A small advertisement in the paper announced that Absence, a new film by Luis Buñuel, had opened here in town. The news came as a surprise because I have carefully followed the career of the great Spanish director, and for the last few years I have always known in advance when a new film was being made. Besides, not even all of Buñuel’s well-known films have been shown in our small city, and I could not understand how a film I had never heard of or read about had managed to arrive. But I was not going to argue with good fortune. Since the last so-called art theatre had closed down two years before the local film buffs had found themselves at the mercy of the incorporated chains, who only rarely saw fit to bring in a foreign film, and then usually for the wrong reasons. In addition, there was the example of Muriel, the third Resnais feature, that had opened and closed here the same day and had never come back. I considered myself fortunate to have gone to see it that night. And I did not intend to ignore that lesson; I made plans at once to catch the only showing of Absence at 9:00 P. M., the time listed in the advertisement.
I arrived what I thought was five minutes early. I saw no one else waiting and guessed at once that the theatre was almost empty. But when I bought my ticket the girl at the window explained that the time printed in the paper had been wrong, and that the film had started almost a half hour before. I could not repress my anger, and considered leaving or giving the manager a piece of my mind, but I had the example of Muriel before me, and I thought it best to catch whatever of the film I could.
As I made my way down the dark aisle I noted with amazement that almost every seat was taken. How had all of these people known the actual time the film was being shown? I also noticed that the film was in black and white and had been shot for a small screen, while all of Buñuel’s last few features had been made in color and shot for the large screen. I became suspicious. Perhaps it was a very early effort, one even repudiated by the master himself, that had been dug out because of the success of his recent work. In any case the film would interest me, but I would have been more comfortable had I known the precise chronology. However, I did not have any more time for such thoughts because the film was well on its way, and I was faced with the difficult task of reconstructing the part I had missed.
For the next half hour I struggled to discern the outline of the plot. During this time only two characters appeared on the screen, a young, rather morose man and a woman I took to be his wife. After forty-five minutes or so I thought I had fully grasped the plot: the film is told from the point of view of the man, who is convinced that his wife is growing increasingly distant from him. The cast is limited to these two, and the entire action takes place in a great mansion, which I assumed to be their home. It seemed obvious that the husband loved his wife far more than she loved him. She was a very beautiful woman, a striking actress I had never seen before and whose name I had not noticed because of my late arrival. But Buñuel had obviously made a great discovery, and I suspected that this woman would reappear in many of his future films. That is, assuming this was a new film, which I began to suspect it was. In fact, I had already secretly congratulated Buñuel on having had the will power to turn back from large screen, color productions and return to the more modest yet far more artful black and white form I have so long preferred. But these thoughts had taken me away from the film too long, and I chastised myself for my endless monologues and turned my attention back to the unhappy husband. He, after all, was the primary character. To emphasize this fact Buñuel often gave us shots of this man with his back to the audience, observing his wife or even following her around the house. And on a few occasions the woman was photographed facing her husband, and in these cases the eye of the camera was substituted for the presence of the man. All of these devices served to make the audience identify with the husband and make his loss their own, and I found the device to be a successful one, for slowly I came to see the man betrayed by his wife, who had repudiated the great love he held out to her. I could not understand why she remained with him, in that vast house. She was remote, and as the film progressed she become increasingly remote, to the point where her presence seemed to have no substance at all.
During the final half hour of the film a new emotion came over me—boredom. Having fully identified the situation and clearly recognized the progress, which seemed to offer no chance of any kind of reversal, the continued evasion of the woman and dogged efforts of the man lost their interest for me. I hated to admit it, but I could not understand this effort. Why had Buñuel chosen this subject after a brilliant string of films which had redeemed the term surrealism and made new explorations into the realm of dream imagery? This, then, was my primary objection to the film. Buñuel had betrayed his commitment to the surreal and had jumped with both feet into the genre of cold realism for which I had so much contempt. Nothing in the film redeemed my discontent, and I was not unhappy when the final scene arrived: the man took his wife for a ride in his own small plane (it was the first scene to take place outside the rooms of the mansion) and after a long montage of landscape he abruptly drove the plane into the side of the mountain, ending their lives. Even before the final fin had flashed on the screen I jumped up and quickly left the theatre, my dedication to this director shaken for the first time.
During the next week I noted with surprise that the Buñuel film continued its run. And I was virtually amazed when the theatre chose to hold it over for a second and then a third week. I still had not managed to find any references to it in any articles or books, and no mention of it appeared in the weekly magazines. Nor did a review appear in the local paper, though it was not uncommon for the reviewer, who had once chosen Cleopatra as the best film of the year, to ignore the films of foreign directors. Finally in the middle of the third week’s run, a guilty curiosity overcame me and I returned to the theatre to see the film a second time, normally a standard practice, but in this case undertaken more out of duty than pleasure.
Taking no chances, I called in advance and arrived well before the film began. At first there was only a small, scattered audience, but by the time the showing started the theatre was almost full again, and this phenomenon, taking place in the middle of the week, unnerved me. The film started without titles of any kind, leaving me to conclude that the titles followed the film, and that I should have stayed to see them the first time. Then we were back in the vast mansion, observing the disintegration of a marriage that could never have been close. After only ten minutes of this avoidance and pursuit the old boredom returned two-fold, and all at once I jumped up from my seat and hurried out of the theatre. I thought of demanding my money back, but I was afraid the manager might remember me from the first night; I would lack the excuse of not knowing what I had come to see. A great restlessness came over me, and instead of returning home I walked up and down the familiar district. Finally I stopped at the library, which I knew to be open for another half hour. I wanted to know if the book I had asked them to order had arrived. It had not, and I went into the record room. There were large, padded chairs in that room, and I felt like sitting down, for I felt very tired.
Also in the room were a young librarian and a couple, whom I took to be students. They were actively discussing something, and as is my custom I did my best to listen to them while pretending to be absorbed in a magazine. Before long I realized they were discussing the new Buñuel film. I could hardly believe my luck. In the three weeks since the film had arrived I had not run into a single person who had gone to see it, and I had not, in any honesty, been able to recommend it to my friends. Though I am usually reluctant to talk to strangers, I interrupted and asked if they were discussing the Buñuel film. They confirmed my observation and asked if I had seen it. I explained that I gone the first night and that I had just become disgusted and walked out0 on it the second time. They asked what it was I objected to, and I put it as simply as I could by saying that it was not surreal enough for me. That seemed to surprise them. The librarian asked if I had seen the whole film. I said yes, though I admitted that the first time I had arrived about half an hour late. But all in all I had not missed more than twenty minutes at the start. A knowing look came over their faces, and the librarian blurted out that I missed the most important part. She put a book in my hand. It was the screenplay of the new film. She said it had only arrived that day. The book opened to a page of color sills, a fact quite extraordinary, because the parts of the film I had seen had all been in black and white.
At first I found the photographs confusing. There were two full page reproductions: the first showed a primitive hamlet, and outside one hut were sprawled three bodies, one upside down to the waist in mud, one further off, half concealed in the grasses, and the third—it was unmistakable—was the body of the young wife in the film. All three were obviously dead, and though some peasant regarded the bodies with great confusion, it was clear that the position of the bodies required the force of a car accident, or, more likely, of a motorcycle that had lost control. And then I saw the outline of a cycle hidden in the high weeds. The second photo showed the young husband lying on his living room floor in a state of shock, presumably after having received the news of his wife’s death. The photo was impossibly stunning: the man had three heads on three necks, and each head had the expression of one who is shocked to the roots.
The librarian, seeing my surprise, exclaimed that I had experienced the film as does the man himself, not as one of the audience. She explained that about fifteen minutes after the film starts there is a short, color flashback, almost a dream. It consists of two scenes, one in which the wife is killed in a motorcycle crash, and the other in which the husband learns of her fate. When he awakens from his faint he has forgotten that she is dead, or involuntarily refuses to remember, and because he loves her so much he evokes her presence in the house. But because it is only an image, not a living person, he is never able to get close to her, and the rest of the film charts the limits of his imagination, as she grows further and further from him, a progress he neither understands nor accepts, and one that leads to his eventual suicide.
Howard Schwartz was the winner of the 2005 National Jewish Book Award for Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, reissued with annotations in 2007 by Oxford University Press. He teaches English at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. (updated 7/2010)