A rare gem excavated from Luis Buñuel’s Mexican period, Death in the Garden (1956) depicts the savage violence that unites nature and civilization. A criminal (Georges Marchal), a priest (Michel Piccoli), a prostitute (Simone Signoret), a diamond miner (Charles Vanel), and his deaf-mute daughter (Michéle Girardon) struggle to survive after a revolution forces them to flee into the jungle. Buñuel’s typical obsessions blossom across the narrative and render this genre film as idiosyncratic as his collaborations with Salvador Dalí during the silent era and the masterful productions of his late-career renaissance in the ’60s and ’70s. Of the many Buñuelian motifs that appear, his fierce anticlericalism and his fascination with entomology steal the show. The former finds its bitter expression when a dying soldier refuses his last rites, while the latter works itself into a jarring moment when an army of ants devours a snake.
The film ultimately concerns moral ambiguity and the futility of idealism, which nicely complements a story comprised of meandering conflicts. Buñuel actually admitted that he struggled with the script, despite help from novelist and Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau. To make matters worse, he also found himself battling a temperamental Signoret on the set. She apparently longed to be with her husband, Yves Montand, in Rome instead of with Buñuel in the jungle. Signoret’s sentiments aside, anyone acquainted with this surrealist’s expansive career knows that he is one of the most qualified adventurers to guide us through the jungle (figuratively speaking, at least). In his autobiography, Buñuel famously provided a recipe for the perfect martini. He was clearly a man one could trust.