The Young One – Luis Buñuel does English / American
I just finished watching The Young One, after (I confess) putting it off for about two weeks. I’d never heard of this strange little flick, read it was difficult to get your hands on, a smattering of reviews claimed it was underrated. I’d seen quite a few Luis Buñuel films lately, and – well – I’ve also been very busy. Films have been a bit of a trick to fit in easy.
However, I’m SO glad I finally caught up with it. What a delight! I mean, a delight for a film about racism and pedophilia that is.
Although apparently set on a coastal South Carolina island, Buñuel actually shot it near Acapulco and in the Churubusco Studios in Mexico City. He also used Mexican technicians, so it may seem strange to consider this a product from the States. But nearly all the actors were American, and the film is performed in English. It didn’t do well critically or commercially when it opened in New York, however, and The Young One now ranks among the most obscure and difficult to locate of Buñuel’s works. It also ranks among the most misunderstood of his films, as its apparent simplicity camouflage more complex ideas.
As Buñuel states:
“One of the problems with The Young One was its anti-Manichean stance, which was an anomaly at the time, although today it’s all the rage . . . Once upon a time, the movies reflected the prevailing morality very closely; there were the good guys and the bad guys, and there was no question of which was which. The Young One tried to turn the old stereotypes inside out; the black man in the movie was both good and bad, as was the white man.”
Buñuel is one of the few directors in history that can pull something this complicated off without leaving us breathlessly asking; ” What just happened?” Everyone in this film is good and bad – except the child of course who is one of Buñuel’s damned angels. Buñuel even turns the questioning on himself here, by creating a typically useless preacher who ends up genuinely saving the films greatest sinner.
The film opens with a woman screaming “RAPE!” off-screen–an automatic death sentence for any black man accused by a white woman in that time and place–a black jazz musician named Traver (Bernie Hamilton) escapes a blood-thirsty lynch mob, using a motorboat to reach a small isolated island that serves as a private game preserve for the wealthy. He soon realizes he is not alone.
Inhabiting the island are redneck game warden Miller (Zachary Scott) and a young teen girl named Evalyn (Kate Meersman), whose grandfather has just died. Evalyn can’t be more than twelve years old, and this is made obvious by her just-starting-to-develop child body. (In Buñuel’s signature style, we see the dead grandfathers bare feet sticking out over his death cot.) When Miller heads to town for the day, Traver befriends the trusting girl and gives her $20 for food, supplies, and a shotgun. Traver has a moment of temptation when the child’s towel slips a little. Tempted by the innocent girl’s provocative lack of modesty, Traver cautions her to wear more than a towel after showering and deliberately refrains from touching her. Not so with Miller, who later works much harder to convince Evalyn never to let on what he does with her privately inside the cabin. When Miller discovers the twenty-dollar bill, he assumes the worst about the island visitor; after all, he knows exactly what he’d want from Evalyn.
A power struggle ensues when Miller and Traver come face to face. The struggle is physical and then verbal as Traver is able to out with Miller. Traver agrees to spend time at the house helping out in exchange for food and lodging as he works on repairing his boat. Miller uses Traver’s arrival and board as an excuse to get the girl into his room at night, and there he tells her she is woman and forces her to “be a woman” with him. The next day Traver can tell there is something wrong with the girl, but can’t work out what exactly. Miller warns Traver that he has several grenades in his hut and so the power shifts back toward Miller again.
Traver relents, so Miller briefly resides comfortably in his manipulative “heaven,” until interrupted by another unlikely pair: a racist boatman named Jackson (played by character actor Graham Denton, who appears as Mr. Cunningham in To Kill a Mockingbird, which features a similar rape case) and Reverend Fleetwood (Claudio Brook).
When Jackson relates how a black clarinet player fingered for rape has escaped, Miller immediate becomes gung ho to nail that “nigger,” despite the fact that he’s just raped an under-aged child. No matter how many times he insists that Evalyn is now a woman, Miller’s underlying guilt starts to trouble him. Each of the other adults now suspect the man of raping the child, however the only man willing to do something about this is the Reverend.
This sexual obsession is only one of many Buñuel themes and motifs. Although most modern treatments would focus solely on the pedophilia and racist themes, Buñuel is far more interested in broader themes that encompass the human condition. Buñuel flits form interesting scene, giving us characteristic broader context through his imagery. We see a racoon come and slaughter a chicken and feed off it in front of the other traumatized chickens and closeups of the twitching body in its claws. We see a shot rabbit writing on the ground. We see Evalyn go out of her way to crush a large spider under her boot. Over and over Buñuel reminds us of the brutality of nature and the importance of rising above the kill or be killed ethos.
Effectively contrasting with veteran actor Scott is non-actor Meersman, whose complete inexperience comes across as naive innocence. This naivety plays out perfectly in one of the most comical scenes of the film. The young girl has no idea what the minister is leading her through the woods for, as he attempts to “save her soul” after her rape. Her sputtering timing is pitch perfect, solidifying her memorable debut. As Buñuelonce indicated, his best acting successes come from children and midgets.
If you’re fortunate enough to find a copy, The Young One is worthwhile viewing. Unlike the majority of banal screenplays that touch on racism and/or pedophilia, Buñuel supplies far more complex material for post mortems. For an artist that supposedly was anti-religious, he provokes more discussions about life’s existential problems than more conventionally moralistic filmmakers. Buñuel at his characteristic best!