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An essential set of great films from a master
on 25 September 2013
This is a splendid re-packaging of a set of late Bunuel films which I bought five years ago from the same Studio Canal source. The box is much slimmer than in its previous incarnation, but it omits The Young One (1960). This is a pity as it is a very interesting much neglected film shot in English, but the omission is understandable as it belongs to his middle Mexican period. The films in the present box consist of all seven from Bunuel's second French period (1963-1977) and are absolutely essential viewing for all lovers of great cinema. The fact that the box contains documentaries about the making of each film and that the package is once again so cheap makes it an obvious must-buy for anyone who missed it first time round. The transfers of all the films are top notch. I can recommend this without any qualification.
Older cinema lovers probably won't need any more urging to acquire this set if they don't already have the films. Along with Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Bunuel was consistently great throughout his entire career and thoroughly earns his reputation as one of the cinematic gods. It seems he has slipped out of fashion though and perhaps younger cineastes need a bit of an introduction. My favorite quote about Bunuel comes from Robert Phillip Kolker's book on contemporary international cinema, The Altering Eye. He says: 'From the eye-ball split open at the beginning of Un Chien andalou (1928) to the exploding of the ridiculous lovers at the end of That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) Bunuel has tried to cleanse our perceptions and explode the repressive stupidities of convention and ritual'. Bunuel's cinema is a bizarre amalgam of anarchy, surrealism, socialism and downright misanthropy. He observed 20th century history as it unfolded and recorded its morbid symptoms over some 32 films. His pet hates were organized religion (especially the Catholicism which he grew up with), middle class arrogance and self-centeredness, political systems which profess to offer freedoms, but which do nothing of the sort, the stultifying social class system (of especially, but not only, Spain), Fascism (he hated Franco and, by association, his own country), the politics of sexual desire and marriage (Fassbinder later wrote large themes which Bunuel had been talking about for years). In short Bunuel hated all cultural rituals which repressed people's natural emotions and his films are full of eruptions stemming from this repression. Emotions that we might think are civilized and normal are actually repressed versions of quite the opposite feelings. In the world according to Bunuel piety equals self hatred, sacrifice equals masochism and self rightuousness equals terrifying vulnerability. Bunuel's most famous stylistic device is the use of dream logic. These dreams surprise, offend, confound, mystify and outrage all in equal proportion. They invert codes that govern the waking life of order to reveal secretly implanted desires for revenge and destruction. Bunuel's dreams are a dismantling of hypocritical gestures which play a routine part in our every day lives. In his films nobody is exempt from his scathing attacks. Priests, nuns, saints, dwarves, blind men, workers, soldiers, orchestra leaders, diplomats, terrorists, politicians, children, legless cripples, insects, dogs, chickens, people wearing gowns and people sporting top hats - nobody is spared Bunuel's merciless critique. There is nothing else in the world quite like a Bunuel film. His sardonic wit and penetrating intellect are as readily identifiable as Chaplin's hat and cane.
Bunuel's films fall into three periods. The first saw him forging ties with Dada and the Paris surrealists in the 1920s. Un Chien andalou and L'Age d'or (1930) were co-created with Salvator Dali and are probably his most famous films, even today. He made a documentary about a small wretched Spanish village called Las Hurdes in 1932, but then disappeared for 18 years. The rise of Franco alienated him from his home country and he ended up in Mexico in 1946. There he made 21 films starting with Gran Casino (1947) and finishing with Simon of the Desert (1965). This period contains my favorite Bunuel works - classics like Los Olvidados (1950), El Bruto (1953), El (1953), The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), Nazarin (1959), Viridiana (1961) and The Exterminating Angel (1962). These are angry, passionate films in which Bunuel states his intention to wring the whole middle class by its neck and make it see its own oppressive absurdities and presumptions. Also, in these films he subverts Neo-realism by emphasizing the cynicism of everyone including children. His was a Neo-realism of assault and disturbance. His return to France in 1964 saw a dissipation of this anger in favour of mild satire and his last seven films, although trenchant and acidic in many ways, are nowhere near as passionate or as radical as his Mexican work. Part of this is down to the French New Wave. This is especially obvious in Belle du Jour for which he used Alain Resnais's cameraman Sacha Vierny to relate the visual texture to that of Raoul Coutard's work for Jean-luc Godard. The gangster character with bad teeth (Pierre Clementi) is lifted straight out of A bout de Souffle (1959), and his death in the street is a direct hommage to Godard (Godard returned the compliment by titling the central section of Week-End 'The Exterminating Angel'). The surrealist dream logic, the foot fetishism, the hatred of religion and hypocritical bourgeois values are still all there, but are watered down to fit within the new aesthetic of the New Wave. These are films which entertain more than they provoke, but they are still deep, mature works coming from a maestro who always knew exactly what he was doing.
THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID (D'une Femme de Chambre)
(1964, France/Italy, b/w, 94 minutes, aspect ratio: 2.35:1)
Extra: An Angel in the Marshes (documentary, 26 minutes)
The first collaboration between Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere, this adaptation of the 1900 novel of the same name by Octave Mirbeau charts the ambitions of Celestine (Jeanne Moreau) and her rise from chambermaid to madam of the house in a Normandy chateau. Brought forward to the 1930s Bunuel/Carriere clearly were concerned with charting the extremist politics of the time, especially in the character of the Fascist anti-Semitic driver/groundsman (Georges Geret) who Celestine comes to suspect of raping a young girl. The servants squabble below stairs while up above the childless heads of the household lead lazy lives ridden with frigid indolence and sexual perversity. The house could be interpreted as a metaphor for France, for Spain, or for the bourgeoisie in general with the decadent rot seeping down from above. Power politics are always linked with sexual politics in Bunuel and Celestine uses her body to get what she wants from the various males around her. The film lacks Bunuel's usual surrealist lurches in time and place, but it succeeds largely because of Bunuel/Carriere's cynical understanding of human nature and Moreau's excellent performance.
BELLE DE JOUR
(1967, France/Italy, colour, 96 minutes, aspect ratio: 1.77:1)
Extras: History of a Film (documentary, 30 minutes) / Commentary by Prof. P.W.Evans
One of Bunuel's greatest films and his very first essay in colour, it's about a young Parisienne (Catherine Deneuve), a doctor's wife who takes to prostitution to relieve sexual frustration and repression. Her clients range from a Korean who has something nasty in his box to a boisterous businessman, and from an S/M lover of the whip to a baron with a taste for necrophilia. She is found out by her husband's friend (Michel Piccoli) and is stalked by a gangster. We are never sure if what we are shown is real or imagined as Carriere and Joseph Kessel's screenplay teases us from beginning to end. Here the narrative structure, the cutting style and the unexplained slipping into different modes of consciousness all show the spectacular success with which Bunuel dovetails old concerns (his usual moral investigation into the cultural psychosis of the middle class) with French New Wave technique. Old wine in a new bottle perhaps, but the new 60s climate allowed for a much more open take on sexuality than Bunuel had ever been allowed before and Deneuve is sensational. Psychologically astute and emotionally complex, it is also surprisingly discreet.
THE MILKY WAY (La voie Lactee)
(1969, France/Italy, colour, 97 minutes, aspect ratio: 1.66:1)
Extra: Bunuel, atheist thanks to God (documentary, 20 minutes)
The title refers to The Way of St. James, an ancient pilgrimage route from northern Europe to Santiago de Compostela, an ancient town in northwest Spain. Two modern pilgrims (Paul Frankeur and Laurent Terzieff) take the route and are diverted by Carriere/Bunuel's usual surrealist intrusions of time and place. The film's main theme is religion, specifically Catholicism, and an attack on the centuries-long history of heresies which have stultified Spain in an ingrained culture of dogmatic repression. On the way we meet the Marquis de Sade (Michel Piccoli), the Virgin Mary (Edith Scob) and the Devil (Pierre Clementi) who causes a car crash when asked. Jesus Christ (Bernard Verley) pops up as a normal man who keeps his beard only because his mum thinks he looks cute. See if you can spot Carriere as a Priscillian and Bunuel himself as the Pope who gets gunned down by firing squad. In the film's most successful episode a school of children are turned into autodidactic robots who spout the tenets of Catholicism by heart. The humor is catchy in places, but for the most part this is one of Bunuel's more arcane surrealist fantasies. If you happen to know the difference between Priscillianism and Jansenism then you might have a ball with this film. For most of us however it remains a bit of a head-scratcher.
(1970, France/Italy/Spain, colour, 95 minutes, aspect ratio: 1.66:1)
Extra: Rituals (documentary, 20 minutes)
One of Bunuel's more realistic narratives (there's only a hint of the fantastic), this is the story of Tristana (Catherine Deneuve), an orphan given to old man Don Lope (Fernando Rey) to look after, but who he seduces. Endowed with the charming lines, 'if you want an honest woman, break her legs and keep her at home', and 'I am your father and husband, and I can be one or the other when it suits me', the Julio Alejandro script charts Tristana's journey from virgin to reluctant wife who plots vengeance on her custodian. Rooted in a hatred of Spain, a land so imprisoned and fearful of expression that its history is marked by religious and political repressions (the film is set in the Fascist time of the 1930s), Tristana's vengeance is fired by the complete repression of her desire which is symbolised by her diseased leg which eventually has to be amputated. Tristana internalizes her victimization, but then externalizes it by victimizing Don Lope, an old man who simply wants to get his leg over. Bunuel positively delights here in depicting the misery and the meanness of his characters, Tristana at the end of the film being every bit as unsympathetic as her custodian despite being a social as well as sexual victim. Deneuve and Rey both give fantastic performances.
THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOUGEOISIE (Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie)
(1972, France/Italy/Spain, colour, 97 minutes, aspect ratio 1.66:1)
Extra: A Walk Among the Shadows (documentary, 28 minutes)
Carriere/Bunuel won an Oscar for this portrayal of a middle class group whose attempt at having dinner is continually disrupted by a series of surreal events, or are the surreal events disrupted by the characters' continuing desire to have dinner? A dream film with no level of reality, we are assaulted with memorable vignettes of love-making, terrorism and military maneuvres. A bishop shoots a dying man who has murdered his parents while a South American dictator deals in drugs. The party go to dine at a colonel's house, are served rubber chickens and then are caught by a curtain being raised which reveals them to be dining on a stage in front of an audience. One of the guests wakes up and finds himself taking part in someone else's dream. Dreams within dreams emphasize repeatedly the eruption of repressed emotions pouring out of the cultural ritual of wanting to eat. Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Paul Frankeur, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Stephane Audran and Bulle Ogier all give fine performances, but one glance at The Exterminating Angel shows how soft the satirical edge really is here. Instead of assaulting our bourgeois sensibilities Bunuel ends up merely titillating us.
THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (Le Fantome de la Liberte)
(1974, Italy/France, colour, 99 minutes, aspect ratio: 1.66:1)
Extra: The Celebration of Chance (documentary, 16 minutes)
A reaction to the sugary confection of his previous Oscar-winning effort, this film tackles the same subject of middle class repression, but with more obscurity. Gone is the connecting thread of a group of characters wanting to eat. Instead we have a celebration of chance, each surreal incident linking in to the next by various characters being deleted only for new ones to emerge in a Chinese box-like narrative structure. A man's medical check up is interrupted by a nurse who requests she be given time off. Conventional narrative would go back to the patient, but Bunuel/Carriere stay with the nurse, following her to a country inn where she stays the night. She encounters a group of poker-playing priests, a boy having a tryst with his elderly aunt, a man being whipped by his dominatrix partner and a criminologist who we follow to a lecture at a police academy the next morning after bumming a lift. Many of the incidents are autobiographical in origin and obscure in meaning, but the film succeeds in burlesqueing the lower professional middle class and their daily lives. The title refers to The Communist Manifesto and the 'spectre hanging over Europe...'. Liberty is something all members of the middle class think they have, but without realizing they are trapped within self-imposed constraints - hence the cry at the film's beginning, 'Long live chains!'. They are as caged as the animals in the zoo at the end of the film, a situation set to cue up the street riots of the time, heard but not seen here. Watch out for Monica Vitti near the beginning playing a mother who is shocked by the pornography of postcards of famous sight-seeing spots.
THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (Cet Obscur Objet du Desir)
(1977, France/Spain, colour, 99 minutes, aspect ratio: 1.66:1)
Extra: A Body of Work to Mend (documentary, 26 minutes)
This is a fitting culmination of a lifetime's work. It combines sex and politics with terrific wit as Mathieu (Fernando Rey dubbed into French by Michel Piccoli) embarks on a train journey from Seville to Paris. His fellow travellers having witnessed him pouring water over the head of a woman trying to board the train, he tells them the story of his frustrated sexual relationship with the flamenco dancer Conchita who refuses to let him have his wicked way even though he showers her with everything she could possibly want. Meanwhile The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus (!) is blowing up bombs in acts of terrorism which are rocking Spain and France. Bunuel poses sex and politics as traps. Mathieu is looking for a mistress while political factions are looking for a way to deal with the European bourgeoisie. Both end in terrorism. Political analysis is submerged in psycho-sexual analysis here which extends to an examination of how we see 'women as objects of desire' on the screen. Carriere/Bunuel do this by casting Conchita with two actresses - Carole Bouquet plays her as a slim adolescent while Angela Molina plays her as the sensual Latino. Mathieu outwardly doesn't notice when one segues into the other even in mid-scene, but we certainly do, our expectations about viewing the erotic object on screen being attacked at every turn. Mathieu and Conchita's sex games certainly aren't vicious like Paul and Jeanne's are in Last Tango in Paris. Instead, they are a game which both enjoy. Note Mathieu enjoys relating his story to his audience on the train, an audience who provide for a series of off-handed jokes and absurdities which are richly entertaining. The explosive ending is a wonderful summing up of what Bunuel thought about sexual relationships, politics, the bourgeoisie and the whole goddam thing. To the last he remained at heart the eternal anarchist.