The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, and That Obscure Object of Desire
More than four decades after he took a razorblade to an eyeball and shocked the world with Un chien andalou, arch-iconoclast Luis Buñuel capped his astonishing career with three final provocations — The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, and That Obscure Object of Desire — in which his renegade, free-associating surrealism reached its audacious, self-detonating endgame. Working with such key collaborators as screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and his own frequent on-screen alter ego Fernando Rey, Buñuel laced his scathing attacks on religion, class pretension, and moral hypocrisy with savage violence to create a trio of subversive, brutally funny masterpieces that explore the absurd randomness of existence. Among the director’s most radical works as well as some of his greatest international triumphs, these films cemented his legacy as cinema’s most incendiary revolutionary.
THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE
Written by Buñuel, along with Jean-Claude Carrière, Bourgeoise is a sensual and satirical affair, imbued with a surreal edge. It tells of six friends, all socialites and influential people, who gather for a dinner party. Due to a confusion over the date, it’s an event that wasn’t meant to happen, and thanks to the intervention of fate, seems destined not to. A series of unusual events and interruptions, increasingly absurd in their nature, thwart the feast. Unsettling dream sequences interweave with reality, as Buñuel conjures a upper class critique.
Bourgeoise feels anthropological in nature. A commentary on etiquette, social niceties, and social hierarchy, using what many would regard as the perfects platform for such ideals, a dinner party. Buñuel’s feature is playful and creative, while also being insightful and scathing. Surreal events such as turning the occasion into a stage production, or introducing supernatural aspects, or meandering proceedings into a bizarre wake. All tantamount to dropping a chandelier in the middle of a dinner party. A game cast brilliantly work to explore these disruptions and the reactions of their characters, each with their own histories, motivations, and skeletons in the closet. His main focus seems to be exploring the idea of what people of an upper class can get away with under the veil of being bourgeois, acts that would be considered crass to those of poorer social and economic standing, or likely to lead to their incarceration. Equally of interest is to shake up our own complacency and acceptance of the status quo. Awarded the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1973, Bourgeoise is challenging, experimental, and often provocative fare, as we watch people react as something that should be very dignified and organized, plunges into chaos.
THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY
Buñuel takes the skewering of social niceties and cultural norms up another notch with The Phantom of Liberty. Apparently semi-autobiographical, the filmmaker (again collaborating with Carrièr) draws inspirations from memories and experiences to create a series of surreal vignettes, loosely connected to each other. It flits through eras from the Napoleonic wars of the 19th century to modern day (70s) France. Taking in an array of topics, characters, and ideas, while relying on a series of mishaps and coincidences to escalate the situation and the levels of farce, or move on to the next chapter.
The film feels like more of an experience that a straightforward narrative. Life lessons concerning politics, social norms/institutions, morality, and truth, with a smattering of ideas that veer into more taboo topics such as sex, murder, fetishisms, and pedophilia. The camera meanders through episodic structures, seemingly having one train of though, being distracted by a new set of characters or events, and trailing them off into another. That Phantom often skips out on a plot before it reaches the climax, gives the film a sadomasochistic feel, which feels elementally Buñuel. Storytelling fueled by human behavior, provocative humor, visual gags, and a determination to rally against expectations.
THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE
The final film in this set marks what was actually the final feature made by Buñuel, an adaptation (alongside Jean-Claude Carrière) of Pierre Louÿs’s 1898 novel La femme et le pantin (The Woman and the Puppet). Fernando Rey plays Mathieu, a wealthy, older gentleman who while on a rail journey, regales the passengers with a story of his ill-fated pursuit of a young woman. An impassioned tale, where we see an escalation in his frustrations as his relationship with this woman changes, but he fails to get any closer to the bedchamber. He cannot cast off her allure, nor can he manage to wield any over her. Juxtaposed with unnerving real world events unfolding around him, his oblivious to this, and focus on her, fuels an exploration of toxic masculinity unfolds through their exchanges, as well as the power, and politics between the pair.
Unlike the other two films in this set, That Obscure Object of Desire feels almost traditional in terms of it’s structure and intent. A linear, and engaging, narrative, with clear leads to follow. Buñuel indulges his quirks with a few surreal moments (mostly for humor), and perhaps most obviously with the casting of two actresses to portray Conchita. Carole Bouquet is on screen when a calmer demeanor is needed, and Ángela Molina as when her more fiery self emerges. These change-ups aren’t just between scenes, but in the middle of them too. It’s not as distracting as you might think, the two playing off each other well, maintaining a thread for the characters, aided by some smart editing choices. The aforementioned “events” ”refers to a spate of domestic terrorism, as the “Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus”. We see society shaken, violence and chaos breaking through the facade of politeness, as a privileged and self-involved man continues his stories and introspection. It may have more of a typical movie feel, but Buñuel’s predilections are simmering away just under the surface.
All three films are presented with new digital restorations and the quality is exactly what you’ve come to expect from Criterion. Detail, color, contrast, all impress, with a nice cinematic quality left intact. The package itself comes with a handsomely produced cover slip, housing the three movies, each with their own package and distinct cover, showcasing artwork from Eric Skillman, based on the original poster art by René Ferracci. Extra features for each film are plentiful:
- The Castaway of Providence Street, a 1971 homage to Luis Buñuel made by his longtime friends and fellow filmmakers Arturo Ripstein and Rafael Castanedo: Just over 20 minutes long, a quirky short that offers a glimpse into the home life of Buñuel
- Speaking of Buñuel, a documentary from 2000 on Buñuel’s life and work: A feature length documentary that provides a solid overview of the filmmaker, covering both his personal life, his international travels, and his cinematic output. Nicely put together, enhanced by interviews with his peers
- Once Upon a Time: “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” a 2011 television program about the making of the film: Nearly an hour long assembly of interviews with the cast, discussing the production of the film
- Interviews from 2000 with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière on The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire: Very worth watching for insights into the collaborative/creative process
- Archival interviews on all three films featuring Carrière; actors Stéphane Audran, Muni, Michel Piccoli, and Fernando Rey; and other key collaborators: Pulled from French TV interviews, individual interviews and a roundtable too
- 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: An incisive and broad commentary with good context
- Lady Doubles, a 2017 documentary featuring actors Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina, who share the role of Conchita in That Obscure Object of Desire: Brings together the two actors to discuss their experience in this collaborative project
- Portrait of an Impatient Filmmaker, Luis Buñuel, a 2012 short documentary featuring director of photography Edmond Richard and assistant director Pierre Lary: Insights into the working practices and quirks of the filmmaker, and some of his more infamous creative choices
- 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: Interesting to see how directly inspired the filmmaker was from this work
- Alternate English-dubbed soundtrack for That Obscure Object of Desire:
- New English subtitle translations:
- PLUS: 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: Contained in a nicely put together liner booklet which also details the restoration process and showcases stills from the films
Three Films by Luis Buñuel is available via Criterion from January 5th