Wednesday, October 12, 2005

El (Bunuel, 1953)

With his darkly humorous film, El, Luis Bunuel bursts the bubble of obsessive romantic love as it is so often portrayed on film. Whether it is Titanic, The English Patient or The Graduate, cinema goers have always enjoyed watching a protagonist risk everything and overcome intimidating obstacles for love. Romantic comedies often refer to ‘the one’, suggesting that there is someone out there destined for everyone, a perfect match that will fulfill all of our desires and assure us a life of happiness. Bunuel takes that idea as his starting point and then gives it a decidedly anti-romantic twist.

El starts out in familiar territory, with a man, Francisco, declaring his love for a woman he barely knows. Despite the fact that all signs point to the woman marrying Francisco’s friend, he declares at a dinner party that he believes in the kind of love that happens in an instant. The kind of love that once recognized, cannot be quenched. When he steals a kiss out on the patio, it is played out with an abundance of Hollywood-inspired romanticism. It’s at about this time where Bunuel shifts into another gear and reveals his true theme: the underlying irrationality and even insanity that lurks beneath this kind of obsessive passion.

In an excellent lead performance by Arturo de Cordova, Francisco’s behavior begins to get more and more divorced from reality, as he concocts all kinds of absurd fantasies about his lover’s supposed infidelities and the scheming thoughts of her non-existent suitors. As his paranoia grows, the means he employs to ensure that his passion will remain his own grow increasingly more ridiculous as well as frightening. Bunuel’s film unfolds like an avalanche, starting out innocently enough and then steadily building momentum throughout the second half as it cascades towards its tense, captivating finale. There’s no need for sliced eyeballs or random livestock in this story as Bunuel mines all the surrealism he needs from within the human brain. Along the way, Bunuel also scores hits on the church and traditional family values as both Francisco’s Padre and his mother-in-law give their blessings to this powder keg of a union.

With impeccable control, Bunuel reveals himself to be a director as capable of handling a tightly structured script as he is at orchestrating disorder. El is yet another gem in his deep, varied and immensely rewarding filmography.



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