DEATH IN THE GARDEN (Luis Buñuel, 1956)

In Luis Buñuel’s keenly evocative La mort en ce jardin, the “garden” suggesting the God-given paradise that Adam and Eve corrupted is, in reality, the atheistic jungle to which a group from a South American mining village take to escape the military police, which have the state in their grip. During the flight, late into the film, there is a long-shot of people, who resemble monkeys as a result of the camera’s distance, which is accompanied by jungle sounds: the chattering of actual monkeys and the tooting of birds. The sumptuous image is an ironical gloss on the breakdown of the group, in their flight for survival, whose springboard is the wreckage of an airplane that supplies them with food and other amenities at the cost of fifty other human lives. Already, the young priest, Father Lizzardi (Michel Piccoli), has ripped up his bible for the convenience of having finger-ready toilet paper. There are no one-stop shopping marts in the middle of a jungle.
     Adapted from José-André Lacour’s 1954 novel by Buñuel, Raymond Queneau, Luis Alcoriza and Gabriel Arout, the film, shot in Mexico and from France and Mexico, has a perverse sense of humor. The shot of the leaf-enfolded human monkeys reflects the brutal outcome of the miner-loot aspirants’ failed attempt at a revolution. The “jungle sounds” echo their crushed movement, which was fueled, note, by greed, not a love of freedom. It is a case of “Monkey see, monkey do.”
     Although the protagonist, Chark, may or may not be a bank robber en route to Brazil, an even more ambiguous figure is Castin (Clouzot’s Charles Vanel, giving the best performance), whose deaf-mute grown-ripe daughter’s condition, without labored underlining on Buñuel’s part, insinuates itself cunningly into the film in the dialogue-less stretches that cause the film increasingly to suggest, also, a dream. At the last, with this girl and Chark the lone survivors on a single boat as dusk descends, indeed Buñuel’s vision slips into a dream from which the finality of “FIN” further suggests they will not escape.
     Looking perhaps even more beautiful than usual, Simone Signoret wonderfully plays Djin, a prostitute who weighs marriage to the much older Castin to grasp financial security, at least on one level, and to reclaim her lost innocence by somehow replacing Castin’s daughter in his heart, on another level. This, of course, is not going to happen; Castin’s and Djin’s deaths in the garden seal the impossibility.

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