Between 1946 and 1964, the great iconoclastic Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel (1900 – 1983) found himself, like many of his contemporaries during the Spanish Civil War, living and working in Mexico, where he was able to resume his directorial career and make at least twenty films in a variety of genres while working to tight schedules and with extremely low budgets for producer Óscar Dancigers -- a Russian émigré, blacklisted by Hollywood for his Communist sympathies. He was to become a citizen of the country in 1949.
This period of activity had been
the most productive of Buñuel’s life thus far as a film-maker, following a fallow fifteen years in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (when he had worked on film propaganda for the defeated Republican Government), which was pent languishing unproductively on the pay-role of MGM studios in Hollywood, and, later, working for the Museum of Modern Art in New York as an editor who at one point was asked to produce (among other assignments) a truncated version of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. The Mexican film industry allowed Buñuel to develop the economical, deceptively-simple-but-subversive poetic realist style that was to help shape and define the approach he utilised with the later masterpieces he made in Spain and France, when he would be completely free of the genre constraints that ultimately make many of the films from this period appear a little rough and uneven. However, in the early-1950s Buñuel was also able to cultivate the beginnings of a sporadic international career by participating in a small number of co-productions, beginning in 1952 with an adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which he made for American producer George Pepper. This saw the director working in colour for the first time, as he attempted to mould his Spanish-Mexican hybrid sensibility to a more commercial form of international genre film-making. The experiment was evidently considered enough of a success to thereafter nudge Buñuel into accepting a small number of other foreign co-production deals in the second part of the decade, starting with Cela s'appelle l'aurore in 1956, which inaugurated what critic Raymond Durgnat has called Buñuel's "revolutionary triptych": a trio of films that examine how morality operates under conditions of revolutionary rebellion against a brutal dictatorship. This Franco-Italian co-production opened the way for several more team-ups with French producers, starting with the rarely seen film discussed below, which is now released on Blu-ray in the UK (in a dual-format edition) by Eureka Entertainment as part of its august Masters of Cinema line.
La Mort en ce jardin (Death in the Garden) was adapted from a now-forgotten novel by Belgian writer José-André Lacour, but its main inspiration was almost certainly the classic 1953 Henri-Georges Clouzot suspense movie The Wages of Fear, with which it shares one of its main French stars, Charles Vanel (also to be seen in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief), who plays very similar roles in both films, which also share key thematic concerns as they both take place in Latin American countries whose natural resources are being exploited by American corporations. This being Buñuel, there’s also a heavily emphasised anti-clerical element too, as the corrupt fascistic military regime in the film, which benefits from U.S. largess at the expensive of the indigenous workers, also gets ideological support from the compliant doctrine of non-violence being preached by the Catholic missionaries simultaneously flooding the region. But whilst Clouzot’s Anti-American message became the backdrop to a taut suspense thriller, Buñuel’s film is riffing on even more generic survival-adventure fare that has a mismatched, antagonistic, rag-tag band of fugitives forced to flee into the hostile South American jungle after a violent revolutionary uprising at a mining outpost is put down by Government forces.
In the very few lines Buñuel devotes to the film in his memoir, he regrets not being able to get a better handle on the script -- much of which was being written on the day of shooting, with Buñuel getting up at two in the morning and handing the scenes he’d been working on that night to his French collaborator, Gabriel Arout, at dawn, who would then check Buñuel’s French for mistakes before filming took place later on in the day. The novelist Raymond Queneau turned up at one point to lend some extra support for a few weeks, and Buñuel wryly notes how the writer (whose 1959 novel Zazie dans le metro was later filmed by Louis Malle) always displayed such good humour and ‘infinite tact’ by never saying outright that a script idea was bad, but merely delicately suggesting ‘alterations’ instead. Despite all this, according to Buñuel: “the script remained impossible.”
Perhaps partly because of this dismissive tone and the fact of the film’s relative rarity (until this colourful, crystal clear HD print turned up for the Blu-ray release), Death in the Garden has never been treated as anything much more than a minor work in the Buñuel filmography. This might well now be changing as it transpires that the director was perhaps being rather too harsh in his judgement of a work which frequently finds subtly interesting ways to adapt the adventure film mode to traditional Buñuelian concerns. It turns out that seeing Buñuel successfully working what is, for much of the picture, a commercial ‘action’ genre piece, and then slowly warping its conventions in the second half with absurdist ideas drawn from his familiar arsenal of tropes, actually puts rather a refreshing new spin on many of them.
The first half of the movie is devoted to establishing a core group of disparate ne’er-do-well characters whose priorities are soon shown to put them completely at odds, but who are going nevertheless to be forced to rely on each-other for survival later on. If there is one single unambiguous take-home message coming from Buñuel with this film, it is that simple, prescriptive moral formulations are inadequate for dealing with the ever-shifting messiness of human relationships, especially when those relationships are placed against a backdrop of social chaos created by systems of political oppression that bring with them unpredictable consequences. Buñuel had a cast of fairly well-known French actors at his disposal for this picture; and a lush, bright, ‘50s Technicolor palette is provided by Mexican cinematographer Jorge Stahl Jr. to lend proceedings in a picturesque Latin American village and the teeming jungle surrounding it an epic quality which, when combined with Buñuel’s deceptively workman-like (but effective) direction, creates an impression during the opening forty-five minutes of a film that might easily pass for a fairly decently mounted mainstream action feature.
The first scene opens on a rocky Mexican quarry in a remote valley near a stream, where sun-beaten prospectors are shown urgently shifting for diamonds. One of them is Charles Vanel, who plays an elderly French fortune hunter called Castin: modestly hoping to earn just enough from staking his claim to enable him to one day return to his homeland and open a restaurant in Marseilles. For Castin -- one gets the impression -- the entire journey has been something of a romantic adventure; the extent of his naiveté is demonstrated when it becomes apparent that he has also fallen in love with, and expects to take back home with him to marry, the hard-nosed blonde prostitute who’s currently running the town brothel which caters to many of the prospectors who pass through the region from all over the world, looking to make their fortune in the diamond fields. Her name is Djin, and she is played by Simone Signoret … the distinctive German-born actress who is best known for her role as Joe Lampton’s older lover Alice Aisgill in Room At The Top, Jack Clayton’s 1959 adaptation of John Braine’s novel of the same name. Meanwhile, for Horror fans, she is synonymous with the ice-blooded conspirator and killer she so effectively rendered for Henri-Georges Clouzot’s twist-laden thriller of 1955, Les diaboliques. Djin -- defiant, ballsy and devious -- definitely does not come across as the type to be content with marriage to an aging sentimentalist followed by a settled existence running a busy restaurant. She has her own ‘business arrangement’ going with a local boat-owner called Chenko (Tito Junco – who also appears in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel) who ferries in fresh blood from Brazil to keep her clientele entertained; a military unit seconded at the outpost, and headed by a Captain Ferrero (Jorge Martínez de Hoyos), turns a blind eye to the couple’s activities for a cut of their profits. “There is nothing more important than making money” is a phrase that trips easily from Chenko’s tongue, and it’s a motto Djin herself seems fully to endorse: fairly early on in the first act, an adventurer called Shark (Georges Marchal – the quintessential leading man of ‘50s French cinema) turns up in the village and finds out just how far Djin can be trusted when money is entered into the equation.
Shark ambles into town in the middle of a minor revolt prompted by a Government proclamation rescinding all independent prospectors’ claims and taking the diamond fields into public ownership. Looking for a place to stay for the night he accidently ends up in Djin’s bed, who, when she finds him there, decides she quite likes the look of him and makes love with him. Unfortunately, she also decides she likes the look of the money belt he keeps strapped to his chest … She reports him to the corrupt Captain Ferrero, who comes with a military attachment to take him into custody on fabricated charges of bank robbery. Djin’s partner Chenko is rustled up as a ‘witness’ and Shark ends up in a police cell while Djin and Chenko receive their cut of the money stolen from him. Shark manages to escape just as a full-scale revolt kicks off after the military execute by firing squad an injured, unconscious man who’d been accused of taking part in earlier protests: a scene which anticipates a similar instance of absurdist cruelty perpetrated by corrupt officialdom in Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war thriller Paths of Glory.
Shark uses the ensuing bloodshed as cover for his escape; a scene in which he finds some crates full of dynamite and ammunition in the cellar under the police cells leads to one of the few instances of bravura action spectacle in Buñuel’s cinema, when Shark sets a gasoline trail alight that leads to the cellar stash and there’s a massive explosion destroying the entire police headquarters! Army reinforcements arrive and the revolt is used as an excuse to target and remove foreign prospectors who’d previously worked harmoniously alongside locals seeking their fortune from mining the local diamonds. Castin – now with a head wound sustained during the fighting -- is falsely accused of being one of the ringleaders of the revolt. He and a recently arrived missionary friend called Lizzardi (Michel Piccoli) try and hide out at Djin’s, but are forced to flee with Castin’s deaf-mute daughter Maria (Michèle Girardon) when a reward of 5000 pesos is put on his head and the locals are told that random executions of Castin’s co-workers will take place if he doesn’t give himself up. Castin, Lizzardi, Maria and Djin set off undercover of night to flee downriver in Chenko’s boat, but it is hijacked by Shark, who is also trying to escape to Brazil and has unfinished business with a number of his fellow escaping renegades.
This dramatic, tense situation is the lead-in to the jungle survival-adventure aspect of the narrative which characterises the second half of the film, when the group is forced to abandon the river and flee into the ‘green inferno’ after a military patrol boat catches up with them. But it also serves as the context that underscores a tense and dynamically evolving set of relationships that we see continue to develop between the conflict-ridden characters as their struggles become more desperate and subject to chance and hardship. By this stage most of the principle characters have previously met, if sometimes only briefly, or they’ve become interconnected in some way during the build-up to the protests and riots percolating in response to the Government’s land-grab and the subsequent military clamp-down: Shark has made love with and also been betrayed by the prostitute Castin ludicrously expects one day to marry (and naively believes he can build a conventional bourgeois family for his daughter with) … but Shark has also earlier been shown being extremely mean to Maria in the local tavern frequented by the rebellious prospectors, and he brutally assaulted Castin when the father tried to intervene on behalf of his daughter. Djin has herself indicated that she might be willing to marry Castin, but only because she has found out he is rich and, him being also elderly, she surmises that he probably doesn’t have too much longer to live so wouldn’t be a bind on her freedom for long. Maria’s attraction to Shark, despite his appallingly rough treatment of her, becomes clear soon after he is taken into custody, during a moment when she comforts him after he is led through the congregation of a church service being held by Lizzardi, and is beaten to his knees by his captors as the prayers commence. Such a tangled web of conflicting (and conflicted) passions is bound to lead to dramatic tensions, but it also purposely leaves the viewer with no clear-cut hero to root for, as all the characters start out compromised by their very great flaws, which are displayed in their relationships with each-other: Shark is a violent misogynist; Chenko an amoral opportunist; Djin is selfish and superficial, and Castin a naive fantasist who is easily led. Only Maria comes across initially as an innocent abroad -- but her personality and character will develop in another direction as circumstances change during the coming battle to survive.
A normal trajectory at this point, for a commercial action-adventure feature operating in such an area of genre as this, would involve the gradual coming together of the conflict-prone group as its members realise that they must do so in order to stand any chance of surviving the brutal, unforgiving indignities of nature untamed. Instead, Buñuel’s approach is rather different -- and it results in an infinitely more cynical philosophy than the ‘progress’ narrative that’s usually spun in similar tales of survival, which invariably involve mutual sacrifice re-formulated in terms that envisage it as a sort of ‘penance’ that leads to a higher form of human morality being attained that is founded on cooperation, with those who cannot adapt inevitably falling by the wayside. In Death in the Garden, Buñuel seems more interested in exploring the competing moral frameworks of each of his main protagonists, and seeing how various aspects of them seen in operation during the first part of the film, hinder or help the struggle to exist when conditions unmoored by societal conventions are encountered. The interrogation of morality in Buñuel films inevitably involves an examination of religion at some point -- particularly its Catholic variety; the missionary character of Father Lizzardi, played by Michel Piccoli, becomes the vehicle by which the director approaches these issues for this particular film. Piccoli, of course, was to become one of the most frequent performers in Buñuel’s filmography, as well as a great friend to the director; this was their first collaboration -- and it sees him appearing youthful and white-suited (he bears something of a striking resemblance in this film to Christopher Lee), and cutting an extremely ambiguous figure as a recently arrives Catholic missionary who seems to vacillate between a sincere intent to ‘do the right thing’ and serving his own (and his mission’s) best interests. When the prospectors who face ruin rebel and plot to occupy in protest the diamond fields which the Government is taking over, it is Father Lizzardi who advises them against it, pointing out that rebellion “always results in merciless oppression”. He counsels the angry men that “defying authority will get you nowhere. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword!” Lizzardi might like to persuade himself that he’s trying to save lives here: army reinforcements are coming, and the rebellion will indeed be put down harshly when it spontaneously irrupts in response to an act of state cruelty. Yet Lizzardi seems acutely unaware that he is actively participating in the exploitation of the locals at the hands of corrupt authoritarians and foreign corporations by inculcating in them such a passive acceptance of the status quo. When Shark mockingly raises this point with him, Lizzardi indignantly insists that “we are not responsible for the overseers!” to which Shark replies that nevertheless: “they seem to follow you wherever you go. They must really like you guys!” Also, the missionaries specifically benefit from these kinds of unofficial partnership: it doesn’t occur to Lizzardi to question why it is that he, and all the other missionaries who come to bring the word of God to the native population of the region, have been gifted expensive watches, paid for by an oil refinery company active in the area.
Perhaps the film’s best illustration of the culpability of the type of religion practiced by the likes of Father Lizzardi comes soon after Shark is taken into custody by Captain Ferrero’s forces as a result of Djin reporting him to them. Lizzardi is allowed to hold mass in a building that also houses rooms and offices being used as interrogation centres by Ferrero and his men; assisted by Castin, he is holding one such service when Shark is marched through the congregation on his way to the rooms at the back of the building, where he will be subjected to interrogation on false charges of bank robbery. Not only are Lizzardi and Castin so absorbed in the solemn rituals of their faith that they completely fail to acknowledge the injustice that is being carried out in their very midst, but they unwittingly become the cause of an act of savagery being perpetrated upon Shark, after the soldiers escorting the prisoner hear the prayer bell being rung and kick him to his knees in order to force him to ‘pay his respects’. When the corrupt military authorities later try to pin the blame for the prospectors’ rebellion on Lizzardi’s own friend Castin because he is a foreigner, Lizzardi doesn’t hesitate to tell Castin that he should turn himself in in order to end the bloodshed! In each instance and in every respect Lizzardi’s moral advice, apparently delivered with only the best intentions, aides and enforces fascist oppression.
The second half of the film plays to very different rhythms, and feels more languidly paced, than the mixture of character study with action and taut suspense that defines the first part. It transforms into something that will feel that much more recognisable to viewers familiar with Buñuel’s later works, such as Belle De Jour or That Obscure Object of Desire. In that respect this can be seen as a fascinating transitional work which begins to operate on the poetic, absurdist levels of Buñuel’s most celebrated surrealist fables once the main characters leave the cultural institutions of society behind. The military unit initially pursuing the fugitives through the jungle decides to give up the chase on the assumption that “the jungle will eat them alive. They will never get out,” and thereafter we never see or hear from the army again, and that side of the plot disappears. The film instead becomes a deep study of a small group of people who have nothing but themselves and each-other to fall back on once they’re cast into this primordial natural state which, through sound design and stylisation Buñuel is able to imbue with strikingly hallucinogenic qualities. There is no musical score whatsoever throughout any of this part of the picture – only a rising, constant screeching crescendo of cicadas, against a backdrop of howling and crying from distant unidentifiable animals that forever remain unseen. Hearing this cacophony of noise, but not being able to see any signs of life amid the jungle foliage other than the remaining survivors themselves, creates a sense of unease which Buñuel continually finds ways to augment and amplify by other methods; the disorientation the characters experience is exemplified in imagery which feels like it originates in areas of the mind harnessed by dream consciousness: Maria with her hair so elaborately tangled up in jungle vines that she cannot move; a sudden smash-cut to the teeming traffic around the Arc de Triomphe, which turns out to be a delirious Castin gazing at a photograph of the architectural landmark, and represents him imagining being back home – a juxtaposition of images that suggests the artificial nature of the societal structures which lend form to our constructed sense of identity; and the incomprehensible gestalt shift which occurs when the exhausted, starving fugitives stumble upon the smouldering embers of a recently vacated camp fire and are shocked, scared and excited by the possibility of there being other people in the area … only to finally realise that they have been walking, half-delirious, in a circle all day and that this is the same camp they made themselves earlier on. Perhaps the most vivid image that we see of this hallucinogenic nature takes the film into a zone that at one point makes it seem a plausible, if unlikely, partner to Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust: Lizzardi hacking at a live snake with a machete … Desperate for food, the group struggle to light a fire -- with Lizzardi even contemplating using pages from his Bible to kindle the flames -- but by the time they manage to get one going the half-gutted creature (which still seems – horribly -- to be somehow moving about) has been completely swarmed by an army of angry red ants!
The idea this section of the film posits is not that these characters are changed by the experience of having to survive without food in this relentlessly hostile, heat-suffused environment of swamps and impassable jungle undergrowth, but that their pre-existing dispositions have simply
been re-contextualised in ways that alter our moral assessment of them. Shark’s rebelliousness, his bullishness and tendency towards violence make him a natural leader, while Lizzardi’s willingness to submit to authority allows him to work very well alongside Shark when others have reached the stage of giving up on life. Castin, meanwhile -- now delirious from a head wound sustained during the rebellion -- relies more and more on the religious sensibility (cultivated, ironically enough of course, during his friendship with Lizzardi) to make sense of the apparently hopeless position he and his daughter now find themselves in. But this results in him resorting to superstitious ideas about how God has condemned them and plans to judge them. Djin, the seemingly strong, money-minded brothel madam, rejects the useless Castin and becomes wholly dependent on Shark for survival.
The big Buñuelian ‘twist’ comes right at the end – when Shark discovers a crashed airliner full of luxury food, clothing and consumer items in the middle of the jungle (cue Castin predictably intoning how “God has saved us through a miracle” and Shark reminding them all that “fifty people had to die in order to save us!”). The fugitives, in a reversal of the situation encountered in The Exterminating Angel (where the rich dinner party guests inhabiting an expensive villa become like island survivors who cannot leave their isolated environment), start dressing in expensive designer clothes they’ve recovered from the crash wreckage, and pretty much set up a mini bourgeois enclave in the middle of a South American jungle clearing! This is a deliberate deus ex machina solution, cynically deployed by Buñuel with the intention of showing how, ultimately, these people cannot overcome the flaws in their own natures, and that it is such flaws which will ultimately condemn them, as their effects become amplified by the empty values of a privileged consumer lifestyle transferred to an uncivilised region and fabricated from the accumulated detritus of a fatal catastrophe.
Maria, previously the innocent of the fleeing party, is introduced to a world she had no prior experience of, and becomes enamoured with the glittering contents of a jewellery box … which brings her into conflict with Lizzardi, who believes these possessions should remain untouched out of respect for their former owners. Djin, clad incongruously, amid the wild vegetation of the jungle, in a luxuriant ball gown, quickly comes to exemplify the passive values instilled by bourgeois femininity: where once she laughed at the thought of being ‘kept’ by Castin, after learning of his plan to take her to France in order to one day marry her, she ends up softly intoning to the group’s ‘saviour’ Shark, how she has come to realise that “a woman is nothing without a man!” A man such as Castin, on the other hand, previously kindly and gentle but now in the thrall of a religious mania and superstitions that are informed by Old Testament ideas of divine punishment and retribution, is the most dangerous kind of man of all: not all of the group will make it to the end of the film thanks to him. The final irony is that the two people, Shark and Maria, who do get the chance to flee by raft across the border to Brazil in the movie’s final moments, were the first two members of the party to come into conflict: where once Maria’s father, Castin, tried but failed to defend her from the advances of the brutalist adventurer, now it is that rough-minded drifter on whom she must depend, and who becomes a father figure of sorts as they face an uncertain future together.
This release from Eureka Entertainment constitutes the film’s first time on Blu-ray, and the vivid digital transfer serves the wonderful brightness of the colour film palette very well. The disc has over ninety minutes of interview material as its extra features, which see critic Tony Rayns delivering an excellent overview of the film’s themes and its connections to Buñuel’s filmography; film scholar Victor Fuentes examining in detail the director’s Mexican period; and actor Michel Piccoli talking about his lengthy career, and his relationship with Buñuel. Plus there is a 24-page booklet featuring an essay by Philip Kemp. Death in the Garden is a solid addition to Buñuel’s cinema to be made available on home viewing formats. Hopefully, the fruitful Mexican period will get more exposure on Blu-ray soon.