All hail the cinematic delights of Luis Buñuel, a world-class directing genius whose work ranges from insightfully impish to point-blank outrageous. Driven from Spain by Fascists and from New York by commie hunters, he found a cinematic haven in Mexico, adapting his surreal mindset to popular film forms. These final three French features embrace the surrealist ethos, where a coherent narrative is optional. We definitely recognize our ‘rational’ world; Buñuel’s high art simply tells the truth.
Three Films by Luis Buñuel
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, That Obscure Object of Desire
The Criterion Collection 102. 290, 143
1972-1977 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date January 5, 2021 / 99.95
Cinematography: Edmond Richard
Production Designer: Pierre Guffroy
Film Editor: Hélène Plemiannikov
Written by Luis Buñuel, Jean-Claude Carrière
Produced by Serge Silberman
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Tracking down the films of Luis Buñuel has been an ongoing effort. We were of course shown Un Chien Andalou at film school, and Ensayo de un crimen was one of the first off-campus screenings we were sent to see. We saw prints of Viridiana and Los Olvidados that look much better than what we can see now. Everybody has their stories, I suppose, but I’m still hoping for good copies of shows I’ve only seen in marginal quality: El gran calavera, La Ilusión viaja en tranvía, Cela s’appelle l’aurore, Nazarín. Criterion has brought us the best available versions of many of the post-1960 features. These three were last seen on DVD in 2000 and 2001.
Luis Buñuel never compromised his artistic / political values. His first Mexican picture Gran Casino repeatedly finds ways to subvert the producer’s wishes: it’s a musical romance with a background of labor exploitation and criminality. He struck back at Franco’s regime with Viridiana and became a favorite of the 1960s as a maker of art films with teeth: dangerous ideas in censor-proof packages. The challenging Belle de Jour forced high-toned critics to improve their analytical skills. Tristana impressed literary reviewers with its rich interpretation of the Galdós novel.
When Luis Buñuel came to Los Angeles to present The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie at Filmex, George Cukor invited him over for lunch, with seven other ’emeritus’ directors of equal rank and prestige. ↑ There he is in a place of honor with Billy Wilder, George Stevens, Alfred Hitchcock, Rouben Mamoulian, Robert Mulligan, William Wyler, Cukor, Robert Wise (and John Ford, who didn’t make this photo). If only we could read a transcript of the table conversation… did Hitchcock feel comfortable next to a fellow mischievous trickster? &nspp;This was 1972, and most of these directors were nearing retirement. But Buñuel still had three masterpieces in his future.
Finding more freedom in France, Buñuel first worked with his screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière on Diary of a Chambermaid (1964). Criterion’s Three Films by Luis Buñuel gives us their final collaborations, two free-form surreal adventures and one daring classic novel adaptation that tops earlier silent and sound versions.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
The Criterion Collection 102
1972 /1:66 widescreen / 101 min. / Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie
Starring: Fernando Rey, Stéphane Audran, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Georges Duking, Michel Piccoli.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is an excellent way to see Buñuel at his most subversively droll — the movie doesn’t shock as much as it puts viewers into an intellectual tailspin: everything we see is a wicked critique of the greed and hypocrisy of ‘the comfortable, respectable class.’ Buñuel’s scandalous content hasn’t dated ní sólo dia.
A group of well-to-do friends orbits around the charming Don Rafael (Fernando Rey), the ambassador from the revolution-prone South American country of Miranda. No matter how hard they try they cannot seem to consummate the simple task of sitting down to dinner. Table dates are interrupted by the clergy, military maneuvers, unexpected deaths, and unexplained food scarcities. Other dates are ruined when Don Rafael suspects that the police are setting a trap, for he’s been smuggling contraband in his Mirandan diplomatic pouches. As days drag on with more and more meals that simply don’t come off, the studied manners and affected insincerities of the little group grow more transparent, especially when the fabric of the film itself begins to break down into episodic, Kafka-like vignettes. Flashbacks are related in dreams, and then dreams within dreams. Don Rafael is involved in an adulterous relationship with his best friend’s wife, and sexually harasses a would-be Mirandan assassin. A monsignor who moonlights as a gardener gives last rites to a man who admits he murdered his confessor’s parents. And the ultimate aborted meal turns out to be a bizarre trap, that pitches the guests into a different reality.
Never has a PG-rated film seemed so insistently perverse — Buñuel knows that wickedness is all in the mind. More Theater of the Absurd than surreal, Discreet abounds with situations that twist reality in subtle ways. In El Angel Exterminador the members of a house party found they could not go home, for no rational reason; in this show the simple act of enjoying a meal is impossible. Some implacable fate works overtime to humiliate these self-satisfied fools.
It’s all about what the comfortable class indulges in the spirit of ‘polite society.’ Don Rafael finds himself at a party where both guests and host alike corner him with unthinkably direct questions: “Is it true that there is corruption in your government’s ambassadorial ranks?” He tries to flee but cannot. A clique of fashionable ladies, trapped in a cafe mysteriously without coffee, tea or indeed anything at all to serve, is approached by a handsome lieutenant, a complete stranger who tells them a horribly personal story of childhood abuse and murder. Because of his manners, station and looks they accept his appalling story with smiles and niceties. ‘Proper behavior’ is an absurd barrier holding reality at bay. Margaret Dumont was never so complacent.
The more insane things become, the more calm and ordered is Buñuel’s camera. The humor is not a stack of random in-jokes; wielding our complacent assumptions against us, Buñuel has us in his pocket from the first scene forward.
The excellent extras on the three discs bring Luis Buñuel to life, sketching a solid image of the artist. Criterion carries over items from its original DVD releases. Discreet begins with El náufrago de la calle de Providencia, a 24-minute collage of amusing interviews with Buñuel associates. Author Carlos Fuentes: “Salvador Dali was completely asexual … when it came to sex, he was like that table there.” In home movies, Buñuel is shown fussily preparing a martini drink with a petty intensity comparable to the people he lampoons in the main feature.
The feature-length documentary A propósito de Buñuel begins with a wealth of background about Spain, about Unamuno and the wave of artists that came before the Residencia clan of Buñuel, Dalí, and Federico García Lorca. Critics describe Buñuel’s Mexican exile films as entirely un-Mexican, yet the best films ever made in that country. We hear the tragic story of Miroslava, an actress who claimed to be delaying her suicide as a courtesy to Luis. When their film was finished she followed through with her plan. The vicious punk hoodlum of Los Olvidados is discussed by the actor who played him, Roberto Cobo. A Spanish actress recalls the pathetic and truly unpleasant ‘actors’ Luis recruited to fill out his table of vagrant disciples for Viridiana.
The Phantom of Liberty
The Criterion Collection 290
1974 / 1:66 widescreen / 103 min. /
Le fantôme de la liberté
Starring: Adriana Asti, Julien Bertheau, Jean-Claude Brialy, Adolfo Celi, Michael Lonsdale, Michel Piccoli, Jean Rochefort, Bernard Verley, Milena Vukotic, Monica Vitti.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie may have more outright laughs but Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty hews even closer to his surrealist roots. It’s an excellent demonstration of the director’s anarchic view of society, on all levels.
A less linear narrative would be hard to find. In 1806, an invading French officer seeks to resurrect a dead queen in Toledo. Schoolchildren are passed filthy postcards on a modern-day French playground. A man’s visit to the doctor is interrupted by a nurse’s trip to the country. At an inn she meets some odd monks and an S&M couple. A social gathering reverses the roles of the bathroom and the dining table. A young girl disappears and her distraught parents seek the help of the authorities. A mad sniper is apprehended by the police and put on trial. A prefect of Police receives a phone call from his dead sister, and goes to her tomb to see if she’s really there.
The blatantly nonsensical The Phantom of Liberty resurrects an early surreal aim, the destruction of the narrative form. Just as one character or storyline grabs our attention, Buñuel’s camera opts to follow another character into a completely different narrative thread. Interesting characters are introduced and arbitrarily dropped. Some events question basic rules of human behavior, such as the fairly uncomfortable sequence that asks why civilized humans eat together as a social gathering, while bodily eliminations are hidden away in private. Never mind that there’s plenty of logic to back up that convention. It’s all in the service of surrealist anarchy, to yank the rug out from under complacent assumptions.
Buñuel’s fantasy erases the distinction between responsible action and ‘liberated’ instinct. He blithely proposes shocking ideas, just for art’s sake. A mass murderer is caught and tried. He shows no reaction when condemned to death for his crime. The kicker comes when he’s unaccountably released. His judges light his cigarette and autograph seekers run to him. It’s as if the definition of capital punishment had been changed to mean ‘forced to live in human society.’
A surreal act needs to be gratuitously irrational. In the film’s most maddeningly amusing sequence concerned parents, teachers and the police frantically search for a lost child — who is among them all the time and is simply being ignored. When the policeman asks for the child’s description the girl’s mother has her stand up so the policeman can see for himself! Other episodes challenge ‘polite’ taboos left and right: pornography, incest, organized religion. The only organizing principle is the title, said to be a quote from the Communist Manifesto.
A gallery of guest stars adorns the swift-moving parade of outrages. In the midst of all the hot-button topics, we are shown a cop giving out a traffic ticket. Nothing unusual happens… and we realize that Buñuel thinks that modern ritual is sufficiently bizarre in and of itself, without further elaboration.
That Obscure Object of Desire
The Criterion Collection 143
1977 / 1:66 widescreen / 104 min. / Cet obscur objet du désir
Starring: Fernando Rey, Carole Bouquet, Ángela Molina, Julien Bertheau, André Weber, Milena Vukotic.
Luis Buñuel’s final, perplexing That Obscure Object of Desire wraps up his career with a cocktail of surreal perversity. The strange tale of frustrated sex and cruel coquetry reinterprets the 1898 novel La femme et le pantin by Pierre Louÿs. Four or five versions were filmed, most notably by Josef von Sternberg as The Devil is a Woman.
The wealthy Mathieu (Fernando Rey) becomes infatuated with his new maid Concepción ‘Conchita’ Pérez. He pursues her across Paris and even to Spain in an unfulfilled ‘affair’ that goes on for months. Conchita encourages him with promises of intimacy and then unaccountably changes her mind at the last minute. Mathieu keeps trying to buy Conchita in one way or another; she declares that her body belongs to herself and she won’t be bought. No matter what indignities Mathieu suffers, he keeps coming back for more.
The playfully impish That Obscure Object of Desire got plenty of attention through an unique filmic conceit. Conchita Pérez is played in some scenes by actress Carole Bouquet, and in others by Angela Molina…. and offers no reason for doing so. Buñuel’s gambit keeps us as off-balance as is the foolish Mathieu, his familiar obsessed hero. Mathieu wants simply to possess a woman the way he owns everything else in his privileged life. Is the quixotic Conchita a demon sent to tempt and frustrate him? Or is she simply a modern woman who values her independence and wants Mathieu to change his possessive ways before she surrenders? Either way Conchita wraps Mathieu around her little finger as only a wily latina can.
This is a sex farce with teeth. Conchita promises herself in bed, but Mathieu finds her bound up in a leather-laced contraption that functions better than a chastity belt. In Sevilla he discovers that her discreet ‘nap’ times upstairs are really for private nude dance sessions. Are the men in her audience just innocent tourists, as she claims? Conchita claims that she is a virgin, but Mathieu keeps finding her in compromising situations with a young guitarrista. At one point Mathieu protests from behind a locked gate as they make love. But Conchita insists that it is just a charade to shake Mathieu free of his jealousy. If he truly loved her there wouldn’t be a problem.
Once again the perfect Buñuellian everyman, Fernando Rey carries a role much more difficult than his cartoonish consul in Bourgeoisie. Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina do the flip-flop role of Conchita, never once behaving as if told to act similarly. If we exempt the fact that Molina does all the flamenco dancing, there’s also no correlation between the kinds of scenes played by each actress. Both take turns tormenting and teasing Mathieu, and both do the apologetic scenes where he bounces back like a stupid puppy.
Although related through an elaborate framing device on a train, this is not the structural puzzle that was The Phantom of Liberty. There are no sidebar surreal skits, although we worry that Mathieu’s train companions might constitute a joke in themselves: a bourgeois woman, her daugher, a judge, and a dwarf psychologist.
But plenty of enigmatic Buñuel content peeks in from the margins. Burlap bags show up at the strangest times. A (very fake) rat is caught in a trap just as Mathieu is all but purchasing Conchita from her mother. A woman in a shop window repairing a torn and bloody lace nightgown, and Mathieu smiles warmly at the scene. Does the blood mean that Conchita has physically capitulated to Mathieu? They do seem to bicker and fuss like any other couple now…
There are also numerous references to terrorist violence in newspapers and radio reports. Shootings, kidnapings, and bombings become a constant inconvenience but nobody comments on them. Even when Mathieu is personally held up, he can’t be bothered to warn a possible next victim. The radio reports that a deadly virus is reaching the outskirts of Barcelona, but nobody pays attention. Buñuel predicts a surreal future: random acts of terror were not yet a daily routine in 1977, but our reality has become very much like his perverse dream world.
It’s fairly amazing how quickly we adjust to the idea of two different ‘Conchitas.’ We’re constantly reminded that we’re watching an artificial construction, exactly the opposite strategem of every other director. This is no Old Man’s Movie. Even at age eighty, Luis Buñuel is at the top of his form.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Three Films by Luis Buñuel features newly remastered encodings of all three films. They look better than ever; we only wish more of his older pictures could be restored as well as these have been.
Criterion’s producers Kim Henderson, Alexandra Proulx and Valeria Rotella have rounded up other relevant TV shows and documentaries and generated some new extras as well. We were particularly gratified by the piece that combined interviews with Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina. The full list is below — it even includes an excerpt from a 1929 silent version La femme et le pantin. And we’re drawn to the interviews with Buñuel himself — the man seems incapable of saying anything that isn’t brilliant.
The wealth of extras contains a great quantity of key original source material as well as critical thought. Although my old copy only covers movies up to Belle de jour, I also recommend Raymond Durgnat’s book of critical analysis. →
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Three Films by Luis Buñuel
Supplements (from Criterion): The Castaway of Providence Street, a 1971 homage to Luis Buñuel made by his friends and fellow filmmakers Arturo Ripstein and Rafael Castanedo; Speaking of Buñuel, a documentary from 2000 on Buñuel’s life and work; Once Upon a Time: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a 2011 television program about the making of the film; Interviews from 2000 with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriè on The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire; Archival interviews on all three films featuring Carriè; actors Stéphane Audran, Muni, Michel Piccoli, Fernando Rey and others; Documentary from 1985 about producer Serge Silberman; Analysis of The Phantom of Liberty from 2017 by Peter William Evans; Lady Doubles, a 2017 documentary featuring actors Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina, who share the role of Conchita in That Obscure Object of Desire; Portrait of an Impatient Filmmaker Luis Buñuel, a 2012 short documentary featuring director of photography Edmond Richard and assistant director Pierre Lary; Excerpts from Jacques de Baroncelli’s 1929 silent film La femme et le pantin, an adaptation of Pierre Louüs’s 1898 novel of the same name; Alternate English-dubbed soundtrack for That Obscure Object of Desire; Trailers. 56-page color illustrated insert pamphlet with essays by Adrian Martin and Gary Indiana, along with interviews with Buñuel by critics José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Three Blu-rays in three card and plastic disc holder with pamphlet in heavy card sleeve.
Reviewed: January 7, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson