Down a narrow, dead-end street in a middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City, a three-story brick house with white window frames gives no hint of the bizarre, even shocking images that were dreamed up inside.
Luis Bunuel, known as the father of surrealist cinema, lived in the simple, gated house over the last 30 years of his life as an exile from post-civil war Spain. For a man who assaulted moviegoers with such shots as an ant-infested hand, an eyeball sliced open with a straight razor, and elegant dinners sitting on toilets, Bunuel enjoyed a surprisingly genteel life here.
Now, the Spanish government, which bought the house from Bunuel’s family, has opened it to a public long fascinated with his work. The house can only be visited during events, exhibits or by scheduling a visit with Spain’s culture ministry but the plan is to turn the building into a meeting place for Spanish and Mexican moviemakers, with workshops and exhibits to celebrate Spanish-language cinema. The inauguration has been timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Bunuel’s death in the Mexican capital.
Critics still regard Bunuel as one of cinema’s greatest directors with movies such as L’Age d’Or and That Obscure Object of Desire pushing the boundaries of both taste and narrative.
His Hollywood contemporaries, including directors Alfred Hitchcock and George Cukor, admired the freedom and creativity with which he turned out his 32 films. And his work continues to inspire filmmakers more than 80 years after he launched his career. Director Woody Allen even had Owen Wilson’s character in the 2011 film Midnight in Paris meet a young Bunuel and suggest the plot of The Exterminating Angel, in which guests are trapped in a room for no apparent reason after an elegant dinner party.
Despite that colorful legacy, Bunuel’s home is being presented as simply as the director left it, not with the museum treatment given to the Mexico City abodes of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and surrealist painter Frida Kahlo.
In fact, Bunuel never imagined his house as a representation of his work, unlike Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s Southern California home, which is filled with images of the monsters and heroes of his films. Novelist Carlos Fuentes once even mocked Bunuel’s interior design, calling it “as impersonal as a dentist’s office,” an ironic barb for a director who spent much of his career lampooning the bourgeoisie.
“Bunuel lived like a petite bourgeois,” said Jose de la Colina, co-author of Luis Bunuel, Don’t Peek Inside, a series of interviews with the filmmaker. “He wasn’t trying to pretend he was the bohemian or the misunderstood artist, nothing like that. His life was pretty normal and quiet.”
Or as Bunuel himself put it in his memoirs: “I only feel good in my house, loyal to my daily routine.”
Nonetheless, a visit to the house in the middle-class neighborhood of Del Valle awakens images of the life Bunuel lived inside.
The sunlit foyer surely made for an ideal spot to drink the dry martinis that Bunuel loved, before retiring to the living room for a film screening. In the back of the house sits a tiny, cozy kitchen of white tiles and outside, a garden with a grill.
The house does boast paraphernalia from some Bunuel films such as a movie poster for The Young and the Damned, which brutally depicted the poverty endured by Mexico City’s street children. The film’s script and reel canisters are also on exhibit, along with stills from other films and photos of Bunuel at work.
Built in the early 1950s by architect Arturo Saenz, the building is modeled after Madrid’s Student Residence, which was known as a cultural hub that nurtured, among others, Spanish painter Salvador Dali and poet Federico Garcia Lorca, both once close friends of Bunuel.
In the 1964 French documentary A Filmmaker of Our Time, a paranoid Bunuel said he hardly ever left the “small house with a garden,” secluding himself from the world because of his deafness. He told people that he built a fence, with shards of broken glass sticking out, around his den to scare away the thieves.