The great Luis Bunuel (1900-83) started out as an enfant terrible of surrealism. His first film, "Un Chien Andalou" (1929), made with fellow Spaniard Salvador Dali, was also cinema's first masterpiece of transgression (it begins with Bunuel himself appearing to slice open a woman's eyeball). He concluded his career as an eminence of European art film, directing the glamorous likes of Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau and Carole Bouquet in some of their most memorable roles and winning a foreign-film Oscar for "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (1972).
Bunuel's best-known movies were made in France, but his nearly two-decade spell as an artist-in-exile in Mexico, which always has been overshadowed by his splashy start and his exalted twilight period, was a career unto itself. Fleeing his homeland after the Spanish Civil War that brought Franco to power, he spent a few years in the States -- working at New York's Museum of Modern Art and for Warner Bros. in Hollywood, where he supervised the dubbing department -- before settling in Mexico City and restarting his film career in earnest.
Adapting to the pace and strictures of the local industry (and, in many cases, adopting its melodramatic idioms), Bunuel worked at a prodigious rate, cranking out 21 movies in 18 years. During that period, he alternated between major works, including "Los Olvidados" (1950) and "El" (1953), which reestablished his international standing, and lesser-seen, more generic fare.
The Criterion Collection, which already has issued several of Bunuel's French titles, this week releases "The Exterminating Angel" (1962) and "Simon of the Desert" (1965), the culminating glories of his Mexican period.
"The Exterminating Angel" prefigures "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" in its coolly withering view of the privileged class, which in both films is subjected to a situation at once droll and nightmarish. In "Discreet Charm," the dinner party can never quite begin; in "Exterminating Angel," it never ends.
An assortment of high-society types gathers at a mansion after an opera. The first sign that something is amiss: Before the party gets under way, all the servants, for some inexplicable reason, are compelled to leave. At the end of the evening, the guests, for some equally inexplicable reason, are compelled to stay. One awkward sleepover later, they realize that they are incapable of crossing the threshold of the living room, as if trapped by a mysterious force field -- or is it a mass delusion?
Bunuel uses repetition to hypnotic and disturbing effect. A scene in which the guests arrive and ascend the stairs is repeated from a different angle (even Bunuel's cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa thought this was a mistake when he saw the finished film). The host's pre-dinner toast is delivered twice. The entire movie turns out to be its own endless cycle: The spell is finally broken through an elaborate ritual of reiteration, only for the trap to kick in again in a different setting.
A literal drawing-room comedy with apocalyptic overtones, "Exterminating Angel" is, as Bunuel himself noted, a disaster movie of sorts, albeit one concerned less with the struggle for survival than with the descent into barbarism.
Bunuel was reluctant to ascribe literal meanings to his movies. In his autobiography, "My Last Sigh," he noted that "The Exterminating Angel" was, like many of his films, about a specific kind of quandary: "the impossibility of satisfying a simple desire." The paralysis of the guests could be interpreted politically or existentially, but the larger point -- that they are prisoners of their own making -- takes on cosmic dimensions by the end of the movie.
"Simon of the Desert," Bunuel's last Mexican film, is the story of an ascetic (Claudio Brook), modeled on the Saint Simeon Stylites, who lives on top of a pillar and fends off the periodic advances of Satan, here assuming the form of the lovely Silvia Pinal (star of Bunuel's 1961 "Viridiana" and, like Brook, part of the "Exterminating Angel" ensemble).
The shoot was halted midway because the production ran out of money, and Bunuel considered the film, which runs a mere 45 minutes, unfinished. But his improvised ending, which transports the saint and his temptress she-devil to a Manhattan nightclub, is jolting and inspired.
Like much of Bunuel's religious-themed work, "Simon" could be considered blasphemous, but its vision of faith and devotion, while dryly amused, is not unsympathetic.
Bunuel was, famously, a nonbeliever, but thanks to his Jesuit education, he also was steeped in religious culture, and that fascination tempers even his rudest, most skeptical assaults on the church. As he himself liked to say, "I'm still an atheist, thank God."