The Criterion Collection is beginning 2021 with what will surely be one of their best releases of the year: Three Films by Luis Buñuel is a packed box set that collects Buñuel’s final three films: 1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1974’s The Phantom of Liberty, and 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire. After nearly a half century of directing cutting, insightful, hilarious films that explore some of the absurd ways we go about life and set up our communities, one might think his work would get stale or repetitive, but somehow Buñuel stayed fresh to the end, continuing to create strange, provocative work that feels absolutely nonsensical while striking a chord of truth.
From what I’ve read, we are lucky to have these films. After adapting Benito Pérez Galdós’s novel Tristana in 1970, Buñuel apparently felt done and announced it would be his last. But he continued to get inspiration from his collaborators, particularly his producer Serge Silberman and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, with whom he’d worked on a number of projects since 1964’s Diary of a Chambermaid. With them, Buñuel continued to explore stories and unconventional ways to tell them. The results — these three films — are bizarre and wonderful. They are each impeccably made. Everyone involved — from the actors, to the writers, to Buñuel himself — is working at peak levels.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
The run of these three films begins with this gem that won Buñuel an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film as well as a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. I doubt that Buñuel cared much about the awards, but it led to more resources and freedom for the next couple of films. We’ll see how he used that in a moment, but let’s start with this. After all, it’s not like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a conventional film with clear box office potential.
In some ways, the film recalls another of Buñuel’s best films: The Exterminating Angel (my post here). In that film, from precisely one decade earlier, a group of high society couples get together for a dinner party and then find they cannot leave. There are no physical barriers preventing their escape; they simply cannot bring themselves to walk out the open door they entered. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie three couples keep trying to have a nice dinner party but find they cannot get far. Things keep preventing them from sitting down together and completing a nice dinner that they all feel entitled to.
Now how on earth do you make a film interesting when it is about such boring, uppity people failing to finish their uppity conversations. I don’t know the math exactly, but the formula includes at least some combination of the absurd being played out by some of the best actors and actresses playing everything seriously.
We have a wonderful cast, filled with faces we recognize not only from other films by Buñuel but from other great pieces of world cinema: Bulle Ogier, who worked steadily with Jacques Rivette; Delphine Seyrig, who would later play the titular character in Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; Stephane Audran, who would play Babette in Babette’s Feast; the omnipresent Jean-Pierre Cassel, Michel Piccoli, and Paul Frankeur; and, notable for his many contributions to Buñuel’s darkest characters, Fernando Rey.
The way these dinner parties are thwarted, and their annoyed responses — how could the owner have died when we wanted dinner — make great bits of comedy.
I’d like the film even if it were just content being funny. But Buñuel, as usual, has some serious intentions when he strikes out with his cutting humor.
It’s a tremendous, dark work. Where will this box set take us next?
The Phantom of Liberty
As I mentioned above, the success of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie granted Buñuel the freedom to make an even more non-sensical film: The Phantom of Liberty. With this film, Buñuel seems to be exploring the more absurd aspects of the faith we have that we have any control over our lives. And so he has written a film that is made up almost entirely of dream logic: anything can happen, and any character can take us to a new setting. Again, it’s absurd, but played so seriously it still rings true.
We begin the film in Toledo in 1808. The Third of May 1808, to be exact, as it sets up the scene famously captured by Goya’s painting of that date. The French troops are about to execute members of the Spanish resistance. Over to the side, a French captain finds himself attracted to the statue of a Spanish noble woman. As he acts on his attraction and moves to kiss the statue, the statue of the noble woman’s husband knocks him out. After he comes to, the captain exhumes the woman’s corpse and finds that it has been perfectly preserved.
This opening is based on an 1863 short story, “The Kiss,” by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, and the film soon takes us to the present day where we see a woman in a park reading the story. The woman is watching her employer’s daughter. We move on to the daughter. We move on to her parents (who are visited in the night by, among other things, a postman delivering a letter to their bedroom). We move on from them to more characters and strange stories.
Again, these are well told and interesting on their own, but somehow, even though they make little sense, they feel refreshingly frank and true. This is perhaps best exemplified by my favorite segment of the film. A couple receives a terrifying message from their daughter’s school: your daughter was here when we called role but she has disappeared.
Not to spoil too much, but this turns out to be untrue, at least as we see it from the outside. Their young daughter keeps popping up to say she’s there, but her parents keep asking her to be still. I love that for Buñuel it is not enough if they simply act as if they don’t see her; they not only see her, they talk to her, and she goes with them to the police station where the chief gets the child’s physical description by, what else, looking at the child herself.
This is one wacky film. Honestly, if someone just told me it was a stream of sub-conciousness I’d be wary, but Buñuel proves he not only can create a compelling film out of this but he can also create a thought provoking film.
That Obscure Object of Desire
Buñuel’s final film is much more straightforward. It is based on Pierre Louys’s 1898 novel The Woman and the Puppet. That novel has served as the basis for several film adaptations, including 1935 The Devil Is a Woman, directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich, which is part of another special Criterion boxset, Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood.
This story is disturbing. Mathieu, here played by the much older Fernando Rey, falls in love with the young Conchita. She flirts with him but continually pushes back when he advances. There is a lot going on.
Buñuel starts the film after the couple has had a violent falling out. Mathieu has decided to leave her behind completely and escape by train. But who should showup?
Our first glimpse of Conchita is of her bruised and cut, coming to find Mathieu on the train.
Mathieu dumps a bucket of water on her as she tries to enter the train, causing the other people in his first-class coach to watch him uncomfortably when he comes back to start his journey. But he goes on to defend himself. He assures them that once they know the story, they’ll understand and find him justified. And so, as is often the case, the story is told by the man who, we have now seen clearly, has abused a woman.
Mathieu’s story is of course going to focus on the proper advances he makes to the young woman who, several times, assures him that she loves and appreciates him, only to humiliate him time and again.
Again, this is quite a bit more straightforward than much of Buñuel’s oeuvre. But don’t let your guard down. Mysteriously, Buñuel has cast two actresses to play Conchita. The first we see is Carole Bouquet, in her debut film role.
The second is Angela Molina.
Though both are beautiful, the actresses do not look alike at all. Nevertheless, no one in the film responds to the shifting appearance of Conchita. We never know when they might shift, leading to a provocative sense of instability. And I’m not entirely sure what led to the choice. Is it to highlight the protean nature of women, from Mathieu’s point of view? Or is it to underscore that Mathieu doesn’t really know Conchita at all, that he’s really just interested in her beauty?
Some of the pathways lead to uncomfortable, even distasteful lines of thought. This is an abusive, manipulative relationship, any way you look at it. Why does she keep coming back? Why does she keep pushing him away? Does she love him? Does she just want his money? Does she herself wonder if he loves her or just desires her? For his part, why does Mathieu persist? Does he love her? Does he simply want what she is unwilling to give him? It’s complicated enough to encompass all of that and more.
Not to mention the terrorism that frequently pops up and its role in the film . . .
It’s a fantastic set of three terrific and troublesome films. Each disc is loaded with a variety of supplements, making this an enriching box of film.