Along with this I still have this absurdity of being foreign, noble, an orphan, of living in a castle lost in the countryside, and I am in the hands of a great, hypochondriac lord who looks like Chateaubriand’s father. What do you want me to do about it? Did I choose this place? I hate it.
Dialogue d'ombres
(Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, 1954-2013)

Death in the Garden (Luis Buñuel, 1956)

The Number Two
by Luc Moullet

I can see what first attracted Buñuel’s attention in [José-André] Lacour’s novel: a “non-conformist” tone pushed to madness. “He was undoubtedly encouraged by a certain hunger to destroy, to destroy for nothing, for the insult that it throws in the face of things, and less so by a penchant to create and to love that had no outlet other than in a certain pain inflicted on beings and things and by which, surely without him realizing it, he again became the accomplice, the neighbor, the brother of things and beings…” (readers will appreciate this). There are also the points against governments and societies, against religion and the clergy and, finally, this association of men brought together by chance and who, enemies in the past, rediscover in the heart of nature the meaning of human solidarity, the ideal of all atheism-based thought.

Buñuel’s metaphysics is a metaphysics of ambiguity and complexity, but this complexity finds the ideal material of its expression in what is most opposed to it – the satisfied certainty of the bourgeois, of the clergy (Susana, El, The Criminal Life of Archibald de la Cruz) or of anarcho-atheists (L’âge d’or, That is the Dawn, Death in the Garden). The betrayal of the words of the novel is accompanied by a betrayal of the spirit, meaning by a “de-mythification.” The values preached in the book are demolished here. They are the reflection of a certain impartiality before events and the goal of Buñuel’s work is the search for a greater truth, of an absolute that, once attained, consequently finds itself destroyed. An event never has a meaning that the human mind can conceive: El is the living confirmation of this, there is not a single scene in the film whose importance we can specify without being mistaken and, if we formulate an opinion, the following fact will undoubtedly contradict it. In Buñuel’s films, the truth is the juxtaposition of an opinion and its opposite, an action and its opposite, a thought and its opposite, an attitude and its opposite.

Death in the Garden is in the same vein: there is no social critique here, criticism is impossible in this work where each shot orders us: “Do not judge because you don’t have the possibility or the right;” the governors of Cuchazo are both dictators and weaklings, murderers and cowards, but are they not right to forbid all private prospecting? Nationalized prospecting would make the natives wealthy – more admirable than these upstarts who have no other ambition than filling their pockets before going back home. There's a stunning scene when the machine gun platoon charges the inoffensive mass of cowardly workers and moves out of the way to let its most dangerous enemy, Chark, pass by! Castin, this mediocre fellow, in love with a prostitute, spending all his time in church, is no less complex than his companions, Djin and Tito Jonco, amateur double dealers; as for Padre Fernandez, his character evokes not so much Breton, Sade, Artaud or Claudel as Bernanos. The Spaniard who spent ten years of his life with the Jesuits is deeply attentive to religion but he does not allow for the idea of Providence. Every time our priest sets to predicting the future or giving his word, he finds himself contradicted by the facts. But Buñuel has particular fun showing us the incompatibility between the divine and the human. The first duty of a Christian is to help his fellow humans and save them from death; as no plant in the jungle can burn, the priest resolves to tear some pages from his missal, though his first duty as a priest is to respect the Holy Book. The boa constrictor having been devoured by ants, he calmly puts the torn pages back in their place. But he gives the chalice to those who are thirsty. The Padre seems to act like every good Christian should but his behavior puts him at odds with the theory he professes. Take the scene where he tries convincing Castin to give himself up to the police. Castin responds: “It’s an innocent man who’d give himself up.” A few minutes later, he is forced to make the villagers who have broken into Djin’s house believe that he was the one who needed the prostitute’s care. “He’ll understand what it means to be innocent and to pretend to be guilty,” lets out Djin. As for the old myth about human solidarity far from the social world, it appears even more ambiguous: Castin, Djin, Maria, Chark and the Padre are only brought together because their union is their only chance for survival. That’s no joke – the final massacre and the dissensions after the plane’s discovery are proof of it. But why does Chark backtrack to bring food to his famished companions? He could have left them forever without it costing him anything.

The unusual is only a subtle form of ambiguity, both are extensions of the same origin, the components of Buñuel’s universe: man cannot know the truth because it is always beyond his grasp. Ambiguity, duality as well as the unusual, and the extraordinary are by definition what we feel without managing to explain them. Surrealism only added to the bourgeois and Jesuit influences that marked Buñuel’s early years, drawing his attention to things of this world that go beyond the limits of what is rational, to the point that he was forced to conclude that there are no others. This aesthete’s attitude becomes in Buñuel work – and in his work alone – a vision of the world, adapted in every way to the reality that justifies it: Land Without Bread is the most typical example of this surrealist neo-realism. Love of the bizarre is not an aesthetic attitude but the natural way of acting with a knowledge of the world and a generous appreciation of what it contains. “I find that there is no better means of expression than cinema to show us a reality that touches us directly everyday.”

There is nothing cheerful or flattering about this universe. But the pessimism is not arbitrary, Buñuel likes his neighbors, like every major filmmaker: his bitterness is linked to his complete impartiality which forces him to accept a tragic idea of the world. To François Truffaut who, very correctly, said to him, “You like to disturb to the point that we could almost tell you that you do films the way Gide does novels: to unsettle,” he responds: “I force myself to do nothing disgraceful or reassuring. We must not make people think that everything is for the best in the best of worlds. We don’t have to break everything and make subversive films but I would like Bread, Love and Dreams better with a few less dreams and bit less optimism.” Buñuel’s temperament is marked by a fundamental honesty. He recognizes the authority of the material edifice over man’s soul but, rather than delighting in it, he lets out a cry of pain. Isn’t the rooster at the end of The Brute the living symbol of a universe that is foreign to us? The animal theme that we find again in The Brute as well as in Death in the Garden (the stunning fauna in the jungle, the boa constrictor, the cat, the plane, etc.) and all the other Mexican and French films is charged with a terrible meaning. The animal – a soulless being that strolls through events and things of the universe without understanding anything – singularly recalls the contradictions of our own existence. A pessimist, for sure, but Buñuel is not just that: the danger is wanting to ignore our own insufficiency, palliating it with a comfortable theory, the work of the intellect, on which we can rest easy; faced with this hypocrisy, he proposes the recognition of our own state and bases our grandeur on our weakness; we must know how to live our lives and construct them on perceptible facts. 

Originally published as Le chiffre deux in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 56, November 1956

Life Hesitates at 40 (Charley Chase, 1935)
I wanted to shoot in a city that I knew, where I'd lived. I don't entirely agree when people say: you have to see a city with the eyes of someone who is arriving for the first time. Instead, you have to see it with the eyes of someone who leaves his house everyday and impose that on the audience from the start. This is found in the films I love. It's a bit to illustrate and defend this cinema that I loved that I took this stance. Even if it takes an hour to adjust, a city must be shown in a certain way. Aside from people from Narbonne, everyone must be surprised.

– Jean Eustache on Le Père Noël a les yeux bleus

Secret Défense (Rivette, 1997)

Secret Défense: Small Trafficking in Death
Claire Vassé
(Positif, no. 446, April 1998)

After a foray into musical comedy, with the intersecting adventures of three Parisian girls in Haut, bas, fragile, Jacques Rivette now guides Sandrine Bonnaire between the countryside and Paris, but a Paris that is distinctly less playful, closer to the Paris of Paris nous appartient. Without a single note of music – aside from the credits – or dancing, Secret Défense is a film in which the weight and movements of the bodies are all the more realistic for constituting an essential part of the film. For the most beautiful scenes are perhaps the trips on the subway (one of which is filmed in real time) and train that allow Rivette to prove once again that he is the master of prolonging time. This is not to say he is a filmmaker of time: Rivette is above all a director of space, and this latest film affirms so, ostensibly in a somewhat diversionary manner, but ultimately quite neatly.

If the essence of Rivette’s cinema is not time, it is, first, because the films lack a notion of irreversibility that alone affords time its true substance, permeated by tragedy and death. The director of Céline et Julie vont en bateau prefers to shift back and forth between dreams and reality, envisaging life as a vast, endlessly restarting Game of the Goose, like so many mysteries whose resolution remains suspended. Just as Ida in Haut, bas, fragile, is running away from her rediscovered origins, Rivette is running away from the how and why, preferring to suspend time than to complete it with a conclusion that would herald death – or at least give  a foretaste of it.

Curiously, though, Secret Défense defies these characteristics, ending instead in the most definitive manner possible: the death of Sylvie (Sandrine Bonnaire), the mystery having been cleared up. “Paris bores me,” the character of Walser (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) says at one point; and these words could be understood as a direct echo of the filmmaker’s first feature, a kind of confession of weariness from someone who has always wanted to understand the world as an immense game in order to preserve its inconsistency and labyrinthine mysteries. But this may be jumping the gun: if Rivette’s latest film appears to be more linear and more conclusive, it is not without a spirit of twists and turns that strives to deviate from the path, the better to make it go in circles.

The first diversion requires the application of the film’s own mise en scène to resolve the mystery: a story about body trafficking, that of Sylvie’s sister, Elisabeth, whom her father sold to satisfy sordid professional ambitions. And the traffic of bodies is Rivette’s main business more than ever. Rivette is just as happy contriving their intersections and reappearances in his giant, playful race, as he is having them pass away, so that they can be simply and purely interchanged with one another. This is explicitly the case with Ludivine (Laure Marsac), the twin sister of Véro, who appears after the latter’s death and takes her place in the bed of her lover Walser. Trafficking bodies in a way, Rivette tries out roles, movements, behaviors and clothes on the same actress, just like Walser, the director’s alter ego, when he hides Ludivine in the shadows so that he can better orchestrate the surprise of Sylvie discovering her; and so that he can better test her nerves, a matter of experimenting how the surprise will affect her exhausted body as it bends the tiniest bit. More metaphorically, bodies are interchanged by fulfilling tasks that were not initially their responsibility: Walser killed Sylvie’s father so that her mother did not have to,* and Sylvie tells her brother, who wants to kill Walser, “I have to do to do it in your place.” As for the film’s two murders, they also happen to concern bodies being substituted for one another: those of Véro and Sylvie, blocking Walser’s body, the only one actually being targeted.

Secret Défense sticks clearly to its refusal to represent the past, leaving all tangible signs of other temporal layers to the background: photos and the children of the servant Marthe, the symbol of a new generation, that we only glimpse. The film takes place, moreover, over seven days, ending on the day it begins, closing the loop clearly as it ends on the murder of Sylvie by Ludivine, the twin sister of Véro who was killed a few days earlier by Sylvie. In a sense, Rivette is inviting us to a circling dance of death, but one that is in a certain way contested, the murdered body rising to the surface to take revenge on the murderer.

“Rising to the surface” is in fact the major subject of the film, which continually reduces questions of time and death to questions of spatial configuration, as in the case of Véro’s murder. The only difficulty it seems to cause Walser is that the body, which he gets rid of by throwing it into a river, does not “rise to the surface.” The time of the dead, then, is fixed to a space. In this regard, the real-time filming of a scene of travel that is actually about retracing one’s steps is emblematic, as if time could have little sway over a space that eschews time altogether by moving in an endless circle. The association of space with time in order to counter the influence of the latter is, moreover, the most significant maneuver Secret Défense makes to counter the march of time – or rather, to counter the figure of death. When Sylvie finds herself at risk of falling into the depths of the past by looking at a painting of a Middle Ages landscape, she is rudely brought to her senses by the surrounding space, which is made apparent by  the noise of her brother Paul’s motorcycle arriving at the estate. And the past relative to Elisabeth is also put into relation with the space since, above all, it is initially her bedroom that Sylvie mentions to start the conversation about her with Marthe. As for Ludivine, she does not want “to follow the same path as her sister,” that is, by dying. Here again, death is expressed in terms of space, which is, in a way, a compensatory equivalent to the time that is slipping away. “I drove fast to catch the lost time,” Walser explains to Sylvie when he tells her about the circumstances of her father’s murder. As though this spatialization of time was a way of circumscribing death in a territory, of containing it within limits.

If death is present in Secret Défense, it is, curiously, because it is missing, placed at the center of the film only then to be constantly denied by Rivette. This incapacity to stage death gives way, moreover, to one of the most beautiful moments in the film: Sylvie and Ludivine are in the estate’s garden, and Sylvie wants to confess to her that her sister is dead. Very quickly, the scene turns into a confrontation, Ludivine reproaching Sylvie for “her superior airs” of someone who knows more than the others. Of course Sylvie knows more than she is saying but, in Rivette’s universe, death is not spoken, its experience is not communicated. Nobody is qualified to talk about it, not even Rivette, whose complex relationship to aging is expressed by Sylvie's nightmare, imagining that she meets her sister fifteen years after her death, and that her sister hasn’t aged but nevertheless is still the oldest. Despite her position as the oldest, she agrees to play with Sylvie, who ends up suddenly noticing that she is alone, then wakes up. This way of wanting to deny time – or at least of distorting it to try to reduce its fatal effects – is what is at play in Secret Défense.

Rivette’s mise en scène is euphemistic. It makes death a simple desertion of space and not of time. Paradoxically, the weight of death only gains more importance because there is a downside: a simple absence carries the seed of the eventuality of death. The sound work bears witness to this underlying anguish about spatial separation: voices on the phone are in no way muted—a way of attenuating distance, or in fact, of refusing it altogether. But death only becomes more haunting. These voices that echo with such abnormal loudness are voices coming from nowhere, voices of ghosts that float, like Sylvie’s body, which refuses to give way to the desire of her lover Jules to “finally have a moment together.”

As if by a boomerang effect, the death that one wants to push off into space ends up invading the entire film. Rivette is not a filmmaker of time, he does not film “death at work,” but bodies and spaces that traffic in death and lead the spectator on a wandering journey that is both fascinating and enchanting.

*The dialogue between Sylvie and her mother Geneviève is explicit in this regard. When Sylvie asks her why Walser killed her father, Geneviève responds: “For me.” To which Sylvie replies: “You mean: in your place.”

Translation by Ted Fendt
Thanks to David Phelps