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Two Old Masters: Luis Buñuel

Luis Buñuel remembered by Michel Piccoli, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Bulle Ogier, and Franco Nero

Luis Buñuel, to quote a Spanish idiom, “went with the century,” which means that he was born in 1900 and in July, he died at 83. Before winning the Oscar for Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, in 1972, Buñuel scandalized the film world by predicting he would win and saying he had paid $25,000 for the honor. “I told you the Americans were honest businessmen,” he later declared with a straight face.

Buñuel rejected psychological analysis for the pure innocence of imagination, and his moral point-of-view was all the more poignant for his well-known atheism. As Jean-Claude Carrière, his favorite and frequent collaborator, wrote in Le Malin, in 1981, when the Cannes Festival paid him tribute: “He’s the only living filmmaker who has known the Middle Ages. . . and he’s still nostalgic about [the] imaginary, calm period of his childhood in rural Spain. ‘At that time, one had an interior life,’ Buñuel said.”

In his last decade, he vowed that each film would be his last. After That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), he planned to make a picture that Carrière describes as “a hermit’s point of view vis-a-vis his epoch.” He never did. Film lovers would have to find consolation in the work he did throughout his three careers—in Mexico, France and Spain—and regret that Hollywood never gave him a fourth. In a 1981 interview with France Soir Magazine, Buñuel remembered that after MGM invited him to Hollywood in 1930, on the strength of L’age d’or, he visited a set where Greta Garbo was preparing for her close-up. “She saw me,” remembered Buñuel, “called the A.D. and he came toward me, took me by the arm, and threw me out! I never wanted to come back. That was my apprenticeship in Hollywood.”

Buñuel had his favorites among actors: Michel Piccoli, Julien Bertheau, Delphine Seyrig and Jeanne Moreau. In Spain, he cited Francisco Rabal, but not Fernando Rey, who was widely seen as the director’s alter-ego in several films. Here, in turn, is what some of his collaborators remember about Buñuel:

CATHERINE DENEUVE: Buñuel didn’t like to talk too much. It would physically tire him. But we had a mute understanding. Shooting Tristana went better than Belle de Jour, because there was a nicer producer, but mostly because Buñuel himself was very happy about shooting in Spain for the first time since Viridiana. He was euphoric. He had a wonderful sense of humor. One thing he stressed was, ‘Above all, no psychology!’ I accepted it wholeheartedly, especially because it came from him.

JEANNE MOREAU: I consider him my Spanish father, and I called him that. We met simply because of box-office considerations: he didn’t know what actress he wanted for Le journal d’une femme de chambre, and the producers offered me. We met in an apartment in St. Tropez for lunch and enjoyed so much being together that we also had dinner. He was a fantastic person. He was the only director I know who never threw away a shot. He had the film in his mind. When he said “action” and “cut,” you knew that what was in between the two would be printed.

He worked with me mostly on physical movement. We didn’t speak too much about the character. But, as in life, sometimes you express yourself better and end up saying more by talking about something else.

FRANCO NERO: Buñuel always told me that the best thing was not to show things to the audience, but instead to trigger their imagination. In Tristana, there was a scene with Catherine Deneuve nude at the window, looking at the boy in the square who was staring at her, hoping to catch a glimpse of her naked body. The camera stayed on her face. It was sexy, without being explicit.

I think all geniuses are like children. The Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli said, “In every man hides the soul of a child—when it abandons him, he becomes nothing.” One morning Buñuel came to the set and couldn’t find his bag. The whole crew was looking for it and he refused to start working before it was found. He kept wailing, “My bag! My bag!” Just like a little boy. Finally, it was found and he grabbed it and withdrew into a corner, hiding. I followed him and saw that he took out a ham sandwich and started eating. He simply wanted to eat. When he saw me, he jumped and said, “What are you doing? Please don’t tell anybody. I’m hungry. . . If they see me, it will be a bad example, because they will all want to eat. But I’m hungry. . . ”

Another day—he said he was deaf, but I doubt it—he stopped a man who was dumb and said to him, “You’re dumb? I’m deaf!” and laughed about it for half an hour.

BULLE OGIER: Actors are instruments to convey the director’s ideas—which is why I find all my roles difficult: I can’t betray the director. For Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, however, I didn’t have all that much to do. Buñuel loved actors as human beings and treated them nicely, but was completely indifferent to them as actors—who played what, who I was. . . What mattered to him was that the film reflect the script, because he always wanted to be a writer. You had to render exactly what he wrote. You couldn’t make any departures.

MICHEL PICCOLI: He never liked to give psychological explanations or discuss motivation. He was very polite and lovable, very attentive to people, and he had a great sense of humor. And a terribly perceptive eye. If you made a mistake or told an ugly joke or hurt somebody, he would judge you immediately. Otherwise, he was very sweet—but with the calm that accompanies great authority.

He was very kind with actors and suggested things gently, and they knew he was right. They knew he had no hesitation about his work, no doubt at all. In one scene in Belle de Jour, Georges Marchal had to go down the staircase, in a close-up, and you imagined him masturbating. It wasn’t easy. Buñuel told him, “Think of the setting sun.” It was wonderful: at the same time that he gave no explanation—he simply told him to go down—he also told the actor he thought of him as a sun.

He was severe in life and very hard to please. He was a great Spanish bourgeois by birth, and very well organized. He was very good about working within the budget, because when he was young, he had experienced economic hardship, especially in the U.S. He lived very modestly.

We had great fun. He used to joke like a kid, always telling the same jokes. He never wrote letters, except when there were very precise reasons for it. Each time, he signed, “Disrespectfully yours.” For my part, I used to taunt him that it was Catherine Deneuve and I who made him. I said, “For years, nobody saw your films , except intellectuals, until we did Belle de Jour.” And he’d become very animated and agree and say, “You’re right, thank you.” We laughed and joked all the time. His laughter came out of a terrible anguish, but was non-stop.

He was once interviewed in Spain by French TV, which sent a crew with two trucks. He told them, “I could make a film with what it cost you to bring all this here.” He told them he preferred to do the interview in Toledo. They asked him if he liked that town especially and he answered, “No. I detest it. It’s full of flies.” Then they asked him if in El, he was influenced by Sade. He said no. The interviewer insisted: “In the movie, the man sews up the woman’s vagina.” Buñuel responded, “When your wife betrays you, you get drunk. I simply sew her up. There’s nothing sadistic about it.”

He respected others. When De Richaux died, I went on the radio to talk about him. I asked him if he wanted to do the same, and he said, “No. I never speak about dead friends. I just give stars as you would a restaurant: Sadoul, 5 stars. De Richaux, 4.”

When we were shooting Belle de Jour, I posed for some publicity photos for Lui and Buñuel saw them and said, “You call this an actor? It’s a puppet! The great actor Piccoli doing a thing like that! What a horror!” He folded the magazine under his arm and kept it throughout the shoot, making frequent references to it. I loved him.