Death in the Garden
Director: Luis Buñuel / Screenplay: Buñuel, Luis Alcoriza & Raymond Queneau (from novel by Jose André Lacour) / Editing: Denise Charvein / DP: Jorge Stahl Jr. / Score: Paul Misraki
Cast: Simone Signoret / Charles Vanel / Georges Marchal / Michel Picccoli / Tito Junco / Raúl Ramirez / Michèle Girardon
Babes in the Wood…
Any credit for my own belief in Cinema as an artform in its own right, can be directed to a university screening of Un Chien Andalou (1928). Buñuel’s first film, co-directed with-then good friend Salvador Dalí, it was unafraid to explore the bounds of filmic surreality. The result, was unsettling, funny and near-miraculous, often all at the same time. It blew my mind and, looking back, I should’ve made more of an effort to watch his catalogue. But, as often happens, life threw new Directors into my path, each offering their own distinctive takes on the medium and Buñuel dropped-off my radar: until I came across this Masters of Cinema disc featuring his La Mort en ce Jardin or ‘Death in the Garden’.
A committed Atheist, Communist and long-term member of The Surrealists, Buñuel’s career was to be derailed in his middle years, thanks largely to ripple-effects from this trio of affiliations. After Un Chien and L’Age d’Or (1930), Buñuel continued to rile & antagonise the pillars of the very society in which he lived. After Franco took power in his native Spain, he languished for a time in Paris, then moved to the USA, where he took a job at New York’s MOMA; a position he was to hold until 1944, when he got the chance to move out to Hollywood and restart his moribund film career.
Unfortunately for Buñuel, this position wasn’t to last (his past having caught-up with him), so he moved again, this time down to Mexico. Once there, he was contacted by a local production company who, despite the unwelcome baggage, were quick to hire someone still regarded as a prestigious talent. By the mid-Fifties, an association with a French production company was to bear fruit, with a trio of well-funded movies, all shot largely in Mexico, of which Death in the Garden is the second.
The Wages of Fear – a tense action-drama, set in a jungle location – had been a wild success for its producers, so it was inevitable that they might want to repeat the trick, by casting two of its stars – Signoret & Vanel – in another movie with a similar location and an equally gritty premise. They couldn’t fail…
Originally a French action-potboiler novel, written by Lacour, Death in the Garden was adapted by a few names, including Luis Alcoriza, Buñuel himself and Raymond Queneau (an old acquaintance of Buñuel’s and another of the original Surrealists).
Garden’s first half, centres around a rough camp of diamond prospectors, in an un-named Latin American country, run by a stereotypical Junta. We enter at the point where the miners are voicing hopes for a future after they’ve all struck untold riches and, wouldn’t you know it? The army arrives with a Proclamation, confiscating all claims and equipment with a day’s notice.
Events are rattling along in these early reels as, before we know it, the miners have descended on the garrison, demanding to see the Commander. Little do they know, that he’s a foppish pig, who’s currently the sore loser of a chess game with his subordinate. As a result of winning so comfortably, the younger man is sent out to confront them. He’s obviously unprepared for the job and, at the point where his men are preparing to fire on the mob, Buñuel offers-up the first touch of that askew’d view of the World with which he made his name: Surreality.
In this case, we see a stranger walk casually through the tense moment, whilst leading his horse; a man so confident in his skin, he’s able to flash a middle-finger to the impatient, trigger-happy soldiers. It’s not his fight. He doesn’t belong there.
He’s just passing through…
We follow him into a bar-cum-trading post, where the ringleaders have gathered to talk tactics. At first glance, I thought this lone wolf might prove something of a benevolent force in the mould of Wayne or Stewart, but watching this guy tease a mute girl and snarl at the barkeeper, I’m not so sure.
We learn his name: Chark (or ‘Shark’ as I’ll now call him); a blond maverick, played with evident relish by French action star Georges Marchal. Shark – that lone predator – wants a bed for the night and doesn’t fancy kipping in the stable with his horse again, so takes advice from the barman and visits the local brothel. Finding it all locked and apparently empty, he climbs through an open window and promptly claims as his own, the first bed he sees which – surprise – happens to belong to the bemused Madame Djin (a blousy Simone Signoret).
It’s a savvy decision, to name a character after a spirit that can take on both human & animal forms; Signoret’s playing Djin as someone who’d sell their Grandmother, if it meant getting ahead. She’s involved in paying kick-backs to the local police, works with Chenco (Tito Junco), a pimp-like figure who uses his riverboat for ferrying fresh girls and contraband up and down the river and right now, is happy to sleep with Shark, if it opens-up an impressive jewel pouch taped to his manly chest.
There’s only one problem for Djin: an elderly local prospector, Castin (Charles Vanel) who’s looking both to marry her and acquire a step-mother for Maria (Michéle Girardon): yep: the mute girl, whom Shark’s been teasing. On the other hand, Castin is said to be the wealthiest miner of all, so… It’s unsurprising that this avaricious woman is softening towards him.
Oh, and somewhere in there, is a priest – Fr. Lizzardi (Michel Piccoli), who’s proud to show off his new wristwatch: a gift from the local oil company. They now employ many of the native Indians, thanks to the efforts of Lizzardi and others, in converting them to mother church. The irony in all this, is that Lizzardi is blind to his own exploitation, by the very institution he represents; one might say he’s lost in his own Garden… This spin on a gullible character, is undoubtedly driven by Buñuel. A man of such deep-rooted Atheism and toxic mistrust of ‘Capitalism’ (despite making a career within its bosom), I suspect Buñuel is subtly biting the very hand that feeds him here; winking at the audience all the while.
The film might be set in some unspecified ‘Banana Republic’, but this is undoubtedly all Buñuel; a commentary harking back to his experiences in Spain, during the bitter civil war.
Anyway, the miner’s revolt deepens. Shark’s arrested (due to Djin’s instinctive duplicity), but manages to escape a firing squad, by poking a fountain pen into the eye of a guard. There’s also a warrant out for Castin, who’s wrongly accused of being the chief ringleader. Inevitably, he hides at Djin’s but, unlike Shark, Castin offers a surer way back to France, so she doesn’t tip-off the police that he’s there. Instead, she agrees to spirit both him and Maria out of town aboard Chenco’s boat the following morning. So it goes with one, minor change: Shark slips aboard and takes control of both Chenco and his boat. Next morning, with the insistent drone of a fast patrol boat heard on the breeze, Shark forces everyone back ashore and sets the boat to drift off as a decoy.
The film’s second half, now takes our motley band (including a reluctant Lizzardi), into the jungle where, inevitably, the suite of prejudicial foibles and instincts all carried by the gang, come to the fore with delicious results. Take Lizzardi, for example. Pretty soon, this upright man of God looks no different to his colleagues, being unshaven, dressed in rags and reduced to eating freshly-dug tubers; take away the trappings of power and everyone ends-up the same…
This is all thanks to Chenco, who slips his bonds in the night and delivers their haul of tinned food to the pursuing cops. Chenco: the one sleaze-ball who doesn’t deviate from his template. Everyone else will undergo a gradual metamorphosis as hunger & tiredness take hold. Castin is the first to crack. Feverish, he sits at a campfire, looking at postcards of Paris. At one moment, Buñuel even gives us a jarring two-second burst of footage, showing the Champs-Elysées at night, which he then cross-cuts to a postcard of the same scene. We read this as a memory of Castin’s, evoking a spirit of dreams once harboured, such as opening a restaurant in Marseilles. Now, they’re as-dust. When Castin tosses the postcards onto the campfire, those dreams go up in smoke. He neither believes in his own salvation or that of the group, including his own daughter.
When he later throws his diamonds into the river, then we really KNOW he’s finished. Done.
Ah, the river… I almost forgot: after realising they’d been walking in-circles, Shark orders them to stay put and strikes out on his own, only to return later, with a suitcase: another surreal touch from Buñuel. He might as well have returned with ice-creams for everyone, the effect is that jarring. The reason for the case being stuffed-full of food, is then made clear to a soon-revived group as they follow him back to a recently-crashed airliner. While the bodies are scarcely in-shot (this film was made in ‘56, after all) it does give them a chance to freshen-up, eat well and find new clothes from among the personal effects.
Talking of personal effects, Lizzardi also finds a loaded jewellery box, that he hides away, believing that to plunder it, is to sin against the dead; depriving the families of what is – technically – their’s.
Unfortunately, Lizzardi hasn’t reckoned on Djin’s true nature. She sees him bury the box and, later, unearths it for her own use: seeing her canoodle with Shark, amidst the wreckage, whilst wearing a sequinned evening gown, is to be reminded once again, that we’re watching a film made by a master Surrealist. The opening scene from Lost, this certainly isn’t… And I also think it funny that, despite having an entire wardrobe at his disposal, Shark forgoes any comforts and chooses merely to replace his grubby white singlet with a fresh one; one might be forgiven for citing this trait as an influence on the fashion choice of Die Hard’s John McClane…
There’s little in Buñuel’s camera moves or set-ups, that dazzle with the same impact found in Un Chien, but that was hardly expected. Death in the Garden was made by a 56-year old man, who’d experienced extreme highs and lows in his life to that point, so while the flourishes are muted, they are there, albeit with the volume turned-down. Shark’s impudent stroll through the riot, for example. Or the quick-cut of a snake’s carcass they were about to roast, now seen covered with ants (an an obvious nod back to Un Chien, this one). In fact, the snake itself, come to think of it, is almost certainly allusive to the serpent found in the Garden of Eden; ‘Death in the Garden’ indeed. All these moments can be viewed as being rooted in a Surreality with which Buñuel was conversant.
It’s also his curse as a film-maker. Any other Director including these shots, might be lauded as having a ‘bold vision’ or somesuch but, for Buñuel, the criticism I’ve read, revolves around a Director who’s ‘diminished from past glories’! He can’t win.
We left Castin wallowing in his nihilism. Despite the group’s sudden good fortune in finding the ‘plane, he metes swift justice to those whom he perceives have wronged-him. There are winners and losers. It’s a shame to report that, had I played ‘Character Death Bingo’ going into Garden, I would’ve emerged victorious. Had it been an original screenplay of Buñuel & Queneau’s, my guess is we’d have seen a less predictable outcome – perhaps even a more surreal one – but, hey: it’s the movie business and everyone – even Buñuel – was in it to make money, despite his creed, so of course the source material would be followed. Besides, the source novel is there to be filleted, not eviscerated, otherwise, where’s the point in acquiring the rights in the first place?
That Death in the Garden didn’t please a wide audience, is proof, if any were needed, that simply following a popular formula, is no guarantee of success for a picture (or for that matter, any other commercial enterprise). Or, perhaps its theme and underlying messages were too unpalatable for a domestic audience? France, along with the rest of Continental Europe, was looking forward to an era of greater co-operation; it was an optimistic time, celebrating free trade and a thriving economy. The Bourgeoisie were now calling the shots. Consumerist values were about to replace post-war austerity.
Yet here was Buñuel, offering a withering opinion on the very values he saw as resurgent: Capitalism, for one. Not only is the priest in-thrall to the Capitalist creed, but everyone’s out to make money from the Garden: everyone that is, but Maria (the group’s innocent conscience) and Shark (who turns-out to be merely a bank-robber).
Then there’s the plane crash. Seeing how quickly our band revives itself, having gorged on a full-suite of in-flight meals and cases of fresh clothes, is almost a side-swipe against late-Capitalist consumerism. Take Lizzardi, for example. Whilst he sets himself above taking the jewels, we’ve already seen him accept an expensive watch and now, he assembles a convincing set of vestments, from the wreckage. What is Buñuel saying here? that we can’t survive unless molly-coddled in vacuous gewgaws? J. G. Ballard would later write a similar scenario into the novel High Rise (filmed in 2015); a tale about the disintegration of civilisation within a huge tower block. For another take on similar themes, consider the (surprisingly) excellent Judge Dredd (2012); a picture that has that whole micro-dystopian-tower-block angle well and truly covered.
In conclusion then, Garden ends-up being played with a straight bat. Even the English title – Death in the Garden – carries obvious biblical connotations, with allusions coming thick and fast in the actual picture. Buñuel’s little more than a Director-For-Hire on this project yet, put those constraints aside and I’ll concede he’s doing just enough to persuade me, that he retains flashes of his old brilliance.
Happily, Buñuel’s career was to see a late-blooming, thanks to the fillip given in directing Belle De Jour (1967); Catherine Deneuve in an era-defining role, that brought Buñuel’s journey as a film-maker, full-circle. Luis Buñuel dedicated his life to undermining beliefs and institutions that ran contrary to his nature and, whilst outwardly unsuccessful, a new generation of film-makers could see the spark – the fire – within a body of work, that remained undimmed to the end.
My friends, do you hear me? It may be that hunger is making me delirious, but I’m obsessed with a story about soft-boiled eggs.