Not unlike Él, Ensayo de un Crimen is a twisted tragicomedy on male obsession. It’s also the closest Spanish auteur Luis Buñuel ever came to directing a bona fide suspense thriller. Archibaldo de la Cruz (Ernesto Alonso), a well-off pottery maker, remembers a fateful incident from his youth while turning the pages of a photography book depicting war casualties. Mexico City is in a state of unrest and the de la Cruz clan fears that the revolutionists will compromise the bourgeois clan’s fortress of wealth. The boy’s beautiful young governess (Leonor Llausás) pulls the young bourgeoning fetishist from a closet, where he was playing dress up with his parents’ clothing. Hoping to soothe the rambunctious child, Archibaldo’s mother allows him to play with a music box and encourages the governess to tell the boy a made-up story about the box’s origins.
Here Buñuel means to engage the Greek myth of Pandora’s box, which tells of Epimetheus’s beautiful wife and how titillated she was by the contents of a mysterious receptacle Mercury asked her and her husband to safeguard. Once she opened the box and unleashed all sorts of evil into the world, Pandora and Epimetheus open the box once more and subsequently balance this runaway evil with goodness. The resourceful governess from Ensayo de un Crimen speaks of a bygone empire where a king once used a music box to wish the death of his many enemies. The impressionable young Archibaldo is so fascinated by the power this instrument commands that he wishes the death of his governess—and just as she steps toward the window of the room, a stray bullet pierces her neck. She falls to the ground, her skirt flying upward to reveal her long and sensuous legs. In this one sexually-charged moment, Buñuel has forever inextricably links Archibaldo’s delusions of omnipotence with a fascinating joint-obsession with sex and death.
After the death of his wife (the details of which aren’t revealed until much later in the film), Archibaldo spends time at a hospital run by nuns. It is there that he tells Sister Trinidad (Chabela Durán) the story of his fateful music box, manipulating the beautiful young nun until she acknowledges that with death comes eternal bliss. Before he can swipe at her with one of his trusted razor blades, the woman runs down the hospital corridors and mysteriously falls down an elevator shaft. (It should be mentioned that the film more accurately translates into English as Test of a Crime, which more explicitly references Buñuel’s need to evoke Archibaldo’s ownership and command of his own immoral behavior.) He admits to “killing” the nun to local authorities before recalling the day he rediscovered his music box inside an antique store.
“Childhood memories are sacred,” says the storeowner, convincing two potential customers that purchasing the music box would strip Archibaldo of his childhood. Even as he misleadingly convinces the spectator of the milk-loving Archibaldo’s criminal life (in Los Olvidados, the director similarly uses milk imagery to challenge the innocence of human existence), Buñuel fascinatingly underplays the box’s role as both a literal and figurative terror mechanism but, more importantly, he staunchly acknowledges that Archibalso’s sexual fetishes (and anyone else’s for that matter) can be free of murderous intent. After the death of the governess, Archibaldo attempts to murder no less than four other women. Buñuel sees a certain existential crisis in a murderer’s incompetence to murder. By repeatedly foiling Archibaldo’s murderous schemes, Buñuel forces his anti-hero to renegotiate the meaning of desire and his confused notions of pre-determined will.
“I could cheerfully murder her,” says Archibaldo to a man at a gambling club. Pat Terrazas (Rita Macedo) is an impossibly shrill society woman with killer legs. Though married, she seduces Archibaldo on two separate occasions before bringing him to her home. Her distant husband, William Corduran (José María Linares-Rivas), comes calling just as Archibaldo is about to slit the woman’s throat. Pat is later found with her throat cut from an apparent suicide. (Coincidentally, Machedo would commit suicide in 1993 after a 40-year career in Mexican cinema.) Though Archibaldo is set to marry the innocent Carlota (Ariadna Welter), he nonetheless pursues mannequin-model Lavinia (Miroslava Stern) after spotting her through the fire of a waiter’s flaming drink at a local bar. Just as Buñuel uses mirrors and reflections as windows into Archibaldo’s soul, fire comes to fascinatingly represent his voyeuristic gaze.
Archibaldo brings a mannequin of Lavinia to his rustic estate before his supposed date with the exotic beauty. Archibaldo drowns Lavinia and her plastic clone in sensuous kisses before the woman forces him to choose between her and her “little sister.” This twisted encounter is indicative of Archibaldo’s frustrated search for the ideal woman. Though he chooses the mannequin and hopes to throw Lavinia into his potter’s kiln (similarities between the film and Mario Bava’s Hatchet for a Honeymoon are difficult to ignore), a group of American tourists interrupt this ghoulish exchange and perpetuate Lavinia’s escape. Archibaldo’s murderous schemes are once again frustrated and he’s now left only with the mannequin, which he nonetheless throws into his kiln along with its appropriately loose leg (Buñuel’s favorite part of the female body). (Stern committed suicide shortly after the film wrapped when betrayed by the man she loved.)
Archibaldo remains a “typical man of our times.” Once told a fairy tale (here a kind of bourgeois ritual of denial) that inadvertently exposes him to a world of fetishes, his view of women is forever changed. In Carlota lies salvation though there is still the matter of the married man, Alejandro (Rodolfo Landa), who wishes to marry her. Etiquette rules in Archibaldo’s favor when Alejandro’s wife refuses to divorce the debonair young man. A mysterious note leads Archibaldo to a secret rendezvous between Carlota and Alejandro, who closes the curtains inside his apartment before Archibaldo can see that Carlota is rejecting the man’s advances. Just as he did with all the other women he wished to punish for their faults and indiscretions, Archibaldo fantasizes about Carlota’s death. Though Buñuel doesn’t shy away from painting Archibaldo as a pervert, he’s also very careful to point out that Archibaldo actively looks to give his potential crimes a moral justification.
Archibaldo waits to marry Carlota before killing her (for him, there is more honor in killing a cheating wife than a cheating lover), but his murderous intent is once again thwarted when a jealous Alejandro shoots Carlota shortly after she and Archibaldo have exchanged vows. Past the shockingly flippant admission by the film’s police officers that Archibaldo cannot be held responsible for wishing death on others lies an evocative, “uncomplicated” finale that sadly suggests Archibaldo can free himself of his murderous fetishes should he willingly toss aside his memories of childhood. But that may be too painful, because Buñuel once said: “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.”