2016 Film Essays

‘The Young One’ Sees Luis Buñuel Tackle the American South


When thinking of Luis Buñuel, a couple of recurring things usually come to mind: the bourgeoisie, eye-slicing, people getting trapped in rooms, foot fetishization and Catherine Deneuve having sex with people. What doesn’t tend to come to mind is the idea of the director helming a feature set in the American South. In fact, the English language doesn’t tend to come to mind with Buñuel’s films at all. But he did make two films in the English language, and the US/Mexico co-production The Young One is one of them. And it at least kept the foot fetishisation, much to the delight of Quentin Tarantino, I’m sure.

With The Young One, Buñuel rejects the surrealism that would define his early films and almost all the European work that followed, presenting a rather straightforward narrative with superficial similarities to a Tennessee Williams screenplay (Baby Doll certainly comes to mind). That is not to say, though, that The Young One, also known as White Trash, is anything like a mainstream proposition free of provocation. Making a film during the height of the Civil Rights movement (with a black main character) and setting it in the rural south screams pot-stirring, and that’s before you throw in a certain other element of the plot.


Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita was published in America just a couple of years prior to The Young One’s release, and Buñuel adds in the uncomfortable notion of the deflowering of a young girl by a middle-aged man into the brew of his sizzling exploitation picture. A volatile subject for the time, and contemporary reviews certainly weren’t especially favourable, with many writers disliking the director’s lack of inclination to ever label any of its small ensemble as a hero or villain. For one thing, it’s implied that the largely “good” character who’s fleeing a lynch mob is innocent of the rape charge, but there’s never any explicit confirmation. There’s certainly a more antagonistic figure in the film, but this man’s only slightly more honourable.


The film is no shallow provocation, however. Instead, it’s a gripping, dense psychosexual study of both loss of innocence and the various forms racism can take. It’s got a delicious premise, too. Said lynch mob-fleer, Traver (Bernie Hamilton), seeks refuse on a remote island, where he meets a hostile game warden/bee farm owner, Miller (Zachary Scott), and the young object of his salacious affection, Evalyn (Key Meersman). Prior to Traver’s arrival, the island’s only other resident (the girl’s grandfather) has just passed away. The warden plans to send her to the mainland for schooling, but his increasing lust towards her blooming womanhood sees him plan to keep her around. As Traver sneaks around on the island to various ends, Evalyn forms a bond with him while Miller shows him contempt. A white supremacist (Crahan Denton) and a priest (Claudio Brook) later intrude on proceedings, and tensions hit breaking point. So, basically, it’s a really dark episode of Gilligan’s Island.

Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.