29 September, 2007

Luis Bunuel's ABISMOS DE PASION

Related image
The funeral procession for Catalina passes by a naked tree. One of the many stark images featured in ABISMOS DE PASION (1954), Luis Bunuel's Mexican produced adaptation of Emily Bronte's novel, WUTHERING HEIGHTS.

Mise en abyme occurs within a text when there is a reduplication of images or concepts referring to the textual whole. Mise en abyme is a play of signifiers within a text, of sub-texts mirroring each other.

The above Wikipedia definition of the French literary term, used in literary, art and film criticism, will do as a guide for these thoughts on Luis Bunuel's Mexican shot take on Emily Bronte's classic. 

The repeated application of Wagner cues over the emotional turmoils of the lovers, Catalina and Alejandro, becomes an over-the-top, some would say tedious device with which Bunuel signals his surrealist technique of blasting apart the narrative of the novel while adhering to its structure. Music is a signifier and a meta-text in Bunuel's filmography, the very same Wagner strains are heard over the flailing of another set of lovers acting out against bourgeois convention in the director's once banned L'Age D'Or (1930). And, of course, Jesus Franco, the subject of this blog, another Spanish surrealist/anarchist, also has a long history of using all types of music, from Jazz (his Clifford pen name) to classical, Liszt (SINFONIA EROTICA) to provide repeating sub-text to his films within films. 


Leaving aside the classic 1930's Hollywood version of Emily Bronte's Gothic Romance, it may come as a surprise that Luis Bunuel's 1954 version, set on a desert hacienda, is refreshingly free of the kind of pomp and hushed tones which can foredoom a film of a famous literary work. It stands as a work on its own and is perhaps best approached without reference to other films versions or the novel itself. Once one does reference those other texts Bunuel's personal involvement becomes the crux of the issue.


It's simply the story of a propriety stomping, foaming-at-the-mouth madman, Alejandro, and how he manages to destroy both himself and Catalina, the women he loves. Bunuel, as a lifelong surrealist and anarchist, stripped the story to its biological essentials: love is reduced to a sexual dysfunction.
The local landlord (Archibaldo Cruz himself, Ernesto Alonso) is obsessed with insects while neglecting his sexually frustrated wife, Catalina (Irasema Dilian). He can be seen as a convulsive masochist who unconsciously wants Alejandro (Jorge Mistral) to hurt her and to make it as painful as possible. Alejandro, being a sadist programmed by bourgeois rejection, wishes her to burn forever in Hell. They don't, and can't, make love stories like this anymore. And the roots are there in Emily Bronte's text. Bunuel opens his adaptation with a shot contemplating the tangled roots of tree somewhere in the Mexican desert. Nature's roots mimic the psychological roots of human behavior.


Bunuel goes his own way, and it's the way of madness. Alejandro is not unlike Bunuel's equally crazy protagonist in his once scandalous L'AGE D' OR, which was banned by the French police during its 1930 theatrical run. In that film the antihero goes out of his way to kick a blind man, the classic symbol of helplessness. In ABISMOS DE PASION Alejandro is a home invader and tomb violator. Born to be Bad. He twice burst into Catalina's well ordered home by crashing through double window casements. He's an unstoppable force of nature. Like the wind driven rain which drenches much of the film's action. It's no accident that most of the action seems to unfold within the collective unconscious of this cast of characters. The narration itself is deliberately unreliable.

 The setting, with its pitiless desert vistas dotted by stark cacti, evokes another genre, the Western. The rough justice meted out to Alejandro as he acts out his necrophiliac obsession looks ahead to images in another film dealing with obsession and death in Mexico, the odd Western/ Noir/Horror film composite, Sam Peckinpah's BRINGME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974), another tale of below the border Mad Love which dooms the lovers. Catalina's ineffectual husband, as played by the Ernesto Alonso, the perverse protagonist of Bunuel's 1955 ENSAYO DE UN CRIMEN, is the ultimate smug, owning class prig. Concentrated on collecting and sticking pins into his insects, he is subtly nudged out of the compositions so that only the odd close-up of his quivering hand sticking another butterfly into his glass cases acts as a reminder that he's there to essentially perform the same function on his neurotic wife.

The film opens with images of gnarled roots over which the credits unfold, as if to illustrate that this will be an examination of the roots of sexual dysfunction. The the next shot shows birds being blown off the branches of a tall tree by blasts from Catalina's shotgun, her weapon of choice. The image of the gun toting heroine blurs her sexuality. Her masculine side expresses itself in violence just as her husband's feminine side finds expression in his sedentary hobby of decorating the villa with cabinets of pinned insects. In the midst of all this, Alejandro, who prefers to enter the villa bursting through windows rather than walking through doors, can be understood as a viable alternative for Catalina. The fact that they are from two different classes and that their bond was sealed in childhood makes their relationship a socially subversive act resulting from the developmental stage. Class boundaries are there to be broken in Bunuel's films.



Bunuel plays the action in long shots which coolly analyze the symbolic nature of the drama, or shall we say Mexican Melodrama. For example, the necropolis where Catalina is buried is photographed from the same angle as the villa and the nearby workers quarters. Life, Work and the Tomb are all given equal value. The roots in the opening image and the final shot of the metal doors clanging down effectively frame the director's "to-the-earth-we-will-return" overview. Bunuel orchestrates his grim mise-en-scene as an extremely scaled down black and white [Wagner] opera, and it's no coincidence that he has chosen cues from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" as an ironic musical commentary (cf. L'AGE D'OR). And in Bunuel's film text Catalina can be read as a 19th Century Feminist, forthright, living her life on her preferred emotional playing field, sharing love with two inferior men and asserting herself within a subservient role while trapped in a sick body. She is never a victim, although she may be a femme fatale.



ABISMOS DE PASION is no masterwork. It's not in the same league, for instance, as the searing LOS OLVIDADOS (1950). The tone is uncertain at times and the acting ranges from acceptable to mediocre. Irasema Dilian and Jorge Mistral are essentially miscast as Cathy/Catalina and Heathcliff/Alejandro, but the film still works despite that seemingly fatal flaw. Actually, their somewhat awkward performances sometimes telegraph the out-of-control L'Amour Fou within their characters. It's Bunuel working with a text in which the Surrealists found a compelling spirit (he collaborated on a shooting script in 1931) and he has remained faithful to that spirit and to himself. It's possible for someone to know nothing about Luis Bunuel and his career and still enjoy the film as a Latino retelling of Bronte's popular classic. The signature Bunuel wicked humor is there, but one must read against the grain to fully appreciate it. A fascinating example of how Bunuel, the culture jumping auteur, can adapt a well known literary work from another culture and make a personal film out of it.

The above review is my contribution to the Bunuel Blogathon at www.flickhead.blogspot.com/

(C) Robert Monell, 2018 renewed.




10 comments:

Cinebeats said...

Great review Robert! I haven't seen this film or read much about it before, but it sounds fascinating and now I really want to see it myself. I'm fascinated with the way Bunuel explores masochism in his films. It's as if he has these deeply sexual and passionate ideas which are often conflicting with his Catholic guilt. I think the mix confuses critics a lot. They want to see him as a moralist, but I don't see him that way myself any more than I see de Sade as a moralist. Not to say that Bunuel doesn't moralize in his films, because he often does, but there's some conflict there and a complexity that I think goes right over a lot of critics heads.

Joe D said...

Excellent, thoughtful review of a lesser known Bunuel film. I saw it many years ago and once again the most memorable part for me is the ending. A classic meeting of Love and Death.

Robert Monell said...

Cinebeats: I think your comments on the Sadean knfluence are right on. In fact, I would say Sade is his primary influence from his first to last film. Like Sade, he critiques and satirizes all social systems and is for absolute freedom. The masochism of Catalina and Severine are very similar and the men they are attracted to are also very similar. Thanks for pointing out a link between ABISMOS DE PASION and BELLE DE JOUR which I hadn't realized before.

Robert Monell said...

Joe d: thanks for your comments on the review. I think this film tends to get overlooked because the 1939 Hollywood version is out there. But Bunuel's is more interesting to me. The ending is really delirious, as you point out.

Cinebeats said...

Robert - When I first started formulating ideas in my head about what I wanted to write for the Bunuel Blog-a-thon I had an article in mind with the title "The Critical Castration of Bunuel" and I really wanted to delve deeper into all the sexual/erotic themes in many of his films that seem to often be overlooked by a lot of critics, but time constraints and access sort of got in my way. I know de Sade was a huge influence on Bunuel, but I'm not sure why it's been sort of pushed aside over the years. It bugs me that modern critics seem to want to strip Surrealism in general of its more transgressive/sexual overtones and themes and Bunuel's work is no exception. It seems that ABISMOS DE PASION is hard to find, but I hope I can see it sometime. I did a little searching for it online, but I haven't had any luck yet.

Robert Monell said...

Cinebeats: Bunuel is my favorite director. He worked his sexual fetishism and Sadean subtext into numerous genres: documentary (LAS HURDES), musical (GRAN CASINO), adventure (LA MORT EN JARDIN), allegory (NAZARIN), rural comedy (SUBIDA EL CIELO), erotic melodrama (BELLE DE JOUR) and the drawing room comedy (THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOUSIE), to name a few. Bunuel defies criticism in a way. It's difficult to explain and analyze them. EL (1952) one of my favorites, seems to be a comedy but is also a tragedy of sorts. It's hard to pin down. I was going to review FEVER MOUNTS IN EL PAO
, but I couldn't get a handle on it. It self destructs like the final image of his final film. He cooly observes people destroying themselves. It's very unnerving tow watch.

ABISMOS DE PASION was released as a prerecord VHS in the 1980s by MEDIA HOME ENTERTAINMENT's CINEMATEQUE COLLECTION. You may be able to find one.

Brian said...

A terrific piece, Robert. I noticed its appearance while midway through writing my own piece on the film, and though I essentially agree with you that this film is "perhaps best approached without reference to other films versions or the novel itself," I stuck with my reference-heavy approach in part because you've written something that seems close to definitive from the non-referential approach. I've really enjoyed the breadth of diversity on similar subjects (whether individual films or other topics such as the Buñuel martini) in this Blog-a-Thon.

Cinebeats, I viewed this film from one of Le Video's two VHS copies. Perhaps there's a video store on your side of the bridge with a copy as well?

Robert Monell said...

Thanks for your kind words about my review, Brian. I did read the novel years ago and Bunuel catches all the nuances and themes in his own fashion. I've never seen the Hollywood version all the way through, just the opening scenes.
Fascinating film. I'll read your review.

Flickhead said...

An excellent piece, Robert. It took me a while to get to read it because of all the activity in the blogathon, but I'm glad I did. It makes an interesting companion piece to Brian's at Hell on Frisco Bay.

Many thanks for joining the blogathon!

Robert Monell said...

And thank you for the Bunuelathon, FLickhead. Shouldn't there be a Criterion edition of LOS OLVIDADOS?