Abismos de pasión

Abismos de pasión

Presented by Santos Zunzunegui

19:00 Presentation: Santos Zunzunegui

20:00 Abismos de pasión, Luis Buñuel, Mexico, 1953, 91'




In the year 1847, English literature was blown apart by a story called Wuthering Heights, written by a genteel woman by the name of Emily Brontë. The tale emphatically illustrates (in the words of Georges Bataille, the foremost expert on the text[1]) not only that love is the truth of death but that good and evil coexist inextricably in human nature. Soon after it was published, the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote to his friend William Allingham that “The action is laid in hell, — only it seems places and people have English names there.” The underlying tale, as Bataille explains, is of the “struggle of Good against Evil”, the struggle of the wicked man that refuses to “give up the freedom of a wild childhood that goes against the world of adults”, and of how such an attitude would pull him along in his rebellion to a tragic transgression of the law, giving form to the “irreducible, wicked and sovereign part” of the human being.

Turned by the surrealists into one of the essential expressions of amour fou[2], the story of Heathcliff and Catherine has been adapted for film on several unique occasions since the first and now lost screen adaptation by A. V. Bramble in 1920. We would have to wait until 1939 for Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht to produce their famed version starring none other than Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon under the direction of William Wyler. Since then, film makers of varying calibre have struggled with their own adaptations. Among them are Jacques Rivette (Hurlevent, 1985), who transferred the tale to rural 1930s France, and Yoshishige Yoda (Onimaru, 1988), whose version took ‘hell’ to Japanese terrain. More recently, in 2011 Andrea Arnold not only grants a crucial role to nature but brings to light the ‘otherness’ of Heathcliff, embodied this time by an actor of colour[3]. However, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to claim that the most memorable version of the no less memorable tale is the work of Luis Buñuel.



As Buñuel himself tells in his memoir (Mi último suspiro [My Last Breath]), around 1930 the film maker from Aragon was planning a version of Brontë's novel (Les Hauts d’Hurlevent) which never materialised[4]. He was helped by Pierre Unik (co-author of the text of Las Hurdes) and was under the wing of the Vicomte de Noailles, who had funded the production of L’âge d’or. A few years later, during the period when Buñuel was working in Madrid as a producer for Filmófono, and coinciding with the military coup that put an end to the Second Spanish Republic, the company announced their plans for 1936-1937 which included an ambitious programme of no less than 16 feature films. Among these were adaptations of grand literary works such as Tirano Banderas by Valle-Inclán, Fortunata y Jacinta by Pérez Galdós and the trilogy La lucha por la vida by Pío Baroja. Alongside these, Buñuel revived his plans for a film adaptation of Wuthering Heights[5], this time with the help of Jean Gremillon. As we already know, it all came to nothing on account of the war.

After Buñuel’s post-Civil War career and his failed attempt to settle in the USA, he would unexpectedly have the opportunity to realise his old dream in the country that would welcome him for good: Mexico. By 1953, Buñuel had been rediscovered by critics from across the world following the screening in Cannes of Los olvidados (1950), and (in his own words) “the occasion presented itself”. He revised[6] the script (“certainly one of the best that I have had in my hands”[7]). The right time came when the producer Oscar Dancigers, who Buñuel had already worked for several times[8], “called me one day: He wanted to make a comedy with Jorge Mistral, Irasema Dilian and Lilia Prado, who he had on contract. I told him that I had a script written, for Wuthering Heights. It wasn’t right for that cast: it didn’t suit them at all. However, I was won over by how keen I was to make the story that I so loved”[9]. This may be an opportune moment to discuss the quality of the actors with whom Buñuel had to work in Mexico. Suffice it to say that, as is the case with the music by Wagner that was so criticised by the film maker (see below), the combination of a strong Spanish leading man, a stylish Brazilian actress of Polish descent and another specialising in the role of the romantic young girl do not work against the film. On the contrary, as with some masterpieces of Neorealism, the mishmash not only forces the actors to perform in a manner that runs contrary to what they are used to but strengthens a unique sense of estrangement which does no harm to the objectives of the film.



The film also brought Buñuel into contact with Julio Alejandro[10], another Spaniard in exile. They would work together on five films: Abismos de pasión[11] (the name chosen for the adaptation of Wuthering Heights; 1953), Nazarín (1958), Viridiana (1961), Simón del Desierto (1964) and Tristana (1969). At this point, we should pause to remember that Buñuel worked with no less than twenty-two writers throughout his career, several of whom were Spanish exiles. The most significant of these was undoubtedly Luis Alcoriza. Between 1949 and 1962 they would make a dozen films together. He also worked shoulder to shoulder with writers such as Max Aub and Juan Larrea (neither are credited in Los olvidados), Manuel Altolaguirre and Eduardo Ugarte. However, Alejandro's contribution to Buñuel's filmography is much greater in that his five scripts are among the film maker’s most important works. I would even go as far as to say that they are clearly marked with his own style[12].



Getting back to the film, the first thing to point out is that this is a partial adaptation of the literary work. The novel includes three generations and the timeline runs from 1757 to 1802, when Heathcliff dies (he is called Alejandro in Buñuel’s film). In the film, Catalina (Catherine in the novel) dies in 1784 (like in the book) and Alejandro dies just three days later. Of the 34 chapters in the book, Alejandro and Buñuel (Maiuri’s involvement would appear to have been merely cosmetic[13]) would only keep seven (chapters 10 to 16), constituting around twenty percent of the total original text. Catalina and Alejandro’s childhood is only spoken about and the story is condensed[14] from the outset with the return to Wuthering Heights of an adult Alejandro, and also with the closer proximity of the death of the two main characters. Let’s remind ourselves of the text that opens the film: “This film is based on Wuthering Heights, the immortal work by Emily Brontë written more than one hundred years ago. Its characters are at the mercy of their own instincts and passions. These are unique beings for whom social conventions do not exist. Alejandro’s love for Catalina is a ferocious and inhuman feeling which can only be realised through death. Above all, this film tries to respect the spirit of the novel by Emily Brontë” [italics added for effect].

Buñuel well understood that Wuthering Heights was not a novel about love but about hate, and said as much to Julio Alejandro: “One thing he asked of me was that the film have no love scenes. (…) I really had to think hard because I didn’t know how to proceed. But one day I had the idea of a scene where the two main characters would come out of the garden just as a pig was being slaughtered. That love scene with the screaming pig in the background seemed right to him, he liked it and it ended up in the film”.[15]

If we really want to give the film the credit it deserves in Buñuel's filmography, we need merely mention that one of the final scenes goes beyond the poetic to achieve an authentic faith in life. We know this because the film maker had no hesitation in giving a prominent part to a text which he would recall in his final memoirs. Let's listen to José, the old servant (played by Spanish actor José Reiguera who, a few years later, would star in Orson Welles’ Don Quixote), reading the following passage from the Book of Wisdom (2, 1-7): “There is no consolation in the end of man, nor after his death, nor has anyone returned from hell or from the other world. We are born out of nothing, and after the present it will be as though we were never here. Our breath or gasping is like a fine smoke; words or the soul like a transitory spark that moves our heart. Once gone out, our body will be reduced to ashes and the spirit will dissolve like thin air. It will fade like a passing cloud and our life will disappear like fog burned by the sun’s rays and dissolved by its heat. Our name will be forgotten, and nothing of our labours will remain...”



Filming took place in the spring of 1953 in Tepeyac studios and in the Hacienda San Francisco Cuadra in the state of Guerrero, near Taxco. The damp British moors gave way to a parched landscape with twisted trees inhabited by vultures. The birds are a target for Catalina (her rifle shots are the first thing we hear in the film aside from the omnipresent music of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, a work on the death of love and a recurrent theme in Buñuel’s films[16]) and provide an immediate contrast between the character of the young woman (“with what little I’m going to experience, I must enjoy even those things that will scare others”) and that of both her sister-in-law and her husband Eduardo, who kills delicate butterflies to feed his collection.

From the moment when Alejandro makes his first appearance in Wuthering Heights – a fiendish apparition in the midst of a tremendous downpour, against a crash of thunder and lightning – and demands to see Catalina immediately, the story tumbles down a cliff of excessive and uncontrollable passions which will lead to the death of the two lovers who in life could never consummate their love. The film consequently travels into a place ruled by a necrophilia with both personal and cultural roots. In Buñuel’s memoirs, he tells of his early attraction towards death: from his premature encounter with a dead and decomposing donkey to witnessing the autopsy of one of his father’s shepherds, as well as night time visits to cemeteries or the regular presence of the dead bodies in front of the church during funerals in Calanda[17]. Added to this is the deep thread of necrophilia running through Spanish literature, whether Neoclassic (Noches lúgubres by José de Cadalso), Romantic (verse and prose by authors such as Espronceda, Zorrilla and Becquer), Modernist (Galician writer Valle-Inclán and his Sonata de otoño) or Esperpentic (La rosa de papel, by the same author).

The climactic scene in which Alejandro desecrates Catalina’s tomb, opens her coffin, lifts her veil and passionately kisses her dead body before being shot down from behind by her brother, admirably brings together the artist’s own memory with Hispanic cultural tradition whereby, with just one gesture, another aspect of the novel is incorporated and rewritten. Heathcliff, 18 years after Catalina disappeared, bribes the gravedigger who is digging Linton’s grave (Catalina’s husband in the book) to uncover Cathy’s coffin, remove one of the side panels of her casket, bury him next to her when he dies and treat his own coffin in the same way, such that their remains can join together in eternity (chapter 29). As one classic Spanish poem days, “Dust they shall be, but dust in love”. Buñuel pointed out as much to Tomás Pérez Turrent and José de la Colina when he said that “the sex act is a form of death”.



Bataille explains it with great clarity in his reflections on the novel by Emily Brontë, and his words could be extended to the adaptation by Buñuel: Literature (art) can say everything insofar as, contrary to religion or politics, it is not aimed at an ordered group but at the isolated and lost individual who, through artistic creation, can discover what reality denies. In this union of love with violence and death, “death and the moment of divine euphoria are confused because both equally go against the intentions of Good, which are based on reason”.





[1]     See “Emily Brontë”, in La literatura y el mal (1957), Madrid, Taurus, 1971, pg. 29-51.

[2]     Buñuel defines amour fou thus: “an irresistible impulse which, under any circumstances, pushes towards one another a man and a woman who can never be together.”

[3]     Though the critics never dwell on this aspect, everything points to Heathcliff – the boy plucked from the streets of Liverpool by Catherine Earnshaw’s father – having gypsy origins.

[4]     It is worth noting what Buñuel said to Tomás Pérez Turrent and José de la Colina (in Buñuel por Buñuel, Madrid, Plot, 1993), on account of what it means in relation to the future film: “We were attracted by the idea of wild love, of amour fou (…) I proposed it (and it’s one of the few times that I’ve proposed a film)” [italics added for effect].

[5]     Román Gubern, El cine sonoro en la República 1929-1936, Barcelona, Lumen, 1977, pg. 93.

[6]     “I went back to it” is the form of words in Mi último suspiro.

[7]     The ambiguity of expression and the subsequent lack of concrete information prevents us from knowing for sure if Buñuel is alluding in this case to the synopsis or to the new script by Buñuel, Julio Alejandro (we’ll come back to him) and Arduino Maiuri (Italian script writer, producer and director, and husband of the female protagonist, Irasema Dilian). In fact, Buñuel recalls that what was written in the 1930s “wasn’t a script but just a narrative line, which didn’t go into much detail”.

[8]     Specifically, Gran Casino (1946), El gran calavera (1949), Los olvidados (1950), La hija del engaño (1950), Robinson Crusoe (1952) and Él (1952). In 1956, Buñuel would once again work with Dancigers on the French-Mexican co-production of La mort en ce jardin.

[9]     In Buñuel por Buñuel, pg. 85.

[10]   A joint view of the figure and work of Julio Alejandro (1906-1999) can be found in the dedication to him by Esteve Riambau in the Diccionario del cine español coordinated by José Luis Borau and published by Alianza Editorial in 1998. There is a 2005 biography (or rather a hagiography) of the seaman, poet, playwright and script writer in the Biblioteca Aragonesa de Cultura by J. A. Román Ledo titled Julio Alejandro. Guionista de Luis Buñuel. Una vida fecunda y azarosa. This biography of Julio Alejandro reveals that the relationship with Buñuel was neither easy nor completely satisfactory. While Alejandro never betrayed any sense of discomfort with the master (quite the opposite), it would seem that their markedly different characters set them apart in how they confronted daily life and that, contrary to the case of Luis Alcoriza, Julio Alejandro never became part of Buñuel's close circle. The following is the testimony of Lorenza Galdeano: “My memory isn't good, but I remember Luis Buñuel as though it were yesterday. He came to the house very often. For thirty years he never stopped going to Julio whenever he had a film in the pipeline... to consult with him, ask him for text and advice. Later, Julio’s name didn’t appear anywhere. He wanted to take all the credit” (pg. 84).

[11]   As an aside, Buñuel didn’t hold back when he said (in Buñuel por Buñuel, pg. 176) that “the worst titles have literary or symbolic pretensions. Abismos de pasión is one of the worst: a cheap melodrama”. In my view, it is like a glove covering the underlying purpose of the film.

[12]   Evidence which comes into view (and earshot) in a film like Tristana (1969), made in the midst of the “Carrière years” (1963-1977).

[13]   “We got to work, and I remember clearly that the most contact Luis had with anyone during all the work on the script was with me”. From the interview by Max Aub with Julio Alejandro in Conversaciones con Buñuel. Seguidas de 45 entrevistas con familiares, amigos y colaboradores del cineasta aragonés, Aguilar, 1985. pg. 389-400.

[14]   The return of Alejandro following a ten-year absence (in the book it was only three) in the opening scenes, his reunion with Catalina, the latter’s earlier wedding to Eduardo, the marriage of Alejandro to Eduardo’s sister Isabel and Catalina’s death all happen in barely a year.

[15]   The pig slaughter scene is part of a bestiary revealed throughout the film: the vultures that Catalina shoots at; the butterflies that her husband Eduardo collects; the caged birds; Isabel’s small white dog; the fly hurled at the spider by Ricardo; and the toad burned by José to exorcise Alejandro (“I have beastly instincts”, says the main character).

[16]   Buñuel to Pérez Turrent and José de la Colina: “I've always been very Wagnerian and I thought that Tristan would go well with this story. I left for Europe with the film edited and with instructions that it would be good to set it to Wagner. Dancigers paid me too much attention and put Wagner’s music everywhere, even when there was just one character having a coffee” (pg. 85). In my view, the overuse of the music not only poses no threat to the film but reinforces its exasperated climax.

[17]   “During local funerals, the coffin was placed in front of the door to the church, open for all to see. The priests sang and a vicar turned around the scrawny catafalque, sprinkling it with holy water, and placed a pile of ash on the chest of the deceased, after raising the veil that covered them for just a moment (the final scene of Abismos de pasión alludes to this ceremony)” (in Mi último suspiro).