Death in the Garden

01/03/2010

France / 1956 / French

Directed by Luis Buñuel

With Simone Signoret, Charles Vanel, Georges Marchal

Still from 'Death in the Garden'In a mining boomtown in South America, all the foreign prospectors, mostly French in origin, have had their claim to the local diamond supply revoked by the resident dictator. In response to this the frustrated workers gather in their dingy pub to plot the downfall of the general who oversees the town. Into their midst saunters a toughened itinerant worker named Chark, one of those opportunistic mercenaries whom one could only find in the intractable wildernesses and godforsaken outposts of a frontier country. A wanted man, he gets thrown in jail not long after arriving in town, but not before running afoul of an aged miner named Castin, and a world-weary prostitute named Djin.

The miners’ demonstration turns violent as the soldiers mercilessly gun them down, and in the ensuing coup and gunpowder explosions, the government declares martial law on the unruly town. Chark has managed to escape jail, taking advantage of the tense and chaotic environment. Meanwhile Castin is wanted by the police for catalyzing the revolt, and he attempts to lay low, harbored by Djin in her apartment. She helps him onto riverboat that is headed out of town, and the two of them escape, along with Castin’s mute daughter María, a missionary priest named Lizardi, and the final and most unsavory stowaway, Chark. These motley escapees read like a Rolodex of colonial-era undesirables, France’s throw-aways who bounce around the third world, some of them dreaming of returning home to newfound respectability.

Still from 'Death in the Garden'With the authorities close behind them, the group abandons the boat to try their luck in the jungle, heading for the safety of the fabled border with Brazil. Their hostage, the boat captain Chenko, attempts to lead them into a trap, but with the raffish Chark in charge, they manage to elude the soldiers. From here they journey ever deeper into the shrieking, buzzing forest, and are subjected to its extreme privations, which gradually make nonsense of civility and order. Buñuel’s familiar theme is here, one of characters thrust into abject or Sisyphean circumstances, their unraveling chronicled with a certain deadpan absurdity. The inverse of The Exterminating Angel (1962), this particular purgatory is peopled not by the comfortable nobility, but by society’s more desperate element. (Both groups, it may be argued, are well adapted to capitalize on selfishness and immorality).

Perhaps most awkward, under the circumstances, is the padre Lizardi, who had preached cooperation with the state to the irate miners. Now abreast with the outlaws, struggling to survive along with them, he is surprisingly complacent and naïve in following Chark’s lead. Castin, the old man, perseveres because he believes he and Djin will be married and, along with his daughter, move to a contented life in Marseilles. Djin, however, retains a perverse attraction to Chark in spite of his physical brutality to her. But she is most certainly intent on using him – since she has just as few scruples but, as one would expect, must employ subversive tactics in order to get ahead.

Still from 'Death in the Garden'Religion, while as always not looked upon favorably, is a quality that seems to be greatly lacking in all of the characters, not least of which Lizardi. Instead of altogether skewering it, Buñuel rather prefers to put the capitalism of extraction on display, meting out the results of imperialistic folly with terrible gusto. In this sense the film could almost function as an ur-text of postcolonial satire, wherein the last, straggling Europeans are hunted down by their own correspondingly venal and reprehensible successors. The jungle here is a vast playground for a divine comedy to unfold, its illusive nature turning those who trespass onto circular paths. The characters’ only respite comes in the form of food and provisions plucked from the remains of a jet’s fuselage, around which they sit in plush chairs that are strangely intact, and imagine that they are all back home. But where is home? The first world has abandoned them. This very nearly surreal scene is a brief encounter with Western comforts, enjoyed amid burnt wreckage.

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