Luis Bunuel's THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ is a deliciously perverse and erotic black comedy about a misogynist with a pathological compulsion to kill women, but whose elaborate murder attempts are continually thwarted.
While recovering from a nervous breakdown after the death of his wife, Archibaldo de la Cruz (Ernesto Alonso) tells a nun that as a spoiled child, he believed he was responsible for the death of his governess after she was shot while he wished to his magical music box that she would die. He then
pulls out a razor blade and starts towards the nun, but she runs away and falls down an elevator shaft. He tells the police that he killed the nun, and then tells them about three other murders for which he's responsible. After he discovered his old music box at an antique shop, which had been
lost years before, he proposed to his girlfriend Carlota (Ariadna Welter) but she rejected him. He then went to a casino and met a flirtatious woman named Patricia (Rita Macedo) who had a fight with her boyfriend Willy (Jose Maria Linares Rivas). Patricia lets Archibaldo take her home, and
Archibaldo takes out his razor blade, intending to kill her, but is interrupted when Willy shows up. Later, Archibaldo learns that Patricia has cut her own throat.
In a bar, Archibaldo befriends model and part-time tourist guide Lavinia, whom he had met in the antique shop. The next day, he sees a mannequin of Lavinia at a dress shop and buys it, and Lavinia comes over to his house to see his ceramics studio. She kisses him, and he tries to strangle her, but
is interrupted by a group of American tourists, whom Lavinia had forgotten to tell him that she invited over. Archibaldo is furious, but she tells him he'll never see her again because she's getting married; Lavinia then leaves. He puts the mannequin into his oven and burns it. Just then, Carlota
arrives and tells Archibaldo that she'll marry him, but he later sees her kissing another man and he decides to kill her after they're married. Her jilted lover (Rodolofo Landa) beats him to it, however, and shoots her after the wedding. The police tell Archibaldo that he has committed no crime and let him go. He returns home, stuffs the music box into a sack and throws it into a lake; he then runs into Lavinia, who tells him she didn't get married after all and they walk off together arm-in-arm.
THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ could be characterized as a breezy, surrealistic pornographic murder-comedy, and its explicit linking of sex and violence, with a profuse stream of shockingly erotic and deathly imagery, is simply astonishing. The only probable reason Bunuel got away with
it is because he disguised the film as a lighthearted melodrama, using romantic soap opera conventions, including an intentionally absurd happy ending, and sentimental organ music that turns eerie and nightmarish whenever Archibaldo is seized with the urge to kill. The film's abundance of
surrealistic images and scenes includes the wide-eyed boy excitedly staring at the dead governess as blood drips down her neck and the silk stockings on her exposed legs; a foggy flashback to that original image as the grown Archibaldo fantasizes about killing and imagines blood dripping down a
mirror; Archibaldo fondling the lingerie he bought for the mannequin; the obnoxious tourists from Oklahoma wandering into his house and speaking English as he's about to kill Lavinia; and the amazing scene where he drags the mannequin by the hair and its leg falls off, then shoves it in the oven
and watches as its nipples are engulfed in flames and its face melts away.
With its comical treatment of a charming ladykiller, the story is similar to the only Charlie Chaplin film that Bunuel claimed to admire, MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947), and it also recalls his own EL (1952), in its brilliant depiction of the psycho-sexual obsessions of a wealthy and handsome sociopath.
Francois Truffaut has written perceptively about the film's "ingenious construction, its audacious handling of time and the expertise of its cinematic narrative," and indeed, the structure is ingenious, starting with an undisclosed flashback as Archibaldo talks to the nun, then cutting to the
present when he tries to kill her and she falls down the elevator shaft, then back to a long flashback, which makes up the bulk of the film. As Archibaldo tells his tale to the police, the story becomes so engrossing as Bunuel introduces three separate women in seemingly casual scenes, then
masterfully weaves them into the story, that we forget we are watching a flashback. Bunuel has dismissed the film as "a joke, a divertissement," but even a comparatively minor Bunuel film is still an exceptionally rich and unique experience. (Violence, adult situations.)
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