‘Death in the Garden’ or — Surreally Real or Really Surreal?

All I knew about Luis Buñuel’s ‘Death in the Garden’ (1956) was that it was, apparently, a “surreal adventure story”. Cool! So you can imagine my disappointment when, after 40 minutes or so, I was finding it neither particularly adventurous nor exceptionally surreal. Yet as the film went on I found it slowly, unnoticeably, wrapping itself around my attention like a vine round an ankle or a glistening creeper tightening on an unsuspecting neck. ‘Death in the Garden’s surface might seem placidly innocuous but it contains deep, dark and terrifying depths.

The story starts in an unnamed South American country where unrest at a mining outpost has resulted in a military clampdown. A group of disparate fugitives — a priest, an adventurer, a prostitute, an aging prospector and his deaf/mute daughter — flee the violence and into the jungle. The authorities don’t attempt to pursue them knowing that the jungle will devour and consume them. Maybe not physically, as such, but in a way even more terrifying and annihilating.

For its first half ‘Death in the Garden’ plays out quite conventionally and in a similar vein to Clouzot’s ‘The Wages of Fear’ (1953) as various characters kill time in a South American country before setting out into a wilderness. Yet whereas Clouzot uses time, sound and space to give the sensation of human beings oppressed by heat and inertia, Buñuel’s initially similar approach appears to be doing something different, almost creating a dream space where certain laws and rules are completely suspended. But what laws and rules?

This is less apparent when the group is in town with Buñuel shooting and framing everything in a relatively (and deceptively) straight forward manner; nothing screamingly showy, bizarre or incongruent is particularly at play here. Even once the group escapes into the jungle it still takes a bit of time, like our eyes adjusting to a different light, to see what’s going on. The colours of the foliage — greens and yellows — seem uneasily placed on the chromatic spectrum whilst encroaching vegetation means there’s soon no blank space left on the screen. This is still a portrayal of the “natural” world but it is here the incongruities start manifesting.

The group, struggling to survive, encounter a crashed airplane, its split fuselage lying in the jungle suddenly giving everything to surrealist look of a Max Ernst piece. The group plunder the aircraft’s contents and are soon walking about in elegant ball-gowns and priceless jewellery. It’s a striking and visually exhilarating scene and the care with which Buñuel executes all this simply makes it even more so.

Another shocking jolt occurs around an hour and sixteen minutes in when suddenly the films cuts to the Champs-Élysées, car headlights flashing in the rain filled dark although we’re not sure if we’re seeing actual movement occurring or not. The camera pulls back to reveal we’ve been looking at a photograph of Paris through the eyes of one of the characters who then tears up the photo up (literally the space we have just been inhabiting) and destroys it. It’s a phenomenal use of sound and vision. Indeed, the sound design (there is no music at all apart from opening and closing credits) is incredibly sophisticated throughout and only becomes more so as the film goes on and the sounds of their jungle explicitly display their highly orchestrated nature.

Buñuel creates this surrealist vibe simply by placing various shots after each in such a way that it took me quite a while to acclimatise (and actually realise) to what he was doing. It takes some patience but the effort is extremely rewarding.

Towards the end the claustrophobia of the jungle is interspersed with some shots of scenery, sea and sky that are so beautiful you could imagine Terrence Malick itching to steal them. At the same time the story has become brutal and savage as civilisation is shown as a veneer so thin it’s almost a lie whilst religion is exposed for the lie that it already is. Can anything survive this process of stripping away?

‘Death in the Garden’ is a fascinating, beautiful and hypnotic film. It doesn’t seem to be doing too much at first and what it is doing doesn’t feel that radical. But keep watching, and watch closely, and you’ll soon see what Buñuel is up, the control he is exerting and the sensations he is evoking and, by the end, you’ll be mesmerised. It has lingered with me and strongly so. I can’t think of another movie I’m more interested in revisiting. There’s death in this garden but I’m too curious to resist entering back inside.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.