Though Death in the Garden is undeniably a pretty minor Buñuel film it’s still got some moments that are truly his own. It leads up to his run of great films, starting, for me, with 1959’s Nazarin, and to the end of his life and career with That Obscure Object of Desire in 1977.
Death in the Garden was co-written by Buñuel regular Luis Alcoriza, but also by Raymond Queneau of the Oulipo group, and who also wrote Zazie dans le Metro. You can see some of these writerly influences in the film – the critique of state, a priest (played by a young Michel Piccoli) whose strong faith is at times subtly wayward, and a last third that’s a feverish jungle dream.
Other times, Death in the Garden feels like a pretty traditional film. Simone Signoret is Djin, the prostitute with a (eventual) heart of gold. Georges Marshal is Shark, the manly man who also has said golden heart.
Buñuel keeps his camera active. I was recently rereading Andrew Sarris’ Notes on the Auteur Theory. In it he claims that Buñuel is an auteur who came to technical prowess late. I agree. He’s not quite there in Garden – at least not to the level of really accomplished blocking and a camera that feels probing in his later films – but it shows that he’s got some chops and is on the way.
The final third of the film is best, in part, because of the absurdity of the situation. Father Lizardi (Piccoli) thinks better about burning his bible pages. Later, he’s dressed in full garb against the wild backdrop. The third image should recall Un Chien Andalou for most people, as ants crawl – not out of a hand – but on the pages of his beloved bible:
As I mentioned earlier, Buñuel does cast Lizardi as a hypocrite at times, but this isn’t always on the nose. Lizardi is struggling with faith, is sometimes mocked (as in a scene where he’s mistaken for one of Djin’s johns). He’s closer to the Christ-figures in Nazarin or even Simon of the Desert – generally gentle, a bit too self-righteous and over-serious, and not really aware of the world – than he is to the director’s takedowns in Andalou, or later films.
Then there are moments that are just pure Buñuel. Like here, where a python is consumed – alive – by a swarm of ants. It’s disturbing and brutal, and possibly allegorical. The second image below just feels like something Buñuel, Alcoriza, and Queneau might have dreamed up before the script was complete (“and there’ll be a giant plane, still intact, and Simone Signoret will be walking through the wreckage…”):
As things come to a sweaty head at the end of the film it’s not only the characters and setting who act a bit erratic; Buñuel also uses some clever transitions. Like this one, where a scene from the city (image one below), quickly becomes only a postcard held by the fire:
It’s a nice way to show the longing for civilization, but perhaps also the madness that is imminent.