Cinephiles feeling underwhelmed by this summer’s crop of expensively noisy multiplex fare may take to daydreaming about what these big budget spectacles would look like in the hands of their favorite directors of yesteryear. For example, what might a summer adventure flick directed by surrealist legend Luis Buñuel look like? Among his films, the 1956 Death in the Garden may come closest to bearing an answer.
An international co-production featuring exotic Mexican locales and French stars, the film mixes action and suspense with socio-political commentary and existential drama, a formula proven bankable by The Wages of Fear two years prior. While it’s not considered among Buñuel’s greatest films, it has more than its share of fascinations, mostly for the bracing spectacle of seeing one of the world’s most fearlessly subversive directors wending his way through the demands of genre entertainment.
From the beginning, Buñuel bucks the convention of the adventure film by presenting no clear protagonist: the most likeable roles are an aging diamond prospector (Charles Vanel) and his deaf-mute daughter (Michele Girardon). But they’re just part of a larger Latin American milieu involving outraged miners resisting encroachment from the local government. A young priest (Michel Piccoli) tries to broker peace between them, but one scene reveals his role as a goon for colonialist interests with devastating understatement.
The film flirts with Marxist materialism by preoccupying itself wth the inner workings of this microcosm: there’s a superfluous but fascinating throwaway moment involving three prostitutes ferried into the mining community to service the workers. It would have been exciting to see him carry this town ensemble piece through to the end. Instead, the conventions of the character-based action movie prevail, and certain figures emerge as central: the father and daughter, the priest, a maverick adventurer (Georges Marchal) and an equally gritty prostitute (Simone Signoret). They flee the town as it blows up in a violent revolt; for the second half, they are forced to work together, hacking their way through foreboding jungle terrain to find refuge.
In many ways the second half feels like a different movie from the first: the tone is much starker, with only a handful of characters, and laced with some blindsiding moments of Buñuel’s trademark surrealism at its best: a snake carcass covered with ants writhing in the dirt, the wreckage of an airplane loaded with luxury items in the thick of the jungle. The latter sequence has a haunting element of pathos – a paradise lost and temporarily regained – that’s not easily found in Buñuel’s characteristically impassive work. In this sequence the gorgeous color photography comes through (it was only Buñuel’s second color feature; it would be ten years before his next). The lush jungle greenery, the deep blue of the nearby river, and the white hull of the aircraft packed with fresh clothes and jewelry underline the scene’s juxtapositions of realities.
The second half may make for more riveting viewing, but that doesn’t detract from the incisive social observation of the first. There’s a brilliant early moment where Buñuel tweaks sentimental conventions: Varnel’s aging father tells his loving daughter that they’ll finally return to their beloved France. Buñuel pulls the rug from under the scene when Varnel announces he’ll marry a local woman to help them in their new life, and presents a photo of Signoret’s conniving prostitute. Whether by large gestures or small, in Death in the Garden Buñuel busily flips the script; a big part of the movie’s fun is in finding his tweaks.