THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)
The transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it.
– Georges Bataille (63)
Narrative Structure. Luis Buñuel’s penultimate film The Phantom of Liberty (Le Fantôme de la liberté, 1974) shares its episodic narrative structure with several other late-period works, such as The Milky Way and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Unlike these films, however, Phantom contains no main characters with whom to identify and who serve to guide the viewer through the picaresque contrivances of the plot. Linda Williams has noted “the radically metonymic structure of this perpetually suspended and interrupted nonnarrative” (Williams, 155). Rather than the linearity of traditional narrative dramaturgy (with its pitched modulations of rising and falling action), the film’s episodes form a metonymic chain, a series of displacements, where contiguity or proximity between characters leads the narrative along a seemingly random pathway, following a certain character only so long, before introducing a minor character who thereafter veers off to momentarily take center stage for an episode or two, and who is then in turn replaced by another minor character.
This strategy of disruptive or disjunctive narrative episodes serves an “anti-aesthetic” purpose (an intentional act, as the co-author admits in the introduction to the DVD): to frustrate the viewer by rendering impossible identification with any one character; further frustration arises from the narrative’s refusal to offer any form of “closure” or resolution (except, as we will see, in two instances, where the proffered resolutions may strike the viewer as perversely anticlimactic).
Title. Buñuel humorously claimed that the title stems “from a collaboration between Marx and I. The first line of the Communist Manifesto reads ‘A phantom travels over Europe…,’ etc. For my part, I see liberty as a ghost we try to grasp” (Turrent Perez, 216). The standard English translation opens: “A specter is haunting Europe”. The German word used by Marx (Gespenster) and translated into English as “specter” is rendered into French by fantôme. The metaphorical equation of liberty with a ghost or phantom emphasizes its idealized and, for Buñuel, unrealizable function. By extension, it might additionally allow inquiry into the psychological and social conditions necessary for a particular subject to grasp for liberty or react against enslavement (as we will see in the opening segment).
Authority and Transgression. The entirety of the film therefore can be subsumed under a single binary opposition – authority and transgression – a topic which is later addressed within the mise-en-scene of the film during the Professor’s lecture to the Police Academy on “the dialectic between what the Professor calls ‘loi et délit’ (law and transgression)” (Williams, 175), quite possibly a direct reference to Bataille’s work on eroticism and transgression. Whereas antithetical oppositions typically lead to synthesis in a dialectical relationship, Buñuel rigorously maintains their opposition, treating each term as necessary and irreducible, an ambivalent formulation which he refuses to synthesize. As he states in his autobiography, the film “evoke[s] the search for the truth, as well as the necessity of abandoning it as soon as you’ve found it…[and] the implacable nature of social rituals” (Buñuel, 249). Truth and its abandonment homologize with freedom and slavery, terms in an unresolved antithesis.
Segment One: Toledo, Spain, 1808
Third of May, 1808. The film opens with a reproduction of Goya’s painting, over which gunshots and cries of pain can be heard. In the painting, the presumptive forces of authority (French troops acting as firing squad) are depicted in spatial opposition to individual figures of transgression (the doomed members of the uprising). The gesture of the primary Spanish figure (the focal point of the painting) is, however, ambiguous – does it signify a plea for clemency or resignation to his fate?
The painting serves as a kind of leitmotiv – its relevance reinforced by subsequent appearances within the mise-en-scene of the film, during scenes set in the Prefect of Police’s office (Segments 14 and 16), where it can be seen adorning the wall. The original canvas, which is massive, some 9 feet by 11 feet, currently hangs in the Museo Prado. It was not completed until 1814, after Napoleon’s final defeat and exile; Goya intended the painting as a retroactive celebration of Spanish defiance in the face of tyranny and destruction. But are things so clear cut? “The Napoleonic army typically represents the forces of liberty, while the Spanish loyalists typically represent the tyranny of king and church; yet in this case the presumed forces of liberty…oppress the presumed forces of tyranny” (Williams, 158). Although the binarism is maintained, there is a slippage, as there is throughout the film – within each segment or sequence (see the attached structural breakdown), the authority figure is subsequently revealed as transgressor.
Becquer’s El Beso (“The Kiss”). Now a superimposed text (in French) appears across the screen in blood-red letters, informing the viewer that the opening of the film, set during the occupation of Spain by Napoleonic troops (and thus serving as an precise ekphrasis, description or enactment, of the Goya painting), is “inspired by a story by Gustavo A[dolpho] Becquer, the Spanish Romantic poet”. The story, El Beso (“The Kiss”), by this mid-19th century writer of fantastic tales and legends, forms only a partial basis for the opening scene. As we will see, Buñuel weaves several significant alterations into the fabric of Becquer’s story.
The hybridization of media – combining painting and literature – becomes ironically problematized through further conflations later in the scene, between the modalities of history and narrative. There is as well a tension between the two cultures, a tension depicted both within the scene and by the international nature of the co-production – a film backed by French producers, filmed by a Spanish director, who cowrote the scenario with a French screenwriter, and which begins by portraying the French as imperialistic and tyrannical. A further sign of Buñuel’s profound ambivalence toward French history and culture? Other films (Milky Way, Discreet Charm) would suggest similar mixed feelings.
“Down with Liberty!”. During the execution scene a Spanish aristocrat, up against the wall with wounded partisans and, by all appearances, a Carmelite monk (played by Buñuel himself), shouts “Vivan las caenas!” (“Long live chains!”), which the French subtitles translate as “A bas la liberté!” (“Down with liberty!”). The linguistic ambiguity translates a fundamental relationship, as we have seen, between authority and transgression. “Chains” stands in as a metonym for enslavement and imprisonment. Futhermore, Buñuel alleges, “[It] was really shouted [at that time]…They preferred the monarchy’s chains to the human rights and liberty the French Revolution offered them” (Turrent Perez, 216). This conflation of the modalities of narrative and history – an ambiguity emphasized in many languages by their synonymity – once again calls into question the film’s narrative transparency. Already, within the first minutes of its running time, the viewer has been given distinct indications that the subsequent film will not obey any classical unities or emulate the “discreet charm” of conventional narrative.
As stated earlier, the Becquer short story serves only as partial inspiration for this segment. The executions have no real presence in Becquer’s story; at most they may be mentioned in an aside to add “local color”. Now, taking back up with Becquer, the scene shifts (a gunshot serving as acoustic bridge between the shots) to French soldiers carousing, drinking and singing, bivouacked in a Catholic church. This scene duplicates the centerpiece of Becquer’s story, while compressing the action by eliminating almost all its dialogue and character motivation.
Profanophanies. Buñuel also adds further details to play up the transgressive nature of French blasphemies through a particular sort of symbolic inversion. Traversing the space from nave to altar, the Captain approaches the tabernacle, setting his wine goblet down alongside it. Nonchalantly, he opens its doors and withdraws the Eucharistic host, which he proceeds to munch on, offering them also to his second-in-command. These actions comprise an inversion of the rite of Communion. The direction of the Captain’s movements and his profane (because appetitive) intentions mark it as an incursion or eruption of the profane into the taboo realm of the sacred. Bruce Lincoln defines a profanophany as “a revelation of the profanity, temporality and corruption inherent to someone or something” (Lincoln, 125). As the Captain continues his desecratory rampage, approaching the funerary statues of a knight and his lady, positioned near the altarpiece, these themes of profanity and corruption are literalized within the film’s mis-en-scene.
The Becquer story portrays the Captains’s desire as the urge to transmute, through the alchemy of his erotic advances, the lady’s statue into “flesh and blood,” while Buñuel plays up the blasphemous nature of his caress; it is a mockery, matched in intention by the French helmet placed on the knight’s head. Whereas the short story ends with the knight’s attack (which in the story kills the blasphemous Captain), Buñuel prolongs the narrative, detailing the Captain’s revenge upon the knight and his lady, Doña Elvira, by exhuming her corpse with the express intention of defilement through necrophilia.
The Image Strikes Back. The eroticized use of his wife’s funerary statue as a object of despoilation prompts the knight’s blow, a literal throwing down of the gauntlet. Buñuel depicts this violent reciprocity between image and interlocutor with the prototypical “black humor” of his Surrealism. Throughout his career, Buñuel has portrayed an“interactive” relationship between characters and art objects, especially statuary. (One thinks, in particular, of the “heroine” of L’Age d’Or sucking on a statue’s toe as an expression of erotic frustration, a theme not irrelevant to this scene). Such fetishized and transgressive behavior is a far cry from the reciprocally beneficial relationship established by the Hindu concept of darshan.
Abjection and the Monstruous-Feminine. The vendetta between knight and Captain continues to escalate. Blasphemy mounts to desecration. In a classically Freudian moment, the Captain places his unsheathed sword, which has just pried open the lady’s coffin, into the arms of the knight’s statue. The sword presents a polyvalent metaphor – standing in for the phallus, symbol of patriarchal law and order, as well as the “tool” of the Captain’s trade. The coffin represents the womb-tomb, the primordial feminine. The Captain’s attempt at defilement works on two levels: on the one hand, he seeks some kind of pre-Oedipal return to what Julia Kristeva terms the “semiotic” space of “maternal authority” (Kristeva, 72), which precedes the symbolic order of patriarchy and law. However, on the other, the woman’s body – especially the mother’s – represents what she calls “the abject…[that which] disturbs identity, order, system” (Kristeva, 4) and which Barbara Creed, adapting Kristeva for her own analyses, calls the “monstrous-feminine”: “the sight of the Medusa…the mother’s genitalia…the monstruous-feminine as constructed within/by patriarchal and phallocentric ideology” (Creed, 68). The dual register of this moment – attraction and repulsion – perfectly exemplifies the concept of ambivalence: “Abjection is above all ambiguity” (Kristeva, 9), and it is “rooted historically (in the history of religions) and subjectively (in the structuration of the subject’s identity), in the cathexis [investment] of maternal function” (Kristeva, 91).
Abjection and Corpses. Moreover, as Creed argues, “The ultimate in abjection is the corpse…the body without a soul…As a form of waste it represents the opposite of the spiritual, [or] the religious symbolic” (Creed, 70). “This is precisely where we encounter rituals of defilement, which…based on the feeling of abjection and…converging on the maternal, attempt to symbolize the…threat to the subject: that of being swamped…The function of these religious rituals is to ward off the subject’s fear of his very own identity sinking irretrievably into the mother” (Kristeva, 64). The corpse of the lady Elvira, a semiotic stand-in for the maternal body, presents a profoundly ambivalent object of desire – at once the shelter of infantile regression to the womb and the horror of the abject, the monstruous.
Coitus Interruptus. Consequently, it might come as no surprise that the Captain finds himself ultimately arrested in his necrophile advances; however, the mechanism of his disturbance – the perfect preservation of the lady Elvira’s corpse – does serve as a moment of Surreal disjunction. “From a theological perspective…bodily corruption is less a natural process than a moral one, for decay is the final physical result of a sinful (i.e., ‘corrupt’) life…[T]he absence of corruption correlates with and, by implication, signifies the presence of sainthood” (Lincoln, 125). Thus the forces of Revolution (and atheism) find themselves thwarted by the corporeal manifestation of Catholic sanctity – another of Buñuel’s characteristic ironies, evidence of his systematic psychological and philosophical ambivalence, which can be homologized as the following series of binary oppositions: Spain/France, Catholic/atheist, nationalist/imperialist, pure/impure, sanctified/corrupt. Oppression (socio-political) goes hand-in-hand with (psychosexual) repression.
Narrative Intrusion. At the cliffhanger moment of postmortem revelation, when the entire “thrust” of the episode hangs in the balance, a woman’s voice intrudes upon and then interrupts the narrative, thereby linking the Captain’s (erotic) frustration with the viewer’s (narrative) exasperation. The next shot reveals the new narrator – not this time the “authority” of seemingly objective text, but the all-too-human voice – to be a character within the film’s mise-en-scene, one of a pair of nannies sitting on a park bench.
Paraphernalia and Property. She reads from an old, leather-bound edition and stumbles over an unfamiliar phrase – “repugnant paraphernalia”. The unfamiliar has doubly intruded here – upon the narrative and upon the character – halting both. The first nanny tries to guess the meaning from its context. Could it be “sweet-smelling herbs” or “a rosary” – both traditional implements in Catholic ritual usage? The word turns out to have a meaning that is at once very specific and semantically ambiguous.
Indeed, the unfamiliar intruder has its own double or “wider” meaning – narrowly, “It’s a legal term for the personal property of a married woman. But in English, the word ‘paraphernalia’ has a much broader meaning. It refers to any accoutrements, belongings, personal items, even fishing gear or a sewing kit” (00:05:35-00:05:52). The sewing kit is mentioned while the second nanny sits doing needlepoint – sewing and needles both standing in metaphorically for (and harkening back to) the Captain’s phallic sword.
Why is the lady Elvira’s paraphernalia characterized as “repugnant”? What about her “property” betrays traces of the abject? “Maternal authority is trustee of the mapping of the self’s clean and proper body. It is distinguished from paternal laws within which, with the phallic phase and the acquisition of language, the destiny of man will take shape” (Kristeva, 72). Kristeva sets the semiotic over against the symbolic – traces of the maternal pre-linguistic against the patriarchal system of language and signification. This scene, however, reveals a slippage – the symbolic discourse of (the) narrative is put into the mouth of one woman, and then formal, legalistic discourse is put into the other’s. The specter or phantom of the Captain (simultaneously authority figure and transgressor) seems to have possessed these women, leading to an undermining of gender roles – as the Captain seeks to return to the semiotic, maternal realm, the nannies usurp the discourse of the Father. As well shall see, nothing within the film remains stable for long.
Ambiguity (ambivalence, abjection) holds sway.
Segment 6: The Road to Argenton
Segue. To situate the reader, this segment takes place at the end of M. Foucauld’s visit to the doctor (Segment 5 in the analysis). The nurse interrupts the consulation, informing her employer that she has just received a letter (which mirrors the one Foucauld offers as “evidence” for his dream visitations) informing her that her father is gravely ill and she must go to him. She asks the doctor for leave, which he hesitantly grants, reminding her how busy they are. Alone in an examining room, she begins to change out of her nurse’s uniform, and the shot ends via a wipe transition to the next scene. Seemingly a meaningless moment, slight filler between episodes, this brief scene initiates the theme of dressing (and undressing), linked as it is to the wider theme of opening/closing (and veiling/unveiling), developed throughout the following segment.
Wipes and Transitions. The wipe transition is followed by a shot of the nurse, now dressed in trenchcoat and beret, behind the wheel of her car. The wipe is doubled by the action of the car’s windshield wipers. Buñuel plays with the uses of transition, as he has throughout the film, sometimes by employing subtle dislocations of time and space, at other times (as here) through a reflexive acknowledgement of editing conventions.
Army Maneuvers and Foxes. On the road to Argenton, the nurse encounters a group of soldiers in a tank. Their leader inquires whether she has seen any foxes along the way. The incongruity of soldiers hunting foxes while on maneuvers may seem jarring. Structurally, however, the episode is essential: the soldier informs the nurse that owing to a landslide the road is blocked and she must make a detour. The soldier’s repeated “Let’s go!” (A route!) signifies purpose and destination but it is a moot point, as the soldiers drive off, never to be seen again, and the nurse’s destination is diverted. As we have seen, the detour or divigation serves as Buñuel’s fundamental narrative building-block, a link in the “metonymic chain” and to his conception of the picaresque nature of the film. Typically, the expectation of linearity – the journey to the seriously-ill father – becomes thwarted and remains, by the time we part company with the nurse, completely unresolved. Additionally, this brief episode establishes another motif, concering the hunted fox, which will put in an appearance at the end of the following segment.
Segment 7: The Isolated Inn
Detour and Deferral. The detour leads to an indefinite postponement, as the nurse has to pull over for the night at a rural inn. This extended segment forms the centerpiece of the film – lasting, as it does, nearly half an hour, in film whose total running time is only about 100 minutes – and provides not only the organizing or root metaphor for the film in its entirety (a hallway with its opening and closing doors), but the fullest working out of its major themes (chance or coincidence, profanation and the sacred) as well.
The Disease of our Times. While waiting for the innkeeper to prepare a simple repast of fruit and milk, the nurse warms herself before the hearth, where she joins a group of Carmelite monks, also stranded by the inclement weather. One of the monks exclaims, “What hellish weather!” – thereby linking the sacred and the profane in a discordant key, a theme submitted to a variety of variations throughout the episode.
As one of their number informs her, the monks represent the nearby Monastery of Saint Joseph. Inquring after her sick father, and finding out that his heart troubles him, one monk replies, “The disease of our times. The bustle, the anxiety, the traveling.” However, this proves not to be the case, as the nurse informs him: her father, a simple farmer, exists disconnected from modernity (and its metonyms: daily papers and the telephone) and never travels. Another monk chimes in, “If everyone prayed to St. Joseph and spent 30 minutes a day in meditation, we’d all be perfectly relaxed.” As the first monk’s diagnosis proved incorrect, we are led to wonder about the latter’s. Their authority – linked to the efficacy of prayer and the intercessory power of the saints, signals a misprision or misrecognition, and represents another caesura between the sacred and the profane.
Set and Setting. The innkeeper leads the nurse upstairs, where she begins to unpack and, going to the window, closes the curtains against the “infernal” weather outside – another iteration of the open/closed theme played on throughout the episode. Beginning with this brief linking scene we can discern the main setpiece of this segment: a long hallway, with stairs in the foreground and background, and lined on both sides with closed doors – as we have said, it is a metaphor for the entire film with its open or closed doors revealing (or concealing) the interiors of other dramas, offering chances for subsidiary narratives, most of which remain untold. Later in the episode, the storm intensifies and all the lights in the inn go out, lending a dark and uncanny air to the set and giving Buñuel an opportunity to indulge in the sort of Gothic ambience he has employed in other films (his Wuthering Heights adaptation, in particular).
Flamenco and the French. The monks come upstairs and disperse to their various rooms. We follow one monk as he comes back out into the hallway, heading for the common WC, which turns out to be occupied. He returns to his room; the WC door opens and a Spanish flamenco dancer emerges. The camera follows her down the hallway to her room, its open door giving us a glimpse of her roommate: a man with a guitar. He strums his instrument and the woman dances, stomping her feet and clapping in time to the music. After a few moments, a man dressed in a business suit (who we later learn is a hatter from Nîmes named Jean Bermans) comes out of his room, crosses the hall and, with evident disapproval, slams the door on their “racket”. Doubtless, this throwaway gag can be attributed to Buñuel’s concern to highlight cultural tensions between the two countries, as we have seen in earlier episodes.
This scene ends with further movements of the monks going about their evening “rituals,” the camera tracking and panning along with their movements, ending with the eldest monk going into the WC, which we can clearly make out is marked LAVABO, while another exits his room carrying a large wooden box. He knocks on the door of the nurse’s room.
Lavabo. The use of this term is illustrative, a further link (or caesura) between the sacred and the profane. In secular usage, it is not altogether incongruous, meaning nothing more than a sink or washroom. However, its primary usage remains ecclesiastical and liturgical. Meaning “I shall wash” in Latin (deriving from a verse in Psalms 26:6, translated in the NRSV as “I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O Lord”), the term refers to the pitcher and bowl used by the celebrant prior to the Mass in order to ensure ritual purity. Notions of sanctity and purity suggested here, and by the presence of the effigy in the next scene, are consequently linked to their obverse: ritualized profanation.
Effigy and Image. The monk, Father Gabriel, stands with his effigy box outside her door, while within we briefly see the nurse changing into her nightgown – a quick medium close-up as the gown slides down over her panties, another illustration of the veiling/unveiling motif and (noting that the term pudendum establishes an etymological link to “that which causes shame”) providing a thesis soon answered by the antithesis of the effigy box, with its open doors revealing the “miraculous power” of Saint Joseph.
Entering the room, Father Gabriel holds aloft his wooden box and inquires, “Do you know what this is?” The nurse replies, “Yes, it’s an image.” Father Gabriel amplifies, “A miraculous image of St. Joseph. It can have surprising effects on the sick…Faith can sometimes triumph where science has failed.” Thus Father Gabriel sets faith against science – traditional adversaries since, at least, the period of the Enlightenment. However, we will soon find out that these claims to miraculous power are a bit exaggerated.
He tells her a brief anecdote about the monks’ recent visit to an aristocratic woman who was at death’s door. After exposure to the effigy and monastic prayer, he says, “when we left the chateau…” “She was healed?” the nurse asks hopefully. “She felt a little better,” Father Gabriel finishes, as if this were precisely the desired effect. Nevertheless, whether such slight amelioration constitutes faith’s triumph over science remains to be seen. As he recounts this anecdote, Father Gabriel opens the doors of the effigy box, revealing a small statue of the saint holding the baby Jesus and flanked by votive candles – delineating the purview of the saint’s powers and abilities and establishing himself as his rightful intermediary.
Cards and Gambling. Casting about her room, Father Gabriel notices a park of cards and asks whether she plays. Only solitaire when she’s alone, the nurse replies. (The French use the British term patience). The juxtaposition of this and the following scene provides an equation: solitude equals solitaire; its obverse, group play, equals poker. Solitaire consists, at base, in nothing more than sorting out the deck and constitutes (literally) playing with one’s self. Group play entails wagering and demands the establishment of agreed-upon equivalences; as we shall see, in this case, the “proper” value of religious medals and scapulars.
Sorrowful Mysteries. As it turns out, Father Gabriel has taken the liberty of inviting the other monks to the nurse’s room for group prayer, an intercession for her gravely ill father. Passing out of the realm of one authority (the doctor), on the way to another (the father), the nurse comes under the jurisdiction of a third (the monks). The (absent) Father – the individual – is metonymically replaced by a group of Fathers – a corporation; authority and the sacred function as a sort of feedback loop or cybernetic circuit.
Father Gabriel lights the votive candles, while another monk offers the nurse a rosary. Everyone kneels for prayer. Genuflection signifies subjection. The monks mediate between the laity and the sanctified; the saint mediates between the profane and the sacred; in each case, the proper order is subjection to the higher link on the Great Chain of Being. Nevertheless, there is another significance to the use of the rosary and scapular.
Marian apparitions to the faithful, such as the one at Our Lady of Fatima in 1917, have provided the rationale for the valorization of these items beyond the level accorded to other ritual and meditative implements. By all accounts, in this series of appearances, the Virgin referred to herself as “Lady of the Rosary” and was seen to hold aloft a rosary and scapular. (One of the most popular scapulars is that of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and so establishes a link here to the Carmelite order)
However, this “maternal authority” (additionally represented by the nurse in her capacity as caregiver) has been displaced onto the patriarchal, as exemplified by St. Joseph and the monks. Further indication of this displacement is brought out by the precedence, in the telling of the rosary, of the “Our Father” to the “Hail Mary”, even where the maternal should predominate. This usurpation of gender roles (as we have seen, a recurring theme) leads shortly from the appearance of the sacred to another profanophany.
Virgins and Sacred Hearts. As the group recites the rosary, the camera slowly zooms in on the open effigy box. Then, with a cut and change in angle, we see the closed effigy and extinguished candles. We can hear the clinking of metal, and the dialogue (rendered only by disembodied voices) reveals a game in progress: “I’m in…Raise you 10…Pass…I’ll see you and raise you a scapular.”
The next shot shows us a small round table around which a group is seated, with piles of medals and scapulars in front of the players (as well as in the pot), glasses of liquor, smoking cigarettes. In fact, the haze that preceded this shot, and which seemed to arise from the candles, can now be seen to have come from the gamblers. A wider shot shows us that the players are the four monks and the nurse; the innkeeper looks on.
Further discussion between them establishes the relative value (for bidding) of a Virgin or a Sacred Heart medallion, as well as the scapular (the most valuable). One of the monks says, “I’ll open with a virgin.” Intended as a (morally dubious) double entendre, the phrase refers not only to the theme of opening or revealing, but establishes the “exchange rate” of the female body, and draws attention to the focus of the upcoming scene – which concerns the “opening up” of a (literal, embodied) virgin, in a ritualized transgression of the incest taboo.
Father Gabriel leans in to the nurse (whether conspiratorially or amorously, it is hard to say), before catching himself and inquiring after her father. Was he ever in the colonies? (A seemingly inscrutable remark, it returns in later conversation, where its connotations become clearer). Then he launches on an unrelated anecdote about a “pious lady who used to visit us” while her husband was away serving in the army. The monk, we can guess, wonders whether the nurse will replace the lady whose “piety” is clearly code for some other quality, presumably promiscuity. So the question of exchange, as well as the continued blurring of the line between piety and profanity, closes out the scene.
Late Arrivals. In the next scene, we witness the arrival of some late guests – a young man and an older woman, dressed entirely in black and wearing dark glasses – and follow them to their room. It is the scene of a typically French seduction and, even though we mark the age difference between the couple, we may not think much of it at this point.
“Alea jacta est.” Once they are alone, the young man removes a flask from his bag for a quick tipple. Turning to the woman, he declares, “Alea jacta est.” What does that mean, she asks. Only that it’s wonderful to finally be alone together, the young man replies.
The Latin phrase (whose literal meaning is “the die has been cast,” though it has come more generally to indicate a point of no return) comes from Suetonius’ account of the life of Julius Caesar, spoken as he led his troops across the Rubicon and into certain civil war. The young man, François, refers to the beginning of his intended seduction. Whereas the literal translation of alea as dice has a secondary significance, referring to the aleatory or chance (le hasard), a term used later by Jean Bermans, whom we have already encountered.
Seduction. In the course of this halting seduction, with the older woman continually fleeing or pulling away from the young man, we slowly discern the true nature of their relationship. They are in fact aunt and nephew, giving their rendezvous (and the proposed assignation) ominous shades of the taboo, the incestuous. What has brought them together?
The young man declares that it is something he has long desired and, for her part, the aunt admits that she can deny him nothing. Erotic compulsion holds sway. Given this troublesome situation, the aunt asks, “But how can we avoid lying?” Are they only lying to others? Are they not, at some level and for some inscrutable reason, lying to themselves?
“All my life, I’ve felt you close to me,” François declares. “When I think of a woman, it’s always you I see.” The subtle suggestion is that the aunt may not actually be the true object of his desire; her role as Everywoman establishes her as a type, and later events will confirm the fact that (following the dream-work of displacement or metonymy) the aunt substitutes for the absent mother. Much like the Captain in the first segment, François desires an impossibility – that ultimate ambivalence: possession of the maternal body – and when he is denied, his urges easily shift to the destructive.
Narrative Seduction. The seduction continues with (as) a story: One Holy Thursday, “sitting side by side in the church’s dim light” their hands touched for the first time, their fingers entwined, they gazed at each other – note that these are mutual gestures, emphasized by the narrative switchback (he tells a piece, she tells a piece) – and then they kissed. As their story unfolds, events in the film’s present tense duplicate the details of their tale (they touch, they kiss): they are (re)enacting their initial passion. Seduction becomes a ritual, fetishized and dramatized.
Note also that a sacred space provides the initial stage for these incestuous urges. The boundary between sacred and profane is transgressed in the same moment as the one between proper familial relations. As the tale ends with “We couldn’t help ourselves,” they kiss passionately and sink onto the couch in a moment of l’amour fou, a notion of “mad love” or uncontrollable passion much admired by the Surrealists (and exemplified by a work such as Wuthering Heights, both the Bronté book and Buñuel’s film version, whose Gothic mise-en-scene seems doubled at times during this episode).
But the course of true love never did run smooth. The aunt balks and pulls away. The nephew pursues, vowing not to touch her, as “there’s one thing I want more than anything”: to see her naked. “Impossible,” she says, “I’ve never been naked in front of a man. No man has ever touched me.” The prospect of the impossible seems to arouse him; he attempts to tear her clothes off; but as she struggles, lightning strikes and the lights go out. He must proceed by candlelight.
Revelation and Profanation. The aunt’s virginity and the candle lighting echo the previous scene, as well as continue the theme of revelation/concealment (undressing/darkness) and profanation (the taboo virgin). Narrative developments also continue to thwart expectation, paralleling both viewer’s and character’s frustration. Now unveiling turns into ritual: the nephew must turn his back and avert his gaze. Quick shots of his reflection in a mirror suggest that like Orpheus he will “cheat” and look, but this too is thwarted. (Use of doubling in the mirror indicates that the nephew himself is conflicted, sundered by his desires).
As he waits, the aunt wonders about the family and “what they must be thinking at home”. The nephew feigns unconcern, going so far as to put his cigarette out into the face of a young woman in a picture on the wall. The girl represents the sort of youth and desirability the nephew seemingly holds in contempt, preferring the maturity of the maternal (or its stand-in, the maiden aunt).
S&M on Display. When he turns around at last, the aunt lies in bed, the sheet clutched up over her body. François tears the sheet away – an enforced revelation – to display precisely the sort of young, firm body the girl in the painting doubtlessly possessed. This revelation (evidence of whose miraculous power?) shocks François and prompts him to blow out the candles: the play of disclosure and concealment continues, exacerbating his already conflicting, contradictory urges – sadistic and masochistic, to possess and to destroy, echoing the Captain’s ambivalence toward the corpse of the lady Elvira. Not coincidentally, the male gaze (and voyeurism, the scopophile urge) has been linked, both by Freud and by subsequent Post-Freudian feminist critics, to sadistic urges.
The struggle continues. Finding his aunt covered back up, François tugs at the sheet and, when she threatens to scream, he slaps her and smothers her with a pillow. His urge has shifted from possession to destruction; however, it is easily exhausted and he abandons her, fleeing out into the hallway.
The Hatter from Nîmes. In the hallway, he encounters Jean Bermans coming up the stairs with a candle, who invites him to his room for some port, where he is introduced to Bermans’ “associate,” Miss Rosenblum. The conversation is polite and banal. Throughout following scenes, Bermans’ manners – his solicitude and penchant for formal introductions – are impeccable, serving ultimately as a sharp contrast to his self-abasement and degradation (in the penultimate scene).
Asked whether he is there alone, François significantly replies, “No, I’m with…my mother.” The lie reveals the truth: his mother is his true object of desire and his aunt merely a double, a stand-in.
A Gathering. Through another narrative contrivance (coincidence) – the nurse knocks on the door, looking for matches – the film gathers all its current crop of characters, save the innkeeper, together in Bermans’ room. When the nurse mentions she is there with “four gentlemen,” Bermans is intrigued (the vague impropriety, as we will see, appeals to his prurience), so he insists on inviting them all in for a glass of port.
The discovery that they are monks, rather than discouraging or dampening his enthusiasm, seems to please him. Their sanctity (authority) makes their involvement all the more appealing, for what he plans is nothing short of a public confession.
Celebrating Chance. The express purpose behind his intimate gathering: “We must celebrate the chance [le hasard] that brought us together.” In his autobiography, Buñuel discusses the importance of coincidence or chance (Buñuel, 249). In fact, he maintains that chance is one of his fundamental concerns – along with “the importance of personal morality” and “the essential mystery of all things” (ibid).
What appeal has chance for the practicing Surrealist? On the one hand, it harkens back to Breton’s early advocation of automatic writing (in the First Manifesto, especially) as a method for bypassing conscious censorship and attaining direct access to the unconscious. On the other hand – and in keeping with aleatory themes of dice and gambling – it is reminiscent of the famous poem by Stephane Mallarmé entitled “A throw of the dice will never abolish chance” (Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard). This prototypically Symbolist poem, first published in 1897 and printed in various-sized typefaces across consecutive two-page spreads, can be read in a number of different ways, depending on whether you follow traditional orthography along a linear trajectory, or whether you derive its meaning from semantic units grouped according to typeface (which, for instance, yields the poem’s title). In a similar vein, the Buñuel film can be read differently, in part depending on how you order its narrative units, or what I here call segments, for although it proceeds linearly, much of its significance arises from nonlinear associations and patterns.
Order of the Day. As the monks file into his room, Bermans asks the last, “You must be Dominicans?” The monk avers. “That’s a relief,” Bermans replies. Why? Presumably because the Dominican order – as, for example, Savonaroloa – are known for their severity in rooting out heresy. Bermans knows himself to be a transgressor and, while he desires that his performance be witnessed by the sanctified, he obviously does not want his punishment to exceed its proper bounds.
Colonial Life. Taking Bermans aside, Father Gabriel asks him – much as he inquired of the nurse about her father – whether he had ever been to the Belgian Congo. The colonial life, as suggested here, represents a loosening of “implacable social rituals” and offers the possibility (or threat) of “going native”. This cultural relativity occurs again in the following segment, where the Professor lectures his students (adult gendarmes who behave like children) about the social construction of societal norms and strictures, advising them to read Margaret Mead (“which we have in our library,” he adds).
Public and Private. Interrupting this discussion, Miss Rosenblum moves across the frame and we follow as she enters a lavatory, where she proceeds to strip to her underwear. Unlike the others (and for the ostensible purposes of his upcoming exhibition), Bermans has his own private bath. This “dialectic” of private and public –represented as well by hallway and private room – echoes that of revelation and concealment (dressing/undressing) and achieves its “resolution” in a public exhibition of sadomasochism, a private ritual usually kept “behind closed doors”.
“Sainthood isn’t like some badge”. Cutting from Miss Rosenblum’s striptease, we find the nurse involved in a conversation with the monks concerning the “disappearance” or dis-establishment of certain saints. Saints Christopher and George (and “some others”) are no longer considered saints, because “the church has become very strict about sainthood”. Won’t that be damaging to the faith? “On the contrary,” one of the monks replies, “it reinforces it.” “After all, sainthood isn’t like some badge.” Restriction and denial, the winnowing down of possibilities, according to these notions, reinforces the intensity or potency of belief.
In a brief shot, we see Miss Rosenblum, now dressed in a tight leather dress, garters and fishnet stockings and grasping a whip, cover up with a coat and go back out into the common room. After the following scene concerning Savonarola, we follow Bermans into the bathroom, where he changes into bottomless chaps, before also covering up with a dinner jacket. The intercutting between scenes reinforces the above-mentioned dialectic (and represents a recursive – scene within a scene – parallel to this entire section of the film).
Savonarola and the Little Flower. Back in the bedroom, conversation centers around Savonarola, that “illustrious Dominican” once tried and executed as a heretic, who has now been “completely rehabilitated” and soon “may even be sanctified”. Sanctity can be a unit of exchange like any other, and the Church trades in it on the common market of sainthood. Some are “invested” while others are divested or “disappear” – like Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, as the monks now claim. Because her parents may have suffered from a hereditary disease, she could be a candidate for desanctification and her basilica reduced to “a church like all the others”, especially as there has never been a miracle attributed to her, unlike at Lourdes.
The investment of sanctity and its withdrawal provides an “economy of the sacred” as well as a politics. It favors the disappearance of the “Little Way” (as the collection of Thérèse’s writings are known) championing private devotion and mystical experience, in favor of the consolidation of corporatized power (as exemplified by Savonarola).
S&M on Display (Redux). A voice now intrudes from offscreen: “Go on, beat me, you old slut,” accompanied by the sound of a cracking whip. M. Bermans’ “little impromptu” has turned into a public exhibition. His abasement (the declaration of his polluted nature; calling himself “foul”, “a swine”, “a leper” etc.) amounts to a public confession, and contrasts with – provides the antithesis to – his previous good manners and “hospitality”.
In shock and dismay, the assembled characters file out. Bermans’ last desperate cry “Let the monks stay, at least!” conflates the public, confessional nature of his personal paraphilia. As in the earlier episode, involving the French Captain, Buñuel insists on linking the transgressive to the “implacable social ritual”.
Seduction and Embers. The hurly-burly subsided, François returns to his room. Something has altered in his absence; his aunt now offers herself up to him, saying, “Do what you want with me!” Perhaps Bermans’ public display has loosened some heretofore repressed sexual energy in the place. But what, we may ask, will be the future of this forbidden love affair?
Buñuel lets us know in a quick cut to the embers of a dying fire. The fire provides a blatant metaphor for the couple’s desire. Indeed, it is an instance of cinematic shorthand. Witness the sheer number of seduction scenes (particularly in melodramas or so-called “women’s pictures”) that take place near a blazing hearth. Here, however, the fire is dying, its last embers glowing, whereas the expectation – given the ardor of the previous embrace – would be to see it in full flame.
Bringing the entire sequence full circle – and providing further evidence of the “domesticated” nature of their passion – the camera pans up to the mantel where it lingers on a stuffed fox (reminding us of the foxes mentioned by the soldiers in the first scene). The animal and the animate – life and its “lower substratum” of animalistic urges – are in recession.
This essay has undertaken an in-depth exploration of the structure and themes of the film, in order to examine in some detail how Buñuel deploys his “anti-aesthetic” tactics of interruption and frustration, using them to reinforce and amplify his larger thematic concerns. These concerns, which have been subsumed under the general binary opposition authority/transgression, receive no resolution or synthesis anywhere in the “metonymic chain” of the film; ambivalence, or ambiguity (in Kristeva’s sense of “the abject”), operates as an active force, delineating the relativity and irreducibility of the two terms.
Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death & Sensuality. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986.
Buñuel, Luis. My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Buñuel. New York: Knopf, 1983.
Creed, Barbara. “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” Horror, the Film Reader. Ed. Mark Jancovich. New York: Routledge, 2001. 67-76.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.
Lincoln, Bruce. Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual and Classification. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
Pérez Turrent, Tomás and José de la Colina. Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel. New York: Marsilio, 1992.