restrictive customs and structures. Breton proclaimed, the true aim of Surrealism is "long live the social revolution, and it alone!" To this goal, at various times surrealists aligned with communism and anarchism."

Bunuel's rejection of religion in this film is a throwing off of the restrictions on imagination. I might surprise you by saying that I think Bunuel retained religious feelings throughout his life, hence, the paradox of his famous line, "I'm an atheist, thank god." He rejected the rigidity of organized religion, but I believe he found great inspiration in religion. Why else would so many of his films deal with it?

Krauthammer said...

Oh no, Viridiana is surrealist, I was just rambling because I think that "surrealist" has become a shortcut for everything Bunuel related.

Your other point is interesting, I remember that Orson Welles once called Bunuel the most Christian filmmaker of all time, that he "hated god in a way only a believer can."

Jonathan Lapper said...

To add to what Marilyn said, I think many people have a hard time shaking a belief in God once it has been planted in them. I think Bunuel was one but his targets were along the lines of classes, organized religion and societal norms rather than God the entity. I think Bunuel wanted to be an atheist, but for him that meant rejecting religion, not God. To me at least that's how I've always interpreted him. And I think he knew that and toyed with it publicly like in the "atheist, thank God" quote Marilyn brought up.

Maybe the notion of religion being optimistic that you got from this was his way of trying to "convert" religion to a more hopeful or optimistic position. To put that idea in people's minds instead of judgment, fire and brimstone.

bill r. said...

Jonathan - I don't think Bunuel's trying to convert religion away from fire and brimstone into an optimistic point of view, because there's no critique of the fire and brimstone type of Christianity, and look what Viridiana gets for her optimism. Maybe Viridiana is really about misanthropy, more than anything else.

Marilyn said...

The one thing I would never accuse Bunuel of is misanthropy. He had one of the greatest senses of humor in film, and was great at poking fun without deflation.

bill r. said...

Really? Again, you know much more about his work than I do, but from what I've seen he at least had a little misanthropy in him. That doesn't mean he was a full-fledged misanthrope, but I don't think he was unfamiliar with it.

Marilyn said...

The thing I like most about Bunuel is his playfulness. Yes, he's against the foolish rules of church, state, and society, but he's much happier laughing a ridiculous obsessives and having a lot of fun with sexuality. His fetishes are fun to watch for, once you know what he likes. Legs and artificial limbs are particular favorites.

bill r. said...

I've been playing catch up a lot lately with certain directors, with the help of Netflix, and right now I know I'm more interested in pursuing Bunuel than Godard. I think That Obscure Object on Desire is going to replace Band of Outsiders for the top spot, and maybe soon I'll be able to pick up on more of the things in Bunuel you're referring to.

I stand by my idea that Viridiana is misanthropic, though...

Marilyn said...

Whatever you like, Bill. I have seen just about everything Bunuel made that's available. The films can be similar, but I never get tired of them. I think That Obscure Object of Desire is his best.

bill r. said...

I think That Obscure Object of Desire is his best.

Well, that clinches it. So look for a post where I flail around trying to write about that movie in about a week.

Jonathan Lapper said...

His fetishes are fun to watch for, once you know what he likes. Legs and artificial limbs are particular favorites.

What's not to love about Bunuel?

Ed Howard said...

I'll second Marilyn on That Obscure Object -- if not Bunuel's absolute best, it's certainly up there. Also, I'm not 100% sure, but I think it was the first Bunuel I saw. Kind of perverse to start with his final picture, I guess, but it worked; I was hooked. It's no easier to write about than Viridiana is, though; I won't spoil it but I can promise you'll be puzzling over the meaning of many of Bunuel's aesthetic devices and choices in that film. I think what I like about Bunuel is that he so consistently short-circuits the tendencies of auteurist viewers to think of his choices in thematic terms. He calls attention to his aesthetics in very showy ways, and there are obvious thematic unities in his work, but he also makes sure that there's an element of ambivalence and ambiguity underneath everything, preventing any pat interpretations.

And Bill, you don't think that Viridiana critiques the sexually repressed aspects of Catholicism at all? I think that's a strong element in the film that works against its sympathetic portrayal of Christian charity.

bill r. said...

Ed - No, because what form is the sex taking that Viridiana is rejecting? From her uncle, and from a rape attempt. And finally, as you pointed out earlier, a probable offer of a threesome from Jorge, which she may succumb to, but, as I said, I hardly think he audience is supposed to revel in that decision.

I'm sure Bunuel has plenty negative to say on that topic, but I honestly didn't see it here.

Ed Howard said...

Bill, I'm not talking about Viridiana rejecting her uncle's advances so much as her self-punishing streak, which Bunuel definitely mocks and satirizes. He is poking some fun at the masochistic, guilt-ridden, self-denying aspects of Catholicism: especially in Viridiana's crown of thorns and rough, hairshirt-like nightgown. This is connected to her naivete about the world; together her naivete and her ascetic lifestyle add up to a rejection of worldly pleasure in all its forms. Though Bunuel is sympathetic in some ways to religion, what he dislikes most about it is its tendency to ignore or actively fight against the evidence of the senses. Viridiana's asexuality goes beyond rejecting a lecherous uncle: it is a way of looking at the world that totally denies sensual experience, and masochistically seeks discomfort rather than happiness and pleasure. While Bunuel values the charitable impulse of religion -- even if he sees it as overly naive -- he has nothing but scorn for Viridiana's pious self-punishment.

Ed Howard said...

I also think that, though you may see the threesome suggestion as wholly a negative ending, in some ways Bunuel sees this as an improvement over Viridiana's former asceticism. To me, it's a purposefully ambiguous finale because Bunuel wants to leave us with mixed feelings: yes, Viridiana is in some ways being exploited here, but she's also rejected her former self-punishing streak (signified by the burning of the crown of thorns) in favor of an embrace of the world as it is. I think (and Bunuel would probably agree) that it's a good thing to go from denying the world to accepting it, even if Viridiana's circumstances are still far from ideal at the end.

bill r. said...

Maybe, but she does seem genuinely happy when her charitable instincts appear to be paying off. That's not sensual pleasure, but it is pleasure.

But generally I do take your point. However, it can be argued that, given what the wide world ultimately offers Virdiana, her withdrawal from it, including its pleasures, is at least somewhat understandable.

bill r. said...

Ed, I didn't see your second post until I'd replied, so let me add that I do like your take on the film, which puts the film into a kind of hopelessly cynical, even defeatist framework. I'll explain more later...

bill r. said...

So anyway -- and I probably don't need to explain what I meant -- you're interpretation, Ed, seems to put Bunuel in the position of saying religious piety is a mug's game, and the real world will grind you down until you succumb to things you'd rather not be a part of.

And while I know this wasn't Bunuel's point, it almost feels like Viridiana would have been better off going back to the convent.

Rick Olson said...

This is a great thread to which I have nothing to add ... Marilyn and Ed's comments, especially, are right to the point. Jonathan's statement that Bunuel was railing not necessarily against the idea of a deity, but against the church, is right on, though I think that he was well aware himself of the difference.

It is so weird, I chose this weekend to watch (for the first time) two of Bunuel's classics myself.

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