Made in the middle of his underrated Mexican period, Luis Buñuel's perverse comedy about the world's most inept (or most psychically potent?) serial killer finds Buñuel settling into the style that would dominate the remainder of his career: a deceptively banal mise-en-scene of deadpan performances and surfaces occasionally yielding to eruptions of psychologically charged surreality. The pattern is set from the stunning first scene: as a boy, the title character is captivated by his nanny's harmless fantasy that their music box has murderous powers. But his imagination is catapulted into a lifelong obsession with sex and murder when, after the boy plays the music box, the nanny is randomly killed, her body sprawled before him, her legs exposed to the garters.
Now a respectable middle class adult, Archibaldo tries to kill the women in his life, but is thwarted by circumstances, ranging from the mundane to the melodramatic, in which the women die before he can act on his impulses. Panged with guilt over the possible potency of his hidden moties, Archibaldo tries to confess his would-be killings, but the police chief, who acts as a father confessor to his flashbacks, dismisses him by suggesting that his impulse is no greater than those who satisfy their blood lust by reading mystery novels. As the opening scene establishes, the film constantly depicts stories, as well as fetishized objects, as the chief mediators between a world of respectable appearances and the violent desires of sex and death raging underneath. The film's centerpiece is a bizarre seduction/attempted murder scene involving a menage a trois with a mannequin that the two lovers take turns dressing and undressing.
Characters are always in the act of narrating as a way of exerting control on others: in suicide notes, bedtime stories, confessions, pardons; even a tour guide seems to play to her group's fantasies of discovering a Mexican culture that they had essentially brought with them, if only to keep them occupied. Whether it's Archibaldo's superstitious suspicion that his desires magically caused the women's murders, the police inspectors' eagerness to seek an easy explanation for death to facilitate an early coffee break, or even the American tourists impositions on their host country, the behavior of these characters share an underlying impulse to colonize the world around them with their limited and selfish capacity to comprehend it. It's to Buñuel's credit that he depicts this absurdist human comedy within the stylistic conventions of classical narrative filmmaking; it only serves to weave the craziness of humankind more inseparably with the appearance of normalcy.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz on The Shoot Pictures' list of 1000 Greatest Films:
Alex Grant, Miscellaneous (2002) Cesar Santos Fontenla ,Nickel Odeon (1994) David Trueba, Nickel Odeon (1994) Gertrud Koch, Sight & Sound (1992) Charles Tesson, Nouvel Observateur: Best Films 1953-2002 (2002) Francois Truffaut, Favourite Films (1979) Jean-Louis Leutrat, Positif: 10 Favourite Films 1952-2002 Slant Magazine, 100 Essential Films (2003-2007) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Only intermittently amusing black comedy, made in Mexico by Luis Buñuel. Directed rather indifferently, though the story has a Bunuelian perversity - perhaps a little more giddy than usual. It has a wonderful start: Archibaldo finds a music box which reawakens his memories of a childhood experience. His governess had found him dressed up in his mother's clothes, and while she was bawling him out for it, a stray bullet from the revolution going on outside had killed her. Later, Archibaldo keeps trying to recapture that sexual pleasure, but his attempts to commit murder are continually frustrated by the deaths of his intended victims.
- Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies
Buñuel made some-not-so-good films after "Archibaldo" and before the classic "Viridiana" (1961), but "Archibaldo" is the film that really begins his extraordinarily productive late period in which he has given us such masterpieces as "Tristana" and "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie," with the possibility of another coming up, "That Obscure Object of Desire," his newest work, which will be seen at the forthcoming New York Film Festival.
One might be tempted to call "Archibaldo vintage Buñuel except that that would imply the film recalls a talent since lost, worn thin, run out. "Archibaldo" is Buñuel in the peak form with which he has continued to dazzle us in recent years. It doesn't have the superb European actors who have given "Tristana," "Discreet Charm" and "Phantom of Liberty" their box-office chic, but it has the wit, the simplicity of style, the directness and, above all, the total command that make his later films seem virtually perfect realizations of the director's particular visions.
Archibaldo is innocent of the crimes he tries to confess to the chief of police but though this film is high comedy, his innocence is not much different from that of the delinquents of Buñuel's "Los Olvidados"—the slum kids who commit unspeakable atrocities but feel no guilt whatsoever. Archibaldo and the slum children inhabit very different kinds of films though the social orders are equally bankrupt in both.
- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, September 16 1977
Not unlike Él, Ensayo de un Crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz) is a twisted tragicomedy on male obsession. It's also the closest Spanish auteur Luis Buñuel ever came to directing a bona fide suspense thriller.
Buñuel sees a certain existential crisis in a murderer's incompetence to murder. By repeatedly foiling Archibaldo's murderous schemes, Buñuel forces his anti-hero to renegotiate the meaning of desire and his confused notions of pre-determined will.
Though Archibaldo is set to marry the innocent Carlota (Ariadna Welter), he nonetheless pursues mannequin-model Lavinia (Miroslava Stern) after spotting her through the fire of a waiter's flaming drink at a local bar. Just as Buñuel uses mirrors and reflections as windows into Archibaldo's soul, fire comes to fascinatingly represent his voyeuristic gaze.
Past the shockingly flippant admission by the film's police officers that Archibaldo cannot be held responsible for wishing death on others lies an evocative, "uncomplicated" finale that sadly suggests Archibaldo can free himself of his murderous fetishes should he willingly toss aside his memories of childhood. But that may be too painful, because Buñuel once said: "You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing."
- Ed Gonzalez, Slant
Luis Buñuel creates a macabre and insightful comedy on obsession, machismo, and bourgeois hypocrisy in The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. Using the repeated imagery of mirrors and reflections, Buñuel provides a figurative window into his own sardonic humor and personal idiosyncrasies: a foot fetish suggested through the death of the governess (that is subsequently manifested in Diary of a Chambermaid and Tristana); a sense of voyeurism that arises from vigilant observation, revealed through Archibaldo's discovery of a lovers' quarrel (shown through an angled mirror) and Carlota's (Ariadna Welter) rendezvous with her lover; an obsession to capture the essence of the perfect woman through Lavinia (Miroslava Stern) and her mannequin likeness (the doppelganger imagery is also examined in his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire). In a playful homage to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, Buñuel further illustrates his droll and incisive wit by creating a surreal twist to pivotal Hitchcockian images involving a glass of milk (Notorious) and a straight razor (Spellbound). Through Archibaldo's bizarre and unorthodox dual life as a serial killer, Buñuel subverts the conventional devices of a suspense film and creates an irreverent and audacious personal statement on the conundrum of sexual politics.
- Acquarello, Strictly Film School
A black comedy about an upper-class gentleman would-be murderer, who is always thwarted before the crime. It's the last film of Luis Buñuel's ("Nazarin"/"The Exterminating Angel"/"Él") Mexican period and though minor it still has a few witty bizarre touches and some great imagery to hang its hat on (a toy music box that supposedly can kill, a wax mannequin of our hero's girlfriend Lavinia (Miroslava Stern) that goes up in smoke after our hero fails to murder his spiteful loved one he puts on a pedestal, and the mirror in a room, acting as a look into our hero's soul, reflecting his unfaithful bride Carlota's rendezvous with her suave married lover Alejandro).
Buñuel has some laughs at the expense of the decadent hypocritical bourgeoisie, dumb Yankee tourists, the complacent priests, the capricious artist and at the Latin male lover image, while including his obsession with foot fetishism. It never amounts to more than a cheaply made one macabre joke movie that was only slightly amusing and only somewhat more effective as satire, but it paved the way for his later more productive period of creating many masterpieces.
- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's Movie World
Both a comedic and chilling film by famed director Luis Buñuel. The last of his “Mexican” period dubbed by some as a time that his films were more commercial… certainly true in comparison to his later works in which he was granted much more artistic freedom. “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz”, “El” and “Los Olvidados”, all made in Mexico, brought Buñuel international acclaim and it was in these films that he developed his style with trademark surreal, unpredictable imagery with biting and often grim social observations.
Gripping you with his depth of characterization and lack of fear as a director, Buñuel creates sublime artistic cinema merely touching on dark perversions, eroticism and criminal intent. Archibaldo feeling that the re-found music box is compelling him to indulge the practices of a serial killer, finds his careful plotting and scheming continually falls short of its intended target. The plot walks the fine line between true horror, bizarre sexual lust and cynicism over Buñuel’s usual foibles of the rich, macho men and sexual and religious perceptions. Unaware of the direction the film will take us next we sit quietly pondering while being treated to some excellent well-choreographed cinematography.
- Gary W. Tooze, DVD Beaver
IT is a screen moment so delicious that Pedro Almodovar could not resist snipping it out and inserting it into his magisterial film, Live Flesh (1997).
A spoiled little boy hears from his governess the disquieting tale of a king who, with the aid of a toy, a wind-up musical ballerina doll, can magically vanquish his enemies. The governess is interrupted by sounds of violent fighting in the street and goes to the window to investigate.
Instantly the boy concentrates on the doll, starting up the tinkly music and wishing malign fate upon his innocent governess. A bullet penetrates the window; immediately the woman lies dead, blood running from her neck. The seemingly omnipotent boy stares in awe at the exposed black stockings on the corpse's legs, he confesses (in adult voice-over) that he felt a "morbid sense of pleasure".
It is all over in a few seconds. But this introduction to Luis Buñuel's The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) is indelible in its provocative mixture of elements: sweet music, sudden death, cold eroticism. The scene announces that anything, no matter how strange or crazy, can happen in a narrative, and it also indicates that the logic of events belongs to the realm of wish or dream, a fantasy made real.
And the Spanish filmmaker, ever the showman, has a final touch up his sleeve - a way to "top the topper", as comedians call following a punchline with another, crowning joke. From this tableau of death and sinister imagination, Bunuel cuts to a nun, who is obviously none too pleased to be hearing this confession from the adult Archibaldo propped up merrily in his hospital bed. The nun declares that she finds the story distasteful, and Archibaldo is pleased - as pleased, no doubt, as Bunuel himself, who never wasted any opportunity to scandalise the clergy.
- Adrian Martin, The Australian
Even for a film from Luis Buñuel’s Mexican period, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz—the on-screen title for which translates as Rehearsal for a Crime—is surprisingly obscure. Though this 1955 film came out on the artsy VHS label of Waterbearer Films in the late ‘90s, I only encountered it thanks to the tantalizing clips from it in Pedro Almodóvar’s Live Flesh (1997). Those sent me in search of the film, which turned out to be available on a French DVD. It was worth the effort, if only because it is perhaps the lightest and most purely playful film of Buñuel’s career. It’s an oddly charming black comedy dressed up as a kind of thriller.
Aspects of it may remind you of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948), but in reality it more closely resembles a dark-humored variant on Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943). Indeed, the structural device of having Archibaldo de la Cruz (Ernesto Alonso from Buñuel’s Wuthering Heights) confess his “crimes” to a police commissioner (Carlos Riquelme) is almost identical to Don Ameche presenting himself to Laird Cregar’s Satan in the Lubitsch picture—as are the results. In essence, de la Cruz is a delusional man, who dreams of committing the perfect murder—an idea born of a childhood incident. And, as presented, he has some fairish—if somewhat misogynistic—reasons for these ideas. He plans and schemes and rehearses, but things never go right—or at least they never go right in the way he intends. Saying more would be unfair to the film, since much of its charm comes from the surprise of how what goes wrong manifests itself. Yes, it’s Buñuel lite, but it’s nicely tasty in the bargain.
- Ken Hanke, Mountain Xpress
The creation of stoic objects involves both first movements and emotions: objects generate first movements by implying or suggesting an idea to us; emotions substitute and efface first movements when, as Stoics, we consider that objects not only suggest ideas, but also manifest them. For the Stoic, the object corresponds to the idea. The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) exemplifies how first movements devolve into emotional attachments to objects. Archibaldo, a rich and spoiled boy, is fascinated by his mother's music box. When his governess' death seems to confirm that the music box will execute any killing he wishes, Archibaldo assigns his feelings of omnipotence and narcissism to the music box. Years later, as an adult, Archibaldo (Ernesto Alonso) finds the music box at an antique shop. By rekindling Archibaldo's narcissism, feelings of omnipotence, and murderous desires, the music box thwarts his relationships with women. Archibaldo can overcome his narcissism and initiate a healthy romantic relationship only by renouncing to the music box.
- Agustin Zarzosa, Scope
ABOUT LUIS BUNUEL
The following quotes are found on the TSPDT profile page for Bunuel:
"Perhaps the easiest way to deal with Buñuel's career is to suggest that certain avatars of Luis Buñuel may be identified at different historical periods. The first Luis Buñuel is the Surrealist. The second Luis Buñuel is the all-but-anonymous journeyman film professional. The third is the Mexican director. The fourth is the Luis Buñuel who gradually made his way back to Europe by way of a few French films made in alternation with films in Mexico. The last Luis Buñuel, following his emergence in the mid-1960s, was the past master, at once awesome and beloved." - E. Rubinstein (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
"Though the Church and bourgeoisie were his prime targets, beggars might be thieves and rapists, blind men paedophiles, virginal cripples harridans, and housewives afternoon whores; all were calmly and coolly examined as if insects under the microscope, with the fascinated, bemused Buñuel never hammering home a moral sermon, but merely revealing, in a strange spirit of sympathy, the fundamental comedy of the human condition. He was, in short, one of cinema's greatest, most unassertive masters." - Geoff Andrew (The Director's Vision, 1999)
"Although Buñuel made some haunting films in the early 1950s - most notably El Bruto and El, the richest period of his work runs from 1958 to 1970, years in which Buñuel produced a series of shattering works that could almost claim to be considered masterpieces of the cinema." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)
"Surreal comedies laced with complex psychology are representative of Bunuel's talents." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
"Fortunately, somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether." - Luis Buñuel
Luis Buñuel was a singular figure in world cinema, and a consecrated auteur from the start. Born almost with cinema itself, his work moves from surrealist experimentation in the 1920s, through commercial comedies and melodrama in the 1950s, to postmodernist cine d'art in the 1960s and '70s. Claimed for France, where he made his celebrated early and late films, for Spain, where he was born and had his deepest cultural roots, and for Mexico, where he became a citizen and made 20 films, he has more recently been seen as a figure in permanent exile who problematises the very idea of the national in his films.
A surrealist, an iconoclast, a contrarian and provocateur, Buñuel claimed that his project was to pierce the self-assurance of the powerful. His work takes shape beneath the “double arches of beauty and rebellion”, as Octavio Paz put it. Recently, his sons have reasserted Buñuel's view of Un Chien andalou, as “a call to murder” against the “museum-ifying” of the celebrations of his centenary. While this exaggerates somewhat his radicalism and outsider status, there is considerable consistency in his attacks on the bourgeoisie, whose hypocrisy and dissembling both amused and enraged him. “In a world as badly made as ours,” he said, “there is only one road – rebellion.”
Buñuel is in fact satirising his own class, to which he comfortably and unabashedly belonged. He understood the neuroses and pettiness of his middle class Catholic upbringing well. “I am still an atheist, thank God”, he famously said. It is one of his many paradoxes: he was both inside and outside. While a ferocious critic of the ideologies of the powerful in his films (the unholy trinity of bourgeois complacency, religious hypocrisy, and patriarchal authority), he enjoyed the fruits of this social order in his personal life. His wife's memoirs Mujer sin piano (Woman without a Piano), written to fill out Buñuel's own, in which she and her children are mentioned hardly at all, reads like the remembrances of a Stockholm-syndrome afflicted captive. Jeanne Rucar, who met Buñuel in 1926 and married him in 1934, tries to tell a love story but the pain and losses he inflicted on her, including that of her beloved piano, to a bet made by Luis without her consent, constantly shine through.
More than other directors, Buñuel has etched indelible images into film culture. The “Buñuelian” can refer to shots of insects, a sheep or other farm animal appearing in posh settings, cutaways to animals eating one another, bizarre hands, odd physical types and, especially, fetishistic shots of feet and legs (said Hitchcock of Tristana: “That leg! That leg!”). The term also implies the confusions of dream and reality, form and anti-form, an irreverent sense of humour, black, morbid jokes that hint at the constant presence of the irrational, the absurdity of human actions. Buñuel shares this sensibility with the Spanish esperpento, the distancing black comedy that has been considered an authentic Spanish film tradition.
He also shares with the esperpento an acid view of the powerful and their excesses, as well as a sense of sexuality as debasing and enslaving. Desires, sexual and political, are continually intertwined in his films. More than a call to murder, his best films are a call to an attempt at anarchist freedom, however futile, both in love and society.
- Dominique Russell, Senses of Cinema
Buñuel was a director whose career ended several times, only to re-emerge from the ashes in unusual or spectacular fashion. He was among the youthful rebels of European surrealism in the 1920s and '30s, making three classics in quick succession: Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) and L'Age d'or (The Golden Age, 1930), both in collaboration with painter Salvador Dali, and the original mockumentary, Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread, 1932). These films, far from being museum pieces, have lost none of their hallucinatory force. Then things stalled. Bunuel spent more than 15 years tinkering on various projects in Spain and the US, but brought none of his most cherished, darkest dreams to the screen.
Mexico, to where he moved in 1946, offered a new start. Buñuel entered the commercial industry there as a consummate B-film professional, churning out in record time musicals, westerns, thrillers, melodramas and romances. He was also able to slip in, now and again, a more personal production, such as Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned, 1950) and Nazarin (1959).
It was during this chapter of Buñuel's working life that, as French critic Jean-Andre Fieschi put it, he "dedicated himself to indirections characterised by a persistent deployment of cunning". In other words, Buñuel became a sly fox. He began to expertly insinuate his personal viewpoint into even the least promising material.
Indeed, Buñuel was perfectly correct when he said that, although he might have made "three or four frankly bad films" in his Mexican sojourn, "I never infringed my moral code". The anger against social oppression, the subversive humour, the idea of revolt through love: all these hallmarks of his surrealist youth still burned bright, as they were to do until his death in 1983.
Why does Buñuel's work endure? In the 21st century, when MTV has exhaustively recycled the originally shocking opening of Un chien andalou - a razor slicing an eyeball - and the art-house scandals generated by Catherine Breillat (Romance) or Gaspar Noe (Irreversible) go far beyond any sexual scenario that Bunuel ever hinted at, shouldn't his films seem quaint, fussy, tame? Nothing could be further from the truth.
Buñuel was right to claim that his films eschewed symbolism, metaphor and allegory, which belonged, in his view, in the whole sorry baggage of overly meaningful and self-aggrandising art cinema, which he associated with the "phony surrealist" Jean Cocteau. Buñuel's slyness went hand-in-hand with his classicism, his love of patterns and connections subtly woven, then left for the viewer to notice and interpret.
That is why Buñuel's legacy is still carried by the Cronenberg of A History of Violence rather than the Lynch of Mulholland Drive; by the quizzical, low-key surrealism of Chile's Raul Ruiz (That Day) rather than the strenuous sex-and-violence visions of Mexico's Carlos Reygadas (Battle in Heaven). Buñuel understood that, in the quest to revolutionise the minds of viewers, indirection and understatement were more powerful weapons than shock or awe.
- Adrian Martin, The Australian
Over the past few years several Latin-American friends and acquaintances have expressed their dawning perception that the greatest of Buñuel’s three periods is the one he spent in Mexico, the one that yielded by far the most films. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, overturning the more common position that Bunuel’s extended stint in the Mexican film industry was basically a holding action, a way of “keeping his hand in” while awaiting the opportunity to make his own pictures with relative freedom again. But since this “commercial” period yielded films as personal and as accomplished as The Young and the Damned, Mexican Bus Ride, El bruto, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, El (this Strange Passion), The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, Nazarin, The Young One, and The Exterminating Angel–to come up with only a short list–it surely has to be seen as something more than a period of retrenchment. And there are undoubtedly still other jewels from this period waiting to be rediscovered.
Another way to categorize Buñuel’s work–more thematic than geographical or chronological–would be in terms of its surrealist and Marxist elements. One might describe the three initial avant-garde films as Surrealist (as in the official Surrealist group) and pre-Marxist, and the late art-house films as surrealist and post-Marxist; the Mexican films that were made in between include various combinations of Marxism, Surrealism, and surrealism. Part of the power of El bruto, a melodrama about a slow-witted thug who works for a slum landlord, is the manner in which an acute understanding of power gradually creates a feeling of sympathy for this bully, whose mother was a maid and who turns out to be the landlord’s unacknowledged bastard son. (Though he came from a well-to-do family, Buñuel is one of the few major filmmakers who never shows the slightest trace of condescension toward the poor; it’s one of the central facts about his work that makes it endure.) It’s equally impressive to see how Bunuel injects surrealist dream sequences into The Young and the Damned (my favorite of the Mexican films) and Robinson Crusoe in a way that enhances and even clarifies these films’ social agendas.
Buñuel’s other virtues include an absence of sentimentality, a poetic sense of irony, and a skeptical preoccupation with purity in various forms that can be traced all the way back to his early writing. A 1927 review begins, “Here is Buster Keaton with his latest film, the wonderful College. Asepsis. Disinfection. Freed from tradition, our gaze revels in the juvenile, tempered world of Buster, the great specialist in fighting sentimental infections of all kinds. The film is as beautiful as a bathroom, as vital as a Hispano-Suiza.” There’s also, a Latino friend points out, a preoccupation with ecology long before that word came into common use, often signaled by the recurring significant roles played by insects in his films.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, originally published in The Chicago Reader
A 'system'... underlies the series of Bunuel films which vary the motif of what Buñuel himself calls the 'inscrutable impossibility of the fulfilment of a simple desire.' In The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, the hero wants to accomplish a simple murder, but all his attempts fail; in The Exterminating Angel, after a dinner party, a group of rich people cannot cross the threshold and leave the house; in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, we have the opposite case of three upper-class couples planning to dine together, but unexpected complications always prevent the fulfilment of this simple wish; in Nazarin, where the narrative follows a pattern of endless on-the-road humilations and entrapments, the idealist priest Nazarin, to whom life is a sort of journey in the footsteps of Christ, witnesses how his hopes of liberation are dashed on the very road to freedom that he has chosen. His final insight, of course, is that what he has hitherto dismissed as mere distractions on his road to freedom - the contingent, unexpected humiliations and entrapments - provide the very framework of his actual experience of freedom. In other words, the structural role of these humiliations and entrapments which seem to pop out of nowhere is the same as that of the unexpected complications which again and again prevent the group in The Discreet Charm from dining together... The ultimate example which, perhaps, provides the key to this entire series is, of course, That Obscure Object of Desire, in which a woman, through a succession of absurd tricks, postpones again and again the final moment of sexual reunion with her aged lover... The charm of the film lies in this very nonsensical short circuit between the fundamental, metaphysical Limit and some trivial empirical impediment. Here we find the logic of courtly love and of sublimation at its purest: some common, everyday object or act becomes inaccessible or impossible to accomplish once it finds itself in the position of the Thing - although the thing should be easily within our grasp, the entire universe has somehow been adjusted to produce, again and again, an unfathomable contingency blocking access to it.
- Slavoj Zizek, from The Plague of Fantasies. Published by Verso, 1997. Pages 128-129
Watch complete French documentary: 'Luis Buñuel: Cinéastes de notre temps' (April 4, 1964). Focuses on the director's exile and his early career. On Google Video.