Luis Buñuel’s Death in the Garden
Filmed in Mexico, it was one of a handful of what would become relatively obscure Mexican-French co-productions Buñuel was involved with in the late 1950s. (The film didn’t open in the United States until 1977; Vincent Canby was there.) Its budget allowed for Eastmancolor, the director’s second in color after Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1952), and his first with international movie stars. Marchal and Piccoli were just establishing themselves, but Vanel had prominent roles in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear (1953) and Les diaboliques (1955), and Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955); and Signoret was famous for Les diaboliques, Max Ophüls’s La ronde (1950), Jacques Becker’s Casque d'or (1952) and Marcel Carné’s Thérèse Raquin (1953).
Buñuel wasn’t happy making the picture nor with the finished product. “I almost don’t want to talk about [it],” he told José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent in their book of interviews, Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel:
“The production was torture; there were difficulties from the very beginning. The producer was bothered by censorship and asked me to modify some things. The star of the film, Simone Signoret, felt uncomfortable because [her husband] Yves Montand was far away from her in Italy and she wanted to join him; she looked for any excuse to return to Europe. When she entered the United States, she deliberately showed a passport with visas showing trips to the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, but the immigration agents — rara avis — let her pass. So many things were changed during the production that scenes often had to be rewritten minutes before the camera began rolling, and furthermore Gabriel Arout had to translate the text into French. I suffered a lot with Michele Girardon, the actress who played the deaf girl; she was only working on the film because her parents wanted her to, and, of course, she was completely ignorant of the craft. I had a lot of problems. By the end of the production I had had enough and I didn’t even have a hand in the music. I let them put in whatever they wanted.”
Had he envisioned doing a ‘straight’ adventure à la King Solomon’s Mines? Buñuel was fairly faithful to Defoe on Robinson Crusoe, but Belgian author José-André Lacour’s novel Death in That Garden was rank with the kind of superficial moralizing the surrealist abhorred. However, his frustrations with Death in the Garden probably stemmed more from burnout than anything else. It came after an astonishing run of activity, Buñuel directing thirteen pictures from Los olvidados (1950) to That Is the Dawn (1955). Indeed, after Death in the Garden wrapped he took a three-year hiatus from the camera.
In a book review published in 1959, Time magazine felt that Lacour “brought off with literary flair and an almost savage imagination” the two-part story that opens in a South American village where local government is evicting a community of diamond miners, some of whom flee to the jungle to escape jail and execution. Buñuel wisely sidesteps the novel’s purple prose “symbolism, its irony, its implicit plea for man’s humanity to man” (Time) to examine breakdown and survival, the stifling tropical backdrop a prediction of the inescapable dining room in The Exterminating Angel (1962).
The screenplays to that later film and Death in the Garden were co-written with Luis Alcoriza, Buñuel’s frequent collaborator throughout his Mexican period. Alcoriza offered a counterbalance of satire and optimism to Buñuel’s caustic wit and fatalist view — a creative partnership similar to the one he’d share with Jean-Claude Carrière in the 1960s and 70s. They worked together on ten pictures, often using groups of characters (as opposed to single protagonists) to observe personality traits within the herd: Los olvidados, Illusion Travels by Streetcar (1953) and Fever Mounts at El Pao (1959).
With Lacour’s novel, they reduced the hero’s role and enhanced secondary characters, affording equal time to all: Chark the drifter-adventurer (Marchal), Djin the prostitute (Signoret), Castin the delusional, displaced restaurateur (Vanel), Castin’s deaf mute virgin daughter Maria (Girardon), and the naïve, haunted Catholic priest, Father Lizardi (Piccoli).
Gruff and sweaty, Chark is introduced giving the finger to a platoon of armed, trigger-happy soldiers. It’s humorous, shocking and uncharacteristic, for both 1956 and Buñuel (who deplored vulgarity), a moment I’m inclined to credit to Raymond Queneau. Novelist, poet and one-time member of the Surrealists, Queneau dabbled in films, and worked just this once with Buñuel on the script. Was their combined effort so brilliant it flew over the heads of the producers, prompting all those last minute changes Buñuel mentions? Or had the gifted triumvirate concocted a mess of concepts necessitating alterations for the sake of coherence?
In his DVD commentary, Ernesto R. Acevedo-Munoz demerits the picture as “minor Buñuel,” but is there such a thing? Author of Buñuel and Mexico: The Crisis of National Cinema, he nearly retracts his own statement when discussing Death in the Garden’s characters, their outward façades and the “devolution from civility to savagery” as the action moves from village to jungle — a trip he equates with Marlow’s odyssey in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “Death in the Garden is one of the classically structured Buñuel movies,” he says, “but even within the classical structure it violates conventions of narrative.”
Or, typical Buñuel, a surrealist true to his principles. “The narrative in Death in the Garden does not advance,” Acevedo-Munoz notes, “it simply repeats itself.” It shares The Exterminating Angel’s use of repetition, a leitmotif haunting the director’s work from Las Hurdes (1933) through That Obscure Object of Desire (1977); and concludes that fate is determined not by government, class, self will or divine intervention, but by crazy, blind chance, rendering everything — from politics to religion, economics to social values — impotent. Whether they’re caught in the town’s revolution or trapped in the jungle, the deteriorating group is constantly redirected, tested and mocked by chance, a portent of things to come in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).
Other references abound. The characters of Castin and Maria are a forecast of the incestuous father and daughter in The Young One (1960), with Maria bearing a resemblance to Key Meersman’s Evalyn in the later film. (Plus, both Girardon and Meersman were nonprofessional actors.) Lizardi can be likened to The Young One’s Rev. Fleetwood (Claudio Brook), or any of the hypocritical clerics dotting Buñuel’s oeuvre, the director a devout atheist steeped in Catholicism. And Castin’s pursuit of Djin recalls the older men lured to their doom by duplicitous younger women, what Acevedo-Munoz terms the “monstrous feminine,” in Susana (1951), El (1953) and That Obscure Object of Desire.
In his review at DVD Beaver, Gary Tooze has mostly good things to say about the video transfer but adds, “It may be a shade yellow/green and tend to look a bit frail.” Included with the DVD is a booklet featuring two articles, one a humorous anecdote by Buñuel’s son, Juan-Luis, the other a scholarly essay by author Susan Hayward on the Eastmancolor in Death in the Garden:
“In terms of color and to give meaning to his mise-en-scène, Buñuel plays with the flexibility of Eastmancolor by either adding or subtracting color (through using different filters). In the first half of the film, the exterior colors are bleached out to the point of pale yellow hues, reflecting the heat of the beating sunlight. Interestingly, at this stage, we only see [Simone] Signoret in interiors — and here, as opposed to the exteriors, the color has tonality and depth. The overall impression is one of great realism. In the second half of the film, however, when Signoret and the four other fugitives flee into the rain forest (the ‘garden’ of the film’s title), the color — predominately an oppressive green — takes on a deep, at times, thick and unguent quality, which, coupled with the choice of shots (in particular, the close-ups of the flora and fauna), brings it far closer to a visceral, surrealist painterliness.”