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Theater 32.2 (2002) 80-81
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The Spanish Connection
Christiane Riera Salomon
TheEsperpento Tradition in the Works of Ramón del Valle-Inclán and Luís Buñuel by Diane M. Almeida 2000: Edwin Mellen Press
Starting with the book's title, Diane M. Almeida brandishes her unambiguous intention—to place Ramón del Valle-Inclán, creator of the tragicomic genre he labeled esperpento, side by side with his younger contemporary Luís Buñuel. Almeida's purpose is to track down their use of esperpento in order to highlight "the great and often unacknowledged debt that the cinema owes to its predecessor, the theater." The book consists of two chapters: "Valle-Inclán and the Esperpento Tradition" and "Luís Buñuel: The View from the Other Shore." Meant to be a condensed account of the playwright's influences on the filmmaker, instead it seems a rushed, incomplete study of both.
In her first chapter, Almeida describes the term esperpento—Valle-Inclán's funhouse mirror par excellence that distorts and reflects in vibrantly grotesque ways. Besides dissecting the concept of esperpento in the four plays that the playwright has categorized as esperpento—Luces de Bohemia (1920), and Las galas del difunto, Los cuernos de don Friolera, and La hija del capitán, which make up the trilogy Martes de carnaval (1930)—Almeida expands the term's meaning [End Page 80] beyond Valle-Inclán's own body of work. For her, esperpento is at the core of Spanish sensibility and can be traced back to Goya, Quevedo, El Greco, and Zorrilla, among others.
Almeida drops a few pearls along the way. She compares Valle-Inclán's satirical vein with that of José Echegaray and weighs Buñuelian characters against those of the Marquis de Sade. Of particular interest is her linkage of esperpento to surrealism—both artistic manifestations "yearning for a revolutionary change in the perception and understanding of reality" trying to free themselves from "cultural constraints." Unfortunately, many of her most promising ideas are left unexplored. For example, after she carefully compiles a list of cinematic techniques Valle-Inclán melded into his innovative stage directions, she sums up with this anticlimactic, innocuous remark: "Had he been born later, perhaps he would have been as extraordinary a filmmaker as he was a playwright."
In her less incisive second chapter, Almeida focuses on Buñuel's first three movies: Un chien andalou (1929) and L'âge d'or (1930), both scripts written with Salvador Dalí, and the documentary The Land without Bread (1932). The films are arguably Buñuel's most surrealist, completed when he was still a passionate young agitator. They are rough pieces of filmmaking, soaked in the anarchic spirit of the Paris of the 1920s, and unrepresentative of the artist Buñuel became in the 1960s and 1970s while collaborating with Jean-Claude Carrière. Moreover, the films' tricky, absurdist nature forces Almeida to linger on long, tedious plot summaries that occasionally result in comical passages: "The cyclist reappears, magically erases his mouth and replaces it with a hair stolen from the woman's armpit."
These three films introduce icons and themes that recur throughout Buñuel's career —the disembodied hands at the opening shot of Un chien andalou and the fetishized foot in L'âge d'or, for example. But is it possible to mention "sexually transgressive behavior" without bringing up the charmingly perverted Sevérine from Belle du jour (1966)? Or list erotic dismemberments without mentioning Catherine Deneuve as an amputee in Tristana (1970)? Or discuss how Buñuel debunks the bourgeois without considering The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)? His later films offer more complex illustrations of these elements and would further validate Almeida's claim that Buñuel was an author of esperpentos.
More often than not, Almeida writes with the muted voice of an unimpassioned scholar, methodically concerned with a checklist of essentials. Shackled to details, she fails to reveal the ideology behind the aesthetics of esperpento. She argues, for example, that Valle-Inclán blends tragedy and comedy as an...