Quixotic Desire and the Avoidance of Closure in Luis Bunuel's The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz

Sidney Donnell
1999 MLN: Modern Language Notes  
In homage to Luis Bunuel and his comic film noir, Ensayo de un crimen (released internationally as The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, Mexico, 1955), Francois Truffaut writes that one of the film's most remarkable characteristics may be discovered upon leaving the cinema: "If you question the audience at the end [...] almost everybody will tell you that they've just seen the story of a likable guy who kills women. It is absolutely not true; Archibaldo has killed no one" (267). Since
more » ... e" (267). Since literary critics usually treat film almost exclusively as a selfcontained "text," the experience that takes place outside the darkened cinema is often regarded as an elusive, nebulous area beyond the realm of literary theory proper. Truffaut's observation, however, begs the question: How does a film achieve closure with its audience? According toJune Schlueter's work on the endings of theatrical plays, closure is not the same as an ending (in our case, a film's final frames) because viewers (whether real or implied) consent to closure based on how well the presentation of a story meets their expectations (24).1 Truffaut's comment offers a reading of the audience *I would like to thank the following people for their valuable assistance: Maria Smith is considered a pioneer in the study of closure, and she speaks at length about the gratification of the reader's literary expectations (14). MLN114 (1999): 269-296 ? 1999 by TheJohns Hopkins University Press SIDNEY DONNELL rather than the film, and in this regard, informal discussion with firsttime spectators at Bufiuel retrospectives and in the college classroom indeed echoes the audience reaction Truffaut describes. Could it be, however, that the director's artistic mastery in telling Archibaldo's fantastical tale of violent sex crimes leads to other, more open-ended interpretations of the story? Until recently, critical reception of Archibaldo de la Cruz has been reduced to summarizing the plot and offering commentary on its object symbolism, a tendency which ignores the literary merit of the film that in-depth discursive analysis provides. In part, this is due to the predominant perception in the field that the majority of Bufiuel's films produced in Mexico are monolithic and highly conventional. While Peter Evans's psychoanalytically-informed reading of Archibaldo de la Cruz is truly exceptional, his division of the works from Bufiuel's Mexican period into two classifications-commercial Mexican film and auteurist cinema (36-37)-is representative of a critical bias which equates "Mexican film" with a compromised art form due to overt commercialism. Although Evans elevates Bufiuel's comic film noir to the latter category, such a gesture inadvertently intensifies the suspect distinction between high and low culture, opposing European-styled productions with those meeting the market demands of a Latin American nation. To suggest that Archibaldo de la Cruz is less commercial because it is auteurist-that is, more European and therefore more "artistic"-is to obscure the fact that Bufiuel's auteurist pieces were commercially designed for an international (especially French) market,2 a point Evans concedes (38). In general, subtle cultural prejudice has led to "definitive" readings of the film which do not account for the brilliant narrative construction that produces interpretative anomalies,3 such as those reflected in Truffaut's informal poll of French spectators. The study of narrative structures proves more useful in categorizing films like Archibaldo de la Cruz, a work which, for example, displays an interesting adaptation of the picaresque narrative tradition. In this essay, I apply basic narratological concepts of theorists including Seymour Chatman and Gerard Genette, in order to study the degree 2 In his discussion of auteurist cinema, David Bordwell states, "The consistency of an authorial signature across an oeuvre constitutes an economically exploitable trademark" (211). A notable exception is Paul Sandro's study of narrative in Bunuel's Mexican productions, Subida al cielo (Mexican Bus Ride, 1952) and La ilusi6n viaja en tranvia (Illusion Travels by Streetcar, 1953), 89-111. 270 M L N to which the story's telling challenges the implied viewer's ability to interpret the story itself. In this context, closure is an inherently subjective topic, especially in regards to a fictional work with multiple diegetic levels from which different viewers may derive any number of legitimate meanings. Wolfgang Iser informs us that, at least in theory, indeterminacy between text and reader "increases the variety of communication possible" (167). Readers fill in textual gaps with projections (Iser 168), and "[w]hat is concealed spurs the reader into action" (Iser 169). Indeed, depending on the passivity or activity of its audience, films like The Criminal Life ofArchibaldo de la Cruz slide on a scale between two basic narrative categories which Richard Neupert has called "Closed Text" and "Open Story" films (32-33). The former term refers to "classical" Hollywood cinema which achieves complete resolution in its story as well as static symmetry in its narrative discourse. Leisurely spectators may think of Archibaldo de la Cruz as a "closed-text film" because of its adherence to conventional modes of telling, particularly its sudden "happy ending" which signals that the story is resolved. In the latter category, however, a film's story is left unresolved while a closed, symmetrical narrative structure remains. More active viewers, like myself, may find that the conclusion of Archibaldo de la Cruz leaves them with more questions than answers about the tale. Although Neupert never deals with Bunuel, Archibaldo de la Cruz adheres to his description of an "open-story film" because there are certain ambiguities and contingencies in the tale, characteristic of Italian Neorealist cinema or the French New Wave (77).4 Keeping in mind the topics of diegesis and closure, this study begins by looking at the film's initial reception, followed by incursions into basic concepts of narratology as a means of teasing out the numerous genres that inspire its narrative structures. Subsequently, I examine several psychoanalytic considerations as a means of recontextualizing past criticism of the film. Bunuel's discovery of Sigmund Freud and his theory of the unconscious had a profound effect on the director intellectually (My Last Sigh 228-29), explaining much of the dream-like spontaneity that characterizes his life work. In particular, the Freudian theory of obsessive-compulsive behavior is indispensable in determining Archibaldo's mental condition and 4Truffaut cites some similarities between Archibaldo de la Cruz and a few films, especially Charlie Chaplin's comedy, Monsieur Verdoux (1947), but he also implies that Bunuel succeeds where other film makers have failed because his handling of episodic material does not result in a mere series of sketches (267).
doi:10.1353/mln.1999.0028 fatcat:ww2633ntxfchjfs72bxvvpzpfq