The curses and adjectives of Luis Buñuel

This week I read My Last Breath, the autobiography of one of my favourite filmmakers, Luis Buñuel. Mischievous, opinionated, and full of eye-opening anecdotes from his long and frankly surreal life, it also has a couple of passages on matters linguistic that may be of general interest.

First, on the importance of choosing a good name, in this case for artistic works:

In my search for titles, I’ve always tried to follow the old surrealist trick of finding a totally unexpected word or group of words which opens up a new perspective on a painting or book. This strategy is obvious in titles like Un Chien andalou, L’Age d’or, and even The Exterminating Angel. While we were working on this screenplay [The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie], however, we never once thought about the word “bourgeoisie.” On the last day at the Parador in Toledo, the day de Gaulle died, we were desperate; I came up with A bas Lénin, ou la Vierge à l’écurie (Down with Lenin, or The Virgin in the Manger). Finally, someone suggested Le Charme de la bourgeoisie; but Carrière [Jean-Claude, screenwriter] pointed out that we needed an adjective, so after sifting through what seemed like thousands of them, we finally stumbled upon “discreet.” Suddenly the film took on a different shape altogether, even a different point of view. It was truly a marvelous discovery.

The next passage concerns an incident during the Spanish Civil War. Buñuel has left Madrid for Geneva on the instruction of the Republican minister for foreign affairs, but he is warned en route that his identification papers will not get him past the border. Sure enough, a panel of “three somber-faced anarchists” halt his passage: You can’t cross here, they tell him. Buñuel has other ideas:

Now the Spanish language is capable of more scathing blasphemies than any other language I know. Curses elsewhere are typically brief and punctuated by other comments, but the Spanish curse tends to take the form of a long speech in which extraordinary vulgarities – referring chiefly to the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, not to mention the Pope – are strung end to end in a series of impressive scatological exclamations. In fact, blasphemy in Spain is truly an art; in Mexico, for instance, I never heard a proper curse, whereas in my native land, a good one lasts for at least three good-sized sentences. (When circumstances require, it can become a veritable hymn.)

It was with a curse of this kind, uttered in all its seemly intensity, that I regaled the three anarchists from Port Bou. When I’d finished, they stamped my papers and I crossed the border. (What I’ve said about the importance of the Spanish curse is no exaggeration; in certain old Spanish cities, you can still see signs like “No Begging or Blaspheming – Subject to Fine or Imprisonment” on the main gates. Sadly, when I returned to Spain in 1960, the curse seemed much rarer; or perhaps it was only my hearing.)

Colourful and all as Irish curses can be, Buñuel’s story has left me feeling short-changed. I’d better get practising. Discreetly.

P.S. If you confuse discreet and discrete – many do – see my post on how to keep them discreetly discrete.


More discussion on this at Language Hat, who would like to see a swearing contest “between a traditional Spaniard and a Russian master of the triple-decker curse”.


10 Responses to The curses and adjectives of Luis Buñuel

  1. alexmccrae1546 says:

    I recall two other noted early European surrealists, Frenchman Marcel Duchamps and Belgian painter Rene Magritte, who seemed to both demonstrate an abiding sense of fun, and naughty provocation in naming many of their now-iconic works.

    I always got a kick out of Magritte’s smallish oil painting, “C’est n’est pas une pipe”, residing in the permanent modern European collection of our Los Angeles County Museum of Art. To most viewers, this hyper-realisitic painting of a seemingly ordinary pipe appears, indeed, to depict a pipe… yet Magriite, the artist, titles it to the contrary. And who, pray tell, can argue w/ Magritte?

    As an artist myself, I often question why many noted artists just opt to name some of their works “Untitled”. For me, as someone who revels in language, and further appreciates the descriptive power of words, to NOT give a creative work a title is almost a missed opportunity to add yet another level of intrigue and illumination beyond the mere visual aesthetic of the work.

  2. alexmccrae1546 says:


    In my last comment, Duchamp’s surname has no “s” at the end.

    And that should have read “Stripped bare”, not “Stripper bare” in the title of the first Duchamp work. Hmm… perhaps a Freudian slip… or maybe not?

    • Stan says:

      Alex: I love Magritte’s work too. The pipe painting is actually called ‘La trahison des images’ (The treachery of images’); the text Ceci n’est pas une pipe is part of the art itself. I generally interpret it along the lines that a representation of a thing is not the thing itself. It’s very Zen. And very General Semantics, for that matter.

      • alexmccrae1546 says:

        Thanks for that clarification re/ the famous Magritte ‘pipe’ painting. As the late Johnny Carson would have remarked, “I did not know that.” ‘La trahison des images’ it is.

        Interestingly, two renowned contemporary American artists who have used both engaging imagery combined w/ elements of text, are the multi-media wizard, one might go so far as to say, neo-surrealist, Bruce Nauman, and the faux-pictorial-advertising-writ-large-with-bold-sans-serif-text societal provocateur, Barbara Kruger.

        Me thinks, without the groundwork laid down by surrealists like André Bréton, Magritte, Dali, Tanguy, Duchamp, Ernst, Arp, & Co., as well as the explorations of notable Dadaist artists and poets of the early modern era, perhaps the likes of the Naumans and Krugers could be regarded as mere voices in the wilderness, these days… or, maybe not.

      • alexmccrae1546 says:

        @Stan… Thanks for that major edit.

        After posting my last comment, I sensed I’d kind of gone off on an extraneous quasi-art history tangent there, and you essentially pared my verbosity down to the unembellished point I should have made more concisely, from the outset.

      • Stan says:

        That’s OK, Alex. Thanks for taking my (unannounced) edit with good grace. Your comments were interesting but far too long for this forum. If I may: when you’re going over one or two paragraphs (not to mention six or seven), reconsider.

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    “Discrete” charm has a better ring and more distinct meaning in my view but that’s just me :)

  4. […] bookmash and I still haven’t read it. I discussed Buñuel’s book in a recent post on curses and adjectives; Kenneally’s featured some years ago in a brief post on language […]

  5. […] more appear in Luis Bunuel’s autobiography My Last Breath, translated by Abigail Israel […]

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