Pictured: cat illuminated by lightning in Robinson Crusoe, directed by Luis Buñuel, 1954. Earlier this year I wrote about the enigmatic matter-of-factness with which Buñuel regards animals and objects in his work. The cat is just one of an entire supporting cast of non-human actors that populate Robinson Crusoe, other members of which include a German shepherd, a parrot, a herd of goats, some turtles, and a few sand fleas. They bear mute witness to Crusoe and his trials throughout the film, regarding him with a detached curiosity that Buñuel’s camera shares. We could even say that Buñuel himself adopts the detached gaze of an animal in this film (and in all of his films). When Crusoe mourns the death of his pet dog, Rex, he becomes maudlin—but Buñuel’s camera never does. It simply looks on, much in the same manner as the cat.
But what even is Luis Buñuel’s film of Robinson Crusoe? Our understanding of Buñuel as one of cinema’s most strikingly original auteurs risks being complicated by what would seem to be a radical departure from his usual style, tone, and production model. The international co-production was shot in Mexico (in English- and Spanish-language versions) with an American actor, Dan O’Herlihy, in the lead role, and Mexican actor Jaime Fernandez as Friday; O’Herlihy went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (!) for his performance. The strangest thing about the film may be the straightforwardness with which Buñuel adapts Daniel Defoe’s novel, though thematically it is continuous with his body of work as a whole. As a narrative—an origin story, really—about conquest, sovereignty, and subjugation, it may be only natural that Robinson Crusoe would appeal to Buñuel’s perverse sensibility. Crusoe and Friday’s relationship is a structured by a master/slave dynamic, variations of which run throughout Buñuel's filmography. And there are touches of surreal, deadpan humor throughout, as when Crusoe cracks open a bird egg, finds a fledgling inside, and consequently tries to put the eggshell back together. Elsewhere, Buñuel the kinkster hints at Crusoe’s sexual frustration when the latter stares with longing at a scarecrow done up in women’s clothing—and later, in a kind of panic, orders Friday to take off a woman’s dress found among his effects. As in Buñuel’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights (an even more Buñuelian text), he seizes on the most twisted aspects of this English-lit classic and brings them to the fore.
|Crusoe gazes at the scarecrow wearing a woman's dress...|
|...and at Friday.|