Director: Luis Bunel
Writers: Luis Alcoriza, Luis Bunel & Raymond Queneau
Based on a novel by: Jose-Andre Lacour
Starring: Simone Signoret, Charles Vanel, Georges Marchal, Michel Piccoli, Michele Girardon
Country: France / Mexico
Running time: 104 minutes
BBFC Certificate: 12
Eureka! Entertainment release Death in the Garden on dual format (Blu-ray and DVD). This is one of the lesser known films in the career of film maker Luis Bunel, famous for earlier surrealist short films (where he collaborated with the surrealist artist Salvador Dali) such as Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930), and later cult classics feature length films such as Belle de Jour (1967) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Death in the Garden was made during Bunel's mid career when he was living in Mexico, and where he made several mainstream films for the Mexican film industry. This is at heart an adventure film, which combines political observation and also a consideration of the role of religion. The first half of the film depicts civil unrest in an undefined Spanish American country under military rule. Diamond prospectors are robbed of their profits by the dictatorship, which in turn leads to an armed uprising. The story has been described as a mirror image of Franco’s Spain from which Bunel had exiled himself.
The first half of the film lays the ground work with regard to introducing the range of characters who will go on to form a group of hapless fugitives on the run and forced to live in the jungle in the second half of the film. There is Chark (Georges Marchal) , a roguish adventurer, Djin (Simone Signoret) the local hooker, Lizzardi (Michel Piccoli) the priest, Castin (Charles Vanel) an ageing miner and his deaf and mute daughter Maria (Michele Girardon). Each character seems to harbour an unrealistic and self-involved dream to enable them to escape the oppressive regime in which they find themselves. Castin fantasises about eloping with Djin and them living together in romantic bliss, but she is really scheming to defraud him of his estate. Lizzardi appears to use his pious position to distance himself from the nastiness of daily life, and yet in the jungle he seems willing to dispense with his prayer book when faced when the grim reality of basic survival. Chark on the surface seems to care for no one but himself, but at heart he wants to help and enable others, to this extent he is the most socially conscientious of the entire group.
The film picks up in the second half, the group are chased down river and through jungle by the military. They have to survive in harsh conditions with no food, lost and walking in circles. Whilst the films composition is realist and straightforward, filmed in vivid Eastman Colour, there are some surrealist touches, primarily in relation to how when in the jungle each character is stripped of their supposed identity. Another odd touch is when they almost about to die from starvation they chance upon an airplane wreck, and are provided with all the luxuries of consumer society, food and possessions.
The film has some interesting themes. I wasn’t particularly impressed with any of the performances by the actors, but they weren’t bad. On the whole I found the film mediocre; it held my attention but didn’t greatly inspire me.
There are a bundle of extras with the film, which includes interviews with film critic Tony Ryan, the actor Michel Piccoli, and an interview with the film scholar Victor Fuentes who has written a book on Bunel’s film career whilst living in Mexico. I found the extras interesting to watch; they helped give context to the film. Tony Ryan in particular gives a good account of Bunel’s career, and the challenges he faced as a film maker.
Death in the Garden is released as part of The Masters of Cinema Series in definitive Dual-format (Blu-ray &DVD) edition on 19th June 2017.