A jungle adventure story with a defiant existential trajectory and some surreal inflections, Death in the Garden looks fantastic – the lovely Eastmancolour has been restored perfectly.
Shark (Marchal) is a tough loner who wanders into a South American mining town in the middle of a riot. He is beaten up and jailed by the police, but breaks out when disgruntled miners start to shoot it out with the authorities.
Shark teams up with a prostitute (Signoret), a priest (Piccoli) and an aging miner (Vanel) to escape the town. They head out into dense jungle, chased by the army. But once in the green inferno, they find themselves slowly stripped of means of subsistence, sanity and morals.
This is much more of a bitter existential yarn than you might expect from the renowned surrealist director. It also feels like more of a ‘traditional’ lavish, big-screen adventure than say The Wages of Fear or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – although both of these classic films come to mind when watching Death in the Garden. The large-scale action sequences are pretty impressive – I had no idea that Buñuel did action-adventure this well.
The moralised stereotypical characters are heavy-handed but the atheist sermonising remains low in the mix, enabling the viewer to be dragged into the absorbing, deadly torpor that pervades the film during the jungle scenes. Against this monotone intensity of chittering movement, a skinned snake, a wrecked airplane and a living, breathing postcard of the Champs-Elysees take on the surreal meaning of symbols that have crashed out of their own register of significance.
Death in the Garden is more snoozy Sunday afternoon than intense Friday night viewing but is still well worth a watch.
Death in the Garden is out in a dual-format edition on 19 June 2017.