It was during one of the violent phases of the Revolution.
– Luis Buñuel, Ensayo de un Crimen, 1955
Archibaldo de la Cruz admits it: I’m a murderer. The police inspector smiles and sends Archie on his way. I can’t prosecute you for wishing someone’s death. Thinking is not a crime, my friend. But the women really are dead.
As the story begins Archibaldo, pampered scion of the Mexican aristocracy, is angry with his mother for leaving him with the governess for the evening. To calm his tirade, Archie’s mother brings him the music box. At the mother’s prompting, the governess tells Archie a story about the music box: made by fairies for a king, the box would make its owner’s every wish come true. She goes to the window and watches the police and the rebels fighting in the street below. Archie, glaring at her, turns the key on the music box. As soon as the music starts the governess falls to the floor dead, stricken by a stray bullet fired in the skirmish below. Archibaldo is ecstatic. He stands over the body, a trickle of blood pooling on her neck, her exposed legs voluptuous in death. I assure you that morbid sensation gave me a certain pleasure, Archie recalls, to feel myself all-powerful.
A beautiful nun stands next to Archie’s hospital bed, smiling as she listens to this macabre childhood reminiscence. She tells him she didn’t like his story, but the look on her face says otherwise. It’s imprinted on my memory like a photograph, he tells her. Time has a way of distorting things, the nun replies. She leaves the room for a minute; Archie extracts from his possessions a box containing seven straight-edge razors, one for each day of the week. He extracts the Friday blade. When the nun comes back, Archie asks her: Wouldn’t you be glad to die if it means eternal bliss? She would. I’ll give you that joy, Archie says, opening the razor. Terrified, the nurse runs out of the room, down the empty corridor, and into the empty elevator shaft, plunging to her death.
Buñuel shows us the unholy trinities of the Hispanic soul: aristocracy, church and military; motherhood, sex, and sadomasochism. And now we also see the magical fulfillment of desire, a kind of answered prayer, the spirit incarnate in Catholic mystical union. But there’s still something missing, something that makes confession unsatisfying, leaving Archibaldo neither punished nor forgiven: he has been denied the pleasure of actually committing the sin in the flesh.
Two more women die before Archibaldo’s imaginary killing spree comes to an end. Archie wants to murder them, he can see himself murdering them (we see it too, the fantasies enacted on screen). And they are killed… but not by Archie.
The fifth woman he meets at an antique shop. He’s shopping for a necklace; a couple are looking at a music box. Archie recognizes the tune immediately: he takes the box out of the woman’s hands. It belonged to my mother and is very dear to me. The woman, touched, begins reminiscing. He’s not interested in your childhood recollections, the man tells her — he looks just like Freud. The shopkeeper agrees to sell the box to Archie: To me childhood memories are sacred.
After the third woman’s death Archie goes into a bar. There’s a picture of Mary on the wall — we learn that this bar used to be a monastery. Archie orders a glass of milk. A woman comes up to him, asks if he remembers her. He doesn’t. She starts whistling the music box tune — it’s the woman from the antique shop. As always, Archie is charming, smartly dressed, almost effeminately elegant in manner. She has to go — her “daddy” is waiting, the man who looks like Freud. She hands Archie her card on her way out.
He looks for her at the address on the card, which turns out to be a dress shop. The woman doesn’t work there, and no one has heard of her. But then Archie sees her — or rather, a mannequin that looks just like her. He finds out where the mannequin came from and finds her there, modeling for some art students. She compliments him on his resourcefulness in tracking her down from the boutique. I saw you there dumb and paralyzed, Archie tells her. An artist himself, Archie invites her to his house for a private session, and she agrees.
On the appointed day Archie dismisses his servants early. As he shows the woman around his exquisite home, he takes her to the sitting room to meet his “cousin.” There, seated on the couch, is the woman’ s mannequin double. She laughs. How did you get my sister to come here? She’s a good girl. My parents always said she’d turn out bad. When he goes out to pour drinks — wine for her, water for himself — he makes a quick trip to the big pottery kiln and stokes up the fire. When he returns, he finds that she has changed clothing with her double. Archie attempts to kiss her, but she resists. When he goes over to the mannequin and begins kissing her, the living woman reaches toward Archie and pulls him toward her. They kiss. As he’s about to gag her the doorbell buzzes. He’s angry, but she’s visibly amused — it turns out she’s invited some of her clients to tour Archie’s house. As he leaves, the woman tells Archie she’s getting married to the Freud lookalike; but you’ll always have my little sister.
Enraged, Archie grabs the mannequin double by the throat, then drags her by the hair. One of the legs falls off; he picks it up and tucks it under his arm. He lays the mannequin on a table next to the kiln, hikes up her skirt in order to put her leg back in position, and activates the mechanism to push her into the kiln. As we see the mannequin moving toward the flames we see her face: it’s the living face of the woman. Then, as we see her consigned to the flames, we watch the face melting — it’s the mannequin’s face again.