Luis Buñuel Portolés was born on February 22, 1900 in the small town of Calanda, in the Aragon region of northeast Spain. His father was a businessman who had earlier made a fortune in Cuba; his father was 43 and his mother was 18 when they married. When Buñuel was four years old his family moved to Zaragoza (sometimes spelled Saragossa), also in Aragon, where Buñuel studied at the Jesuit Colegio del Salvador. When he was seventeen he enrolled at the Universidad de Madrid, initially studying natural sciences but ultimately studying philosophy. During his time as a university student he lived in the Oxbridge-style Residencia de Estudiantes, where he befriended the painter Salvador Dalí (with whom he later made Un Chien Andalou) and the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca.
After college, Buñuel became interested in film. Although he was impressed with Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), as well as the films of G.W. Pabst, the film that made the biggest impression on Buñuel was Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921). After moving to Paris in 1925, Buñuel decided to pursue filmmaking, eventually working as an assistant to famed director Jean Epstein. While in Paris Buñuel also worked as a film critic for various periodicals, and met his future wife Jeanne Rucar, a gymnast who appears briefly in Un Chien Andalou as one of the people walking away from the body in the wooded park. It was in Paris that Buñuel collaborated with Dalí on Un Chien Andalou (1929), which was funded by Buñuel’s mother. The film’s success catapulted Buñuel and Dalí to the front ranks of the Paris Surrealists, a group led by André Breton. The film’s success also led to the funding of a follow-up film, L’Age d’Or (1930), by the wealthy couple Marie-Laurie and Charles de Noailles. The release of the latter film was very scandalous, leading to its being banned by the Prefecture of Police of Paris. The relationship between Buñuel and Dalí never recovered from the strains of making L’Age d’Or.
In 1932 Buñuel returned to Spain to make the documentary Las Hurdes (sometimes called Land without Bread, 1933), about the impoverished Las Hurdes region of Extremadura, Spain. During the Spanish Civil War Buñuel aligned himself with the Republican side and even did some espionage for them. In 1938 the Noailles funded Buñuel's travel (with his family) to Hollywood to advise a film about the Spanish Civil War, a project that came to nothing when the war ended. Because it would have been dangerous to return to Franco’s Spain, Buñuel decided to stay in the U.S. indefinitely, first taking a job at MGM thanks to the producer Frank Davis and then moving to New York, where he worked at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and in that capacity edited a shortened version of Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will (1935). Buñuel later lost his job at MoMA, and his hope of U.S. citizenship, with the release of Dalí’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942), which labeled Buñuel a communist and an atheist.
After returning briefly to Hollywood to produce Spanish dubbing for Warner Brothers, in 1946 Buñuel was convinced by Óscar Dancigers, a Russian producer in Mexico, to make a film for him, thereby initiating Buñuel’s Mexican exile (he would in fact live in Mexico City until the end of his life), as well as one of the most fruitful periods of his career. Though most of Buñuel’s Mexican films are commercial fare, they are also widely admired and highly accomplished. Among the most notable films from this period include Los Olvidados (1950, for which he received the prize for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival), Mexican Bus Ride (1952), Él (1953), Robinson Crusoe (1954), The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), Nazarín (1959), The Young One (1960), The Exterminating Angel (1962), and Simon of the Desert (1965).
In 1960 Buñuel returned with trepidation to Spain (which was still under Franco's control) to make Viridiana (1961), a film that would go on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. This initiated a new period of international attention and of European production, with Buñuel making many of his remaining films in France (while remaining based in Mexico). These films include Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), Belle de Jour (1967, which received the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival), The Milky Way (1969), Tristana (1970), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, which received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film), The Phantom of Liberty (1974), and That Obscure of Object of Desire (1977). All of the latter films (with the exception of Tristana) were co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière, a close collaborator at the end of Buñuel’s life. Other frequent collaborators during this period included the actors Fernando Rey, Catherine Deneuve, and Michel Piccoli.
In 1982 Buñuel published an autobiography, My Last Sigh (which he co-wrote with Carrière). Buñuel died in Mexico City on July 29, 1983. In 2013 Buñuel’s house in Mexico City, which the Spanish government had since bought from Buñuel’s family, opened as a public cultural center.