Luis Buñuel pioneered Surrealist cinema, becoming the filmmaker who most successfully achieved the movement’s goals of liberation from linear, logical narrative. Unlike many Surrealist films by other directors, such as Man Ray or Hans Richter, Buñuel is never “artsy” or stylized: there is an urgent, shocking, and visceral quality to his films – even at their most absurd moments. Buñuel went on to create harsh, unconventional realist films as well, but even in this mode his films contain startling juxtapositions of the real and the surreal. All of his major films, from Un Chien Andalou (1929) to That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), explore the torment and complexity of the human sexual need through uncompromising imagery. His films resist and criticize facile societal or religious solutions to the problems of human existence – his work at various times was derided with equal vehemence by the Catholic Church, Fascist Spain, and the Mexican Communist Party.
Surrealism broke new ground in literature through the practice of automatic writing, and in painting, it achieved startling but static dream-like images. Buñuel realized that the medium of film could go beyond painting and actually portray the disjointed visual narratives of human dreams in action. His first two Surrealist films capture the absence of moral filtering, the lack of will and logic that characterize the oneiric (dreaming) state, as if Buñuel had managed to place his camera inside actual dreams and record them.
Buñuel’s images of violence or cruelty are very successful at assaulting the viewer’s complaisance, destroying comforting assumptions about existence and reality, and awakening the most basic and hidden fears lodged in the subconscious mind.
His films provoke not only intellectual and emotional responses, but powerfully affect the viewer physically through repellent images of insects, bodily waste, decaying carcasses, amputation, and other shocking desecrations of human body parts. They involve and interact with the viewer in a way that is the hallmark of postmodernist art (many, many years later).