For his third feature, animator Salvador Simó turns his attentions to the early career of twentieth-century director, Luis Buñuel. Labyrinth of the Turtles is a charming and occasionally moving love letter to the legendary Spanish-Mexican surrealist, and at a spry 80 minutes, doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Functioning as a biopic of Buñuel in the early 1930s, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles tells the story of the making of his third film, the documentary short, Las Hurdes. We pick up with the director as the success of his first film, Un Chien Andalou, is overshadowed by the right-wing vitriol against of his newly-released, early-sound picture, L’Age d’Or. Visiting his friend, the anarchist Ramón Acín, the pair discuss making a documentary about Las Hurdes, a village in one of the poorest regions in Spain. Ramón jokes that if he wins the lottery, he will fund Luis’ film: as any fan of Buñuel will know, Acín did in fact win the lottery, and so Ramón and Luis gather a small crew and embark on their journey to Las Hurdes.
Animation is a natural medium for this story: Simó pays tribute to the vibrant pastels of Buñuel’s colour films with his colour palette, while his stylised characters verges on affectionate, recognisable caricature that one suspects the film’s subject would approve. More evocative still, Labyrinth of the Turtles mixes its animation with live-action, archival segments from Buñuel’s early films – thrillingly so, in fact – so that as the animated Luis peers through his camera viewfinder, we see the ‘real’ view of his original footage. It’s an inspired choice that layers the film’s semiotic reality in such a way that the satirist would surely have approved. Interestingly, the animation itself is kept broadly realist, save for a few dream sequences and a moment late on of revelatory beauty. It initially feels odd for a film about one of cinema’s greatest surrealist filmmakers, but the choice avoids obvious pastiche in favour of emotional sincerity.
Labyrinth of the Turtles is unfailingly sincere to a fault. Simó’s adoration of his subject is infectious, but it occasionally borders on the naive and often sentimentally uncritical. This is no clearer than when Luis arrives in Las Hurdes to film his documentary, ostensibly to capture the reality of rural Spanish life. It’s a reality that he is perfectly prepared to manipulate, such as decapitating roosters for a wedding ceremony or shooting a goat to make sure it falls of a cliff when he wants it to. The film shows us Luis’ willingness to bend reality (surely the defining quality of a surrealist), but just feels swept along by how brilliant we all know the real-life Buñuel to be.
There’s a brilliant irony to the contrast that the film seems to miss, as if it knows the inherent contradictions of Luis’ pseudo-documentary, but is just too enamoured with Buñuel’s brilliance to really engage with it (the same could be said about its references to the rise of European fascism). This is perfectly encapsulated in the way that the film pays lip service to Luis’ exploitation of the villagers, and then utterly fails to give them any agency of their own. Labyrinth of the Turtles is for better or worse in thrall to Luis Buñuel: perhaps its success can be measured in how far it makes us want to revisit the work of its subject.
Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is now available to stream on BFI Player.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm