ÉL (1953)

  • Director: Luis Buñuel
  • Writers: Luis Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza, based on the novel Mercedes Pinto
  • Starring: Arturo de Córdova, Delia Garcés, Aurora Walker, Carlos Martinez Baena, and Manuel Dondé
  • Accolades: 2008 Cahiers de Cinema Top 100 (#87), shown at 1953 Cannes Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on YouTube

Luis Buñuel had one of the longest and strangest careers of any of the great directors, and he is also probably the member of their ranks the average American is least like to have heard of. He grew up in Zaragoza, Spain, and went to the University of Madrid around the time of World War I, where he first met two other great Spanish artists of the 20th Century, the painter Salvador Dalí and the poet Federico García Lorca. Between them, they would bring “surrealism” into three different media. Buñuel actually worked with Dalí in 1929 Paris to create Un Chien Andalou, a famous, bizarre, silent short film. During the production of their next movie, L’Age d’Or, somewhat similar but slightly more story-based, with sound, and feature length, the two had a falling out. Buñuel finished the movie, which became, far more than its predecessor, a huge scandal, being accused directly of blasphemy by the Pope. For much of his life, Buñuel would be one of the most prominent atheists in the world. He later stated that, “I didn’t set out to be blasphemous, but John XXIII is a better judge of such things than I am.”

After a few years working in his native Spain, he found himself exiled after Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War. First he moved to the United States, where he tried and failed to get Hollywood to finance his movies, then got a job churning out apparently commercial movies for a studio in Mexico. These movies tend to be somewhat more straightforward than his other work, though he continued to bring his own weird touches. Fortunately, he kept working long enough for European modernist cinema to catch up with where he had been back in the 20s and 30s, and find newfound appreciation. Starting in the 1960s, by which time he was over 65, he was given the opportunity to work again internationally, making several films, sometimes in Spanish and sometimes in French, that are among the most acclaimed movies ever made. These include Viridiana, El Ángel Exterminador, Belle de Jour, Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie, and Cet Obscur Objet du Désir, among many others. In the most recent version of 1,001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, there are nine Buñuel films included, tied for fourth with Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, behind only Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, and Howard Hawks.

Not among those nine movies is 1953’s Él (directly translated as “Him” in English, though it was released in the US under the title This Strange Passion). It comes from that middle, Mexican, commercial period, when the barons of the “Golden Age of Mexican Cinema” saw Buñuel as just another director under contract. None of these movies made much of an impression in the US at the time, and Él in particular was a critical and commercial failure, even its own country. It was reported that Mexican audiences were often left laughing at things they weren’t supposed to. However, this movie in particular has been the subject of dramatic re-evaluations in recent years, even reaching the most recent Cahiers du Cinema list of the Top 100 films ever made. Some of this may be due to Buñuel’s late career renaissance as an international auteur, but I have a feeling that a lot of it is that its themes of intense male paranoia and abuse have become, to put it crudely, far more in fashion in recent years than they would have been at the time. Despite its origins in 1953 Mexico, at the heart of machismo nonsense, watching this movie today feels decidedly post-Me Too. It’s basically that GIF of Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act insisting, “You in danger, girl,” as a feature film.

Él tells the story of the relationship between an older, rich man, Francisco (Arturo de Córdova), apparently warped by Catholic repression (a common theme in Buñuel films), and a younger woman, Gloria (Delia Garcés), who he falls hard for and convinces to marry him. Their courtship is shown from the outside in the movie’s first half hour, but then she marries him, we get a quick shot of a big explosion at a construction site, and much of the rest of the movie is told in flashback. A desperate Gloria, months later, narrates her life to a former boyfriend (Manuel Dondé). Francisco becomes insanely jealous and abusive both verbally and physically. He seems convinced beyond all reason that she’s cheating on him. Gloria tries repeatedly to go to others with her problems, including her priest (Carlos Martinez Baena) and even her own mother (Aurora Walker), but they take Francisco’s side. After Gloria shows her own mother her bruises, her mother insists that Francisco only gets that way because he loves Gloria so much, and that Gloria is making too big a deal out of it. Externally, everyone in the community believes that Francisco is a great guy, an upstanding citizen. They simply won’t believe that in private he’s a monster. It’s almost as if this is a story that’s been happening since the beginning of time.

Gloria, meanwhile, stays way longer than she should, telling her ex that she “pities” Francisco too much. He literally pretends to shoot her (the gun is loaded with blanks, he says he “wanted to teach her a lesson”) and she stays. The final straw turns out to be a scene that, maybe because of what they couldn’t quite show in a 1953 movie, I was sort of confused by, which involves Francisco trying to tie her to the bed while she sleeps, meanwhile brandishing a needle and threat. Multiple online sources agree it is supposed to be him trying to “enfibulate” her, a word I did not know but apparently literally means he’s trying to sew her vagina shut. She fortunately wakes up before he gets anywhere and finally leaves, precipitating his final descent into madness. It is here that Buñuel’s surrealist tendencies get the greatest chance to shine, as Francisco imagines everyone in a church service laughing at him and abusing him, leading up to a climax where he attacks and tries to strangle the priest. Even to the end, though, the rich dude is getting more chances, as the priest insists, “Don’t hurt him, he’s my friend, he’s just gone mad,” as they pull the guy trying to strangle him off.

There is a scene of abuse in which Francisco takes Gloria to the top of a church belltower, looking misanthropically down on his hometown of Guanajuato and contemplating the “worms” below, before turning on her and seemingly trying to throw Gloria over the edge. You can’t tell me Hitchcock hadn’t seen this movie before making his famous Vertigo, featuring prominent scenes of people falling off of clock towers. I was struck, in fact, that large stretches of this movie really do feel like a Hitchcock movie, if, say, old Alfred didn’t sometimes have trouble seeing women as anything other than objects. Yet it still somehow feels like a very distinctively Buñuel film. It opens, for example, with a lengthy sequence in which the Priest lovingly bathes the feet of several altar boys in front of the congregation. This is apparently an actual Catholic ceremony that was happening of which I was previously unaware. The camera pans down the row of bare, washed feet to get to a pair of shapely feet that belongs to Gloria, and then we realize we’re seeing Francisco’s point of view.

Él isn’t particularly easy to find these days, which is likely a product of the fact that there are a LOT of great Buñuel movies, and this isn’t in a lot of his fans’ top 5 or so. I’d like to feature many more of these over time on this site. In the meantime, this movie cannot be found on any widely available streaming service, or even easily in print on DVD in the US. Yet, perhaps because it feels so relevant today, its popularity continues to grow, and there are many versions of it currently available for free streaming to anyone on YouTube. You might have to poke around a bit to find one with subtitles in your language if you’re not fluent in the original Spanish, but these are out there. The version I watched had English subtitles superimposed over Italian subtitles, so that was interesting. I have a feeling this one of those movies that’s going to continue to grow in popularity over time, as it taps into human problems that are not limited, unfortunately, by nationality, language, or time period.

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