Combustible Celluloid

Three Films by Luis Buñuel [Blu-ray]

Sly Martinis

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

January 5, 2021 — The Criterion Collection has released this essential box set of three of the best — and the three last — films by Spanish-born filmmaker Luis Buñuel. They are: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), The Phantom of Liberty (1974), and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). All three films had been released by Criterion on DVD in the early 2000s, but it's nice to have them remastered in HD, and all in one place. Plus the slim set takes up about the same amount of space as my 2002 double-disc DVD of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie alone. Some of the bonuses have been carried over from the earlier releases, but there are new bonuses as well.

The following is an edited combination of my original three full-length reviews.

It's helpful to remember that this director's career did not begin in earnest until he was 50 years old, with Los Olvidados. His subsequent, chaotic low-budget films angered many and pleased even more. But it wasn't until he met French producer Serge Silberman that he was able to make his final films in France, with the final three ranking among his greatest masterpieces.

Made when Buñuel was 72, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is technically a comedy, if not necessarily a laugh-out-loud one. It's the kind where you laugh later, when you recall a certain scene.

Six friends in the film are constantly trying to get together to eat, but never can. Fernando Rey (a regular in four of Buñuel's films) stars as the Mirandan Ambassador in Paris who smuggles cocaine in his diplomatic pouch. Stephane Audran (who won a British acting award for her role) and Jean-Pierre Cassel play a rich couple. Paul Frankeur and Delphine Seryrig are another couple with a tagalong (drunk) sister, Bulle Ogier. The first time we see them, the friends are the victim of a misunderstanding. They arrive for dinner on the wrong night. The hostess is in her dressing gown and is getting ready for bed. They decide to go to a nearby inn, but leave when they realize that the owner has recently died and is laid out on a table in the next room.

Another character is a bishop who takes a job working as a gardener for Audran and Cassel. A shocking scene occurs when he is called to give absolution to a dying man, finds out that he killed the bishop's parents years before, and shoots him to death. This scene was once considered controversial because it breaks the dream-rhythm of the movie, and it was cut out in several countries. Today, it just seems part of the jest.

Dreams enter into the scenario as well. In one scene, the three women are sitting in a cafe (which has apparently run out of coffee, tea, and milk) when a soldier comes up to them and begins describing a gory dream he had where his mother's ghost came to him and told him to kill his father. Several times during the movie, authority figures (military and police) describe dreams, and they always turn gory or scary. Our six friends have dreams, too. One occurs as they sit down to dinner again, and find that they are really on a stage, with unknown lines to recite. This scene then turns out to be a dream-within-a-dream. Sometimes dream logic works its way into reality as when a young maid (probably in her twenties) explains that her boyfriend is leaving her because she's 52 years old.

Interspersed with the action are scenes of the six friends walking happily and aimlessly down a paved road that seemingly goes nowhere. Symbol-happy viewers will be in hog heaven trying to figure out what everything means, but Buñuel was seemingly not concerned with such things. Indeed, his style of direction was very simple and straightforward. There were not a lot of complex movements or cuts. He was mostly concerned with photographing everything straight-on. The scene he was perhaps most concerned with was the one that explained his personal recipe for the perfect martini. Alas, the scene is interrupted by a cut, but the recipe appears complete in Buñuel's excellent autobiography, My Last Sigh, which was co-written by the director's friend, the great screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who co-wrote all three of his final films.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was a hit when it arrived in the United States in 1972 and Buñuel won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (and was nominated along with Carrière for Best Original Screenplay). Since then, it has aged impressively well, despite its funky 1970s clothes. Today these characters would be sporting cell phones and smoking imported cigars, but their actions and words would still be quite similar. The bourgeoisie never change and never will. (If anything, they've become more greedy and backstabbing over time.) But though Buñuel himself is gone, his films remain to skewer them whenever we feel the urge to see them humiliated.

The key scene in Buñuel's The Phantom of Liberty is the one that takes place at a dinner party. Guests gather around the table, pull down their pants and sit on toilets. They talk, rifle through magazines and otherwise engage in casual conversation. One guest rises, politely excuses himself and shyly asks for the dining room. Once inside, he shuts the door and begins eating.

That's really funny, and in the joke, Buñuel asks why we perform one bodily function with great dignity in public and another with shame in private. As humans, our beliefs and behavior is utterly arbitrary. And so the phantom swoops down to demonstrate.

The Phantom of Liberty famously takes place, like Richard Linklater's Slacker after it, in a world of many characters. Characters appear in a scene together, and the camera follows one of the supporting players off to another scene, where he or she is now the star. And on and on. The first scene takes place during the Napoleonic Wars; it's a full costume piece that involves moving statues and some serious nose thumbing at religion. Suddenly a narrator's voice appears and the whole thing has taken place inside a book, read on a park bench by a nanny.

Other episodes involve a sniper, a "lost" little girl who is actually right there in the room all the time, gambling and smoking priests, an affair between a young man and an elderly woman (presumably his aunt?), S&M, and a man supposedly impersonating a police inspector.

It would be one thing to praise The Phantom of Liberty as a hilarious slab of anarchy, but we're dealing with an artist at the peak of his powers, at age 74. Many film directors either stop working by that age, or they fall into a kind of thoughtful melancholy. Born at the turn of the 20th Century, Bunuel kept refining his edge, all the way up until his death in 1983.

Bunuel had developed a particular style of bringing his characters into rooms, and of wryly cutting and incorporating off-screen information and sound, that just kept getting better. The Phantom of Liberty moves with great confidence and comfort. Odd that such a wicked film should feel comfortable, but there you have it. That's Bunuel.

When he was just 28, Buñuel co-directed (with Salvador Dali) one of the most notorious films of all time, the 16-minute Un Chien Andalou, still famous for its scene of a barber (Buñuel himself) slicing a woman's eye open. By age 77, Buñuel had not dimmed this playful fury, as shown by his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

Though That Obscure Object of Desire was based on a novel (by Pierre Louys) that had been filmed many times before — most notably by Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich as The Devil Is a Woman (1935) — Buñuel took the material and made it his own. When he failed to get Maria Schneider (Last Tango in Paris, The Passenger) for the lead role of Conchita, he instead cast two women, the French Carole Bouquet (later a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only) and the Spanish Angela Molina (both of whom were dubbed by a third French actress). He used both actresses intermittently throughout the film, changing them randomly without the other characters ever noticing.

The main character, Don Matthieu (played by Fernando Rey, who was dubbed by Michel Piccoli) is a bourgeoisie layabout with no discernible function other than to eat in fancy restaurants. He discovers the lovely Conchita working as a maid in his own home. He makes a play for her and she promptly quits.

But they meet again and she flirts with him. Then she turns cold. Then she comes on to him again. She's not a real flesh-and-blood character, but, as the title says, an object of desire. The two actresses represent the two sides of the woman, the hot and the cold, but intermittently. Neither actress plays only one side. In this manner, she's almost always a symbol for something: evil, love, lust, purity, etc. (Oddly, the two actresses might also represent the two sides of Buñuel himself — a Spanish-born filmmaker working in France.)

In the end, Matthieu never possesses her, never physically consummates his relationship. Conchita will not give in and have sex with Matthieu, for fear of losing her power over him. Matthieu will not marry Conchita, for fear of losing his power over her. It's a match made in hell.

Matthieu tells his sad story in flashback to his fellow passengers on a train after dumping a bucket of water on Conchita's head on the train platform. (Typical of Buñuel, one of the characters is a dwarf who teaches psychology.) But it's not over yet. Conchita has boarded the train and their story together will continue after Matthieu's yarn comes to an end.

Buñuel punctuates That Obscure Object of Desire with random terrorist activities in France and Spain. Everywhere Matthieu goes, things blow up, cars are stolen and guns are pointed in people's faces. (It's strangely timely now that we can understand and empathize with this sudden violence here in America.) Aristocratic Matthieu, however, ignores all this violence in search of his own personal torment — as if he believes he's above the horror of the real world.

But Buñuel, who spent his career railing against the bourgeoisie, has other plans for him. The film culminates with a brilliant last shot for the director's last movie, a fitting end for a man who offended, tantalized, entertained, and shocked so many people for so many years.

Bonuses on the Blu-ray set include:
·New high-definition digital restorations of all three films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks
·The Castaway of Providence Street, a 1971 homage to Luis Buñuel made by his longtime friends and fellow filmmakers Arturo Ripstein and Rafael Castanedo (which includes footage of Buñuel making his martini)
·Speaking of Buñuel, a documentary from 2000 on Buñuel's life and work (which comprised its own entire DVD on the original Discreet Charm two-disc set)
·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 Carrière
·Archival interviews on all three films featuring Carrière; actors Stéphane Audran, Muni, Michel Piccoli, and Fernando Rey; and other key collaborators
·Documentary from 1985 about producer Serge Silberman, who worked with Buñuel on five of his final seven films
·Analysis of The Phantom of Liberty from 2017 by film scholar Peter William Evans
·Lady Doubles, a 2017 documentary featuring actors Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina
·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 Louÿs's 1898 novel of the same name, on which That Obscure Object of Desire is also based
·Alternate English-dubbed soundtrack for That Obscure Object of Desire
·New English subtitle translations
·Liner nots essays by critic Adrian Martin and novelist and critic Gary Indiana, along with interviews with Buñuel by critics José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent

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