Copyright © 2011 by James Clark
For quite a while, I’ve been jockeying into position one of my favorite films, Woman in the Dunes (1964), whose guiding light (along with novelist and scriptwriter, Kobo Abe), namely, Hiroshi Teshigahara, has occupied some of my daydreams due to his abandoning film in favor of flower arrangement, ikebana. That vocation seems very near to actress, Setsuko Hara’s abandoning film just after Yasujiro Ozu’s death, for life in a meditative retreat. These trajectories have a way of haunting us, in view of the unforgiving weight of social misalliance. Teshigahara’s film, however, could be seen as entailing a strange rejoinder to such quietism.
But Woman in the Dunes has many strikes against it as a communicative vehicle. It’s (that word) “slow.” It’s claustrophobic. Few have seen it. And still fewer have cared for its eerie illuminations in a super-strange Beast’s lair. Therefore, I’m broaching this tight squeeze by way of a pair of raucous and flashy soulmates to that quiet little gem (namely, Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and the Coens’ A Serious Man), in hopes that their raging entropy will pave a way toward countering their suspicious helplessness. Just prior to that, however, we need to do a bit more grading of the Surrealist Inter-State to ensure that subsequent apparent strays more clearly take their bearings from the imperative—memorably keyed by Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast—of cogent interpersonal motion. Louis Bunuel’s Viridiana (1961) and Tristana (1970) transmit with gratifying transparency the “Pitfalls” (an alternate title for Woman in the Dunes) of maintaining that dynamic route in a state of perpetual waylaying of its uncanny prospects. But, in one of those cases at least, there is intriguing traction, necessitating one further twist to this preamble that may seem to be inspired by Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth-century novel Tristram Shandy.
Tristana’s tale of murdering her incorrigibly priggish and crude Bête—conspicuously loving the poor as borne on a self-serving rescue mission, but incapable of non-self-serving affection for his impoverished and beautiful young ward—gives us a more comprehensively abrasive (more twenty-first century) rendition of interrupted love than that of Sunset Boulevard. Its mining that generally disregarded troubled range of energy in its poetic (and thereby uniquely physical, cinematic) nature serves as a confirmation of such a workspace compelling within the whimsical meanderings of movie entertainment. Its featuring Catherine Deneuve in the title role facilitates linking its standoff to that of that of Belle de Jour, in a loop of rapt and remarkably volatile problematics.
At this point, however, we must finally settle upon Viridiana, for its introducing into the largely hidden crisis of correspondence a compelling, dazzling and witty note of confidence. As in Belle de Jour, there is a series of Bêtes, in this case two to be exact. First of all there is Don Jaime, who has financed his niece, Viridiana’s, education at a school operated by an order of nuns where she works in some capacity. So touched has she been by such guidance, that she has become a novitiate, “Sister Viridiana,” about to take her vows of entry into a life of ascetic attentiveness. Just at the point of our first seeing Viridiana, the Mother Superior informs her of her uncle (“He’s in poor health”) requesting that she visit him, and she urges her unmoved charge (“I’d prefer not to see the outside world again”) to comply. “Try to show him some affection.” Perhaps the grant he has given the convent, in the form of a “dowry” to accompany the chaste bride’s vows, has partly to do with this fastidiousness.
Against the grain of this set-up (for a film devoted to cross-currents that go unnoticed in favor of sensational outrage and showy decadence), the reluctant relative does show him some affection. Of course, when, on her arrival, he presses her for effusive gratitude, she digs in her heels (having in fact only met him once, long ago)—“So you feel no affection toward me?”/ “None.” But, at that same tour of his scruffy, neglected grounds surrounding his regal but decaying palace, she does smile easily and declares, “What a peaceful place!” Next day, she’s collecting eggs in the hen house, and she calls out to her uncle, “I’m going to bake you a delicious cake!” Sure enough, she balks at learning to milk a cow, gingerly touching a teat and giggling with embarrassment; and she priggishly takes the rich man to task for neglecting his long-estranged illegitimate son. But there is established at this outset point that she is far from a sensibility immobilized by Catholic doctrine.
Not that Don Jaime doesn’t carry around a priggish weirdness on the order of chronic bad breath (we first see him as an intent audience for his maid’s little girl, Rita, skipping rope, and later he tries on his deceased wife’s party shoes and corset); but his tweedy backwater academicism—“But what do you know of life?” he snaps at the novice for critiquing his treatment of his son—and Gothic solemnity (he’s constantly pounding out Bach fugues on a miniature organ needing tuning) sort of dovetail with Viridiana’s comfort zone. “You’ll feel you’ve never left the convent,” he promises her.
Their communion of mutual impoverishment proceeds apace, before bankruptcy rears its ugly head. The first night of the visit, she creates a mini-sensation in her bedroom by being observed (through a keyhole), by Ramona, the maid, to open a small suitcase filled with objects to mortify the flesh—a crown of thorns, a small wooden cross, hammer and nails—and to prepare for sleeping on the hard floor. The second night (at 2 a.m., to be exact), Don Jaime still underway with that Bach Festival, she sleepwalks into his room, gathers ashes from the fireplace and deposits them into his soft bedding. The Master of the mansion allows her to depart with the reverie of profuse carnal malaise intact, and only the next day does he offer it up for her consideration. She’s a bit nonplussed (claiming such an episode has only happened once before) but she clearly appreciates his kindness on this point. Thereby, he ups the ante by way of the gambit, “I’d like to ask an innocent favor.” That is to say, he’d like her to dress and move in his wife’s wedding gown. (He had marvelled on first seeing her, “You even move like your aunt!”) She prefaces her agreement to this ominous but intriguing step, with a bit of seemingly conventional hard-headedness that harbors a truly dangerous skepticism—“I don’t like masquerades…” Giving us a marvellous Cocteau moment, a vision in billowing white lace, she comes in the night to Don Jaime’s master bedroom, Ramona holding the dress’ extensive train and she holding an extensive candelabrum all alight in flames. Ever anticipating the Master’s desires, Ramona informs her—breaking an awkwardly silent confrontation, on the heels of her quite chipper, “I’m pleased I made you happy”—that her uncle wants to marry her. Having just remarked, “I think you’re a good man…” Viridiana hits the steep downward gradient of the emotional roller coaster she’s been on all the while. “You can’t be in your right mind” is the remarkably self-possessed, even regal, pronouncement emanating from that presence of royal-wedding-glamor. Her uncle promptly smoothes things over somewhat, Ramona proposes tea—“It will do you good”—and the drug they’ve put in place there (in light of Don Jaime’s fully absorbing her implacability, to wit, “She shows no gratitude. Sometimes I feel like beating her!”) soon leaves her unconscious. The all-too-human, calculating Beast (who, after the contretemps about his son, Jorge, rescues a bee from drowning in a rain barrel, and apologizes, “You must think I’m a monster”) dithers over raping Viridiana, but we come to a foretaste of the surprises her migration holds in store. His partially undressing her and kissing her breasts, following upon her languorously taking off her stockings before sleeping on the floor that first night, brings to us the alluring Beauty locked behind a prim, timidly solicitous facade, but being slightly discharged and opened for reverie by the peculiar twists of her voyage. On her being overcome by the potion, we see her seated from behind, her blonde mane (as when she was sleepwalking, no longer tangled in headpieces to correspond with a nun’s habit) shining and hanging there like a comet, and suddenly that spray of hair plunges earthward, as does her arm—tracing a lightning-like arc from which ensues broken China. Don Jaime’s retreat from her heavenly body—replacing her dress, feebly subpoenaing her next morning with the claim that she’s been violated and therefore can’t go back to the convent but must turn herself in for a lifetime of house arrest at his palace, only to rescind that nonsense and proceed to hang himself, after uttering the Bête-like declaration of a wild animal’s deadly sensitivities (“That look she gave me. Now she hates me…”)—entails this Belle’s showing her own problems of self-control. “You disgust me! Even if what you say is true…”
She and Jorge jointly inheriting the estate, we embark with her upon her adventures with a second Beast. The prelude to this movement involves a visit from the Mother Superior, hoping to re-establish her angelic and, more importantly, ascetic protégé in the appropriate firmament after a season of unseemly messing around. “My uncle was a great sinner. I feel responsible for his death… I intend to work humbly… I’ve done nothing wrong. I only know I’ve changed.” Muttering about “the pride in your words” the no-longer-required mentor exits, and Viridiana comes up against a Bête who tends to regard her as having “no blood in her veins.” He also, unlike his demonstrative father apropos of the bee, rescues a dog he sees being pushed to exhaustion and not being given adequate food and water by an owner whose calculative motto is, “The less he eats the better he hunts.” In addition to that, he affectionately treats the animal as a cherished friend. At the same time, Viridiana has ventured into a career of feeding and sheltering all the paupers of the nearby town, and demanding that they be “compassionate” toward one another. Like Jorge, she, too, is at odds with rudimentary lives that take savagery in stride, if it enhances their material well-being. (That affinity has to be underlined, since to most appearances these tentative aristocrats are at loggerheads over the whole spectrum of life at the palace.) A superlative passage cuts between Jorge (who has been appalled by the juxtaposition, “It’s like the Middle Ages—no electricity, and a power line passing right by the property!”) and his construction crew upgrading some outbuildings with twentieth-century equipment, while across the way Viridiana conducts a prayer session for her recruits under blossoming fruit trees. The brisk and wry cadence back and forth—“Pray for us sinners”/ Mortar splashes against a wall—brings about a peculiar oscillation of two vastly different worlds, with the rag-tag ethereal dysfunctionality of that sustained by Viridiana under palpable gravitational pull toward Jorge’s earthy directedness. “Hail, Mary, full of grace!”/ A cement mixer shakes and shakes, anticipating the film’s closing song (“Shake! Shake Doll! Shake!”), forming an arresting bookend with Handel’s Messiah, “Hal-le-lujah! Hallelujah, Hallelujah!” “Blessed art thou among women!”/ A tray of stones is shaken.
Though he loses it for a moment in complaining to the girl he brought along (who soon bails out, as does Don Jaime’s long-time manservant on being confronted with the odiferous opportunists comprising Viridiana’s first independent step toward efficacy [“…life’s work?”/ “I’m not sure. I’m still recovering from my shock”]), “She’s not crazy. She’s rotten with piety,” Jorge does in fact impressively eschew resentment. He would have loved going into architecture, but his father, in contrast to the catch-up reflex devolving to Viridiana’s education, would not spare the pittance, and so he has worked as a clerk in an architect’s office. “I’ve never borne him a grudge. A man can have a fling and walk away.” He’s bemused by Viridiana’s lost cause, but doesn’t freak out about its virulent absurdities. Instead, he tries to induce her into solid productivity on rich farmland. “If you helped me, this place would take shape quickly.” His patience is never more evident than in surveying the wreckage her dozen or so compassioned-challenged strays visit upon the palace while he and Viridiana settle some legal matters in town (Ramona and Rita joining them to attend to a dental problem of the latter, an instalment of the pervasive thrust of carnivorousness). On his crossing the threshold, they file out, mustering the semi-criminal cheek each one has honed to near-perfection. A wizened, toothless man who has paraded a diarrheal stream of cheap and vicious one-upmanship throughout this folly of Belle’s—informing a blind know-it-all charismatic that his girlfriend is being raped behind the sofa where her two babies have been deposited while the company ties into the sumptuous food and wine of the house, then skipping out of his way as he proceeds to demolish everything on the table with his cane—purrs, “I didn’t want to, but they made me.” On proceeding to flush out two of the more ensconced marauders, Jorge is knocked unconscious by a smash to his head from behind, and Viridiana is chased around the room and raped by one of them. The other, whom she had had to frequently protect from the rest of the mob due to his showing symptoms of leprosy, tells Jorge, who is now tightly bound, “I might get a turn when he’s done.” Jorge induces him (with cash hidden nearby) to murder his associate, and the police arrive, due to Ramona’s realizing the danger posed by Belle’s friends.
The aftermath, generally interpreted as Viridiana’s succumbing to the sensibility of her former friends and an irredeemably shallow Jorge, in fact shows us something else. On inspecting the wide range of dust-laden objects in the attic, he remarked, “Father must have been quite a character!” On setting out his definitive will en route to hanging himself, Don Jaime produces the only genuine smile we see from him. This fumbling harmonist—assuring Viridiana, “I was full of high ideals as a young man… eager to help others…”—envisioned a harmonic task close to his heart, being taken up by his two heirs.
Seated beside the benefactor’s fireplace with its framing design of two lovely nude women—an odd aspect in making a convent girl feel at home—Viridiana sips tea from one of the set of tea cups clumsily used to bring her around. Jorge turns from planning locations of light switches with an electrician to ask, “Are you over the shock?” She doesn’t reply; but immediately after this we see her consulting a mirror (as Cocteau’s Belle did) and paying particular attention to her now cascading mane. Then we see Rita dropping the crown of thorns into a bonfire, and we hear music from that station hitherto broadcasting conventional sacred music round the clock. But the playlist has changed quite remarkably. As the camera reaches the source in Jorge’s bedroom, we hear, “Shake! Shake Doll, Shake! / “Shake your cares away!” Ramona is pleased with his attentions. In the attic he had made love to her while a cat pounced on a mouse; but here Bête is quietly pleased as she gives him little bites to his wrist. Viridiana (not readily identifiable as a rockabilly fan) knocks on the door, and on opening it Jorge smiles and asks, “What can I do for you?” She gazes at him candidly and joins them at a card table, tentative but quietly galvanized. He manages the rockabilly-bar ribaldry, “All cats are grey in the dark.” And then, in a whimsical link to the first Bête’s harmonics, he shows his appreciation of the auspiciousness of the moment, with, “I always knew my cousin and I would end up shuffling the deck together.”
During the riotous dinner, someone puts on the Messiah, and we are struck by the kinetic invention of a few of those who try some dance moves to it. Even the slippery old guy is quite impressive. A couple of acrid women actually smile warmly in addition to the grace and joyousness of their movements. Viridiana was Don Jaime’s doll for a brief time, but the consequent rapture left much to be desired. Her new cat was also a piece of work; but then so was she. So are we all.
It seems clear to me that Bunuel had better things to do than tweak Franco, fascists and Catholics. The notorious scene where the unruly guests preen for a “picture” and nightmarishly replicate Da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper—as a snap shot by the lady “photographer’s” aperture on lifting her dress (a “camera my parents gave me”)—would be a moronic slight. But Bunuel is no moron. In view of the film’s current of disclosure, it is more likely about an earthy, elusive and unofficial divinity in all of us. Don Jaime tried to explain to Viridiana how his ideals came to nought. She countered with, “Isn’t that just cowardice?” We find her, at the end of our connection with her, beginning to appreciate real complication. “Shuffling the deck together” spans mundane calculation and tempestuous ecstasy. Bringing those energies to a harmonic creativity, within historical dispensations less than helpful, would be a labor of love fully conversant with coming to nought. A witty adumbration of this difficult play comes at the point where an outraged Viridiana is about to proceed to the bus station for the ride back to her convent-haven. Rita, who, as a solo performer of skipping rope, showed clear sailing and inventive, improvised steps, gets nowhere with a yo-yo game, tossing a spool to the breeze and trying to recover it and move along. A similarly exciting touch is the little episode where Viridiana skips “doubles” with her, haltingly at first, but soon pleasurably rolling.