“Chance governs all things. Necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.”–Luis Buñuel
PLOT: The Phantom of Liberty has no straightforward plot, but moves between vignettes through various linking mechanisms. The opening, about Napoleon’s troops desecrating a church, turns out to be a story being read by a nanny; the child she is watching is given “dirty” photographs by a suspicious lurker, then her father has strange dreams which he relates to his doctor, whose nurse interrupts their conversation to ask for time off to visit her sick father, and so on… Subsequent stories involve the nurse spending a night at an inn with strange characters, a professor who lectures to a group of gendarmes, a “missing” girl, a sniper killing random pedestrians, and a police prefect who gets a call from beyond the grave.
The title was suggested by a line from the Communist Manifesto: “…a spectre [translated in French as fantôme] is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism…” Substituting “liberty” for “Communism” is typical of Phantom‘s process of reversing our expectations to shock us out of our complacency.
The film was co-written with Buñuel‘s late-career collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, the fifth of the six scripts they wrote together. They devised the scenario by telling each other their dreams each morning.
This was Buñuel‘s second-to-last film, in a career that lasted nearly fifty years. He was 74 at the time of release.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The famous toilet/dinner reversal scene, which, while not at all explicit, is one of the few moments that still has the power to shock modern viewers, simply on the strength of its revolutionary idea.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Jealous statue; emu in the night; commode party
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Angry statues, wandering emus, gambling monks, a celebrity sniper, and assorted perverts jostle up against each other in Luis Buñuel‘s penultimate filmed dream, perhaps the most purely Surrealist effort of his late career.
Short clip from The Phantom of Liberty (in French)
PLOT: Two well-to-do couples arrive at the home of a third for dinner, but find there has been a misunderstanding on the date, and their hostess has not prepared a meal. The sextet tries to reschedule dinner over and over, but meets with increasingly absurd obstacles: dead restaurateurs, a platoon of soldiers who intrude on the evening, police officers who burst in and arrest the entire party before the first course. Complicating the scenario further is a bishop who imposes himself on their party, flashback ghost stories told by minor characters, a subplot about an ambassador smuggling cocaine and being hunted by a female terrorist assassin, and scenes that turn out to be dreams.
Buñuel had announced that he would retire after Tristana (1971), but was inspired to make this movie by a story his producer Serge Silberman told him about having dinner guests show up unexpectedly due to a calendar mix-up.
Co-written by Surrealist screenwriting specialist Jean-Claude Carrière, who became Buñuel’s most significant collaborator (surpassing even Salvador Dali). He assisted with writing duties on the director’s great 1967-1977 French renaissance period.
Among other honors, Discreet Charm won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (an indifferent Buñuel did not bother to show up to accept the award) and is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Shots of the six bourgeois friends, walking down an isolated country road, inserted at random between scenes. Their stride is purposeful, their destination… nowhere.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dinner theater; bishop with a shotgun; electrified piano cockroach torture
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Buñuel’s exercise in bourgeois frustration begins simply, with a canceled dinner appointment, but quickly spirals out of control with a cocaine smuggling subplot, a foxy female terrorist, a vengeful bishop, and dreams inside of dreams. They never do get to that dinner party, although Fernando Rey does get to sneak in a slice of lamb and a midnight snack.
Original trailer for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
PLOT: A rich French businessman courts a beautiful young Spanish woman over the years, but although she sometimes professes to love him, she continually refuses to consummate the relationship.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Obscure Object is one of Buñuel’s best, but not one of his weirdest. If you merged the two actresses who inexplicably share the role of Conchita into one, you could almost mistake this parody of obsessive bourgeois eroticism for a normal comedy—almost.
COMMENTS: The “gimmick” of two actresses playing the object of desire is the high-concept highlight of That Obscure Object of Desire, but make no mistake: the casting was not a desperation move to salvage some sort of novelty value out of a dull script. Buñuel’s final film is one of his most tightly controlled and plotted movies, the work of a 77-year old master intent on putting the final punctuation on a distinguished career. The story is simple: prosperous, respectable, middle-aged Mathieu meets 18-year old serving girl Conchita and attempts, and fails, to seduce her. She leaves his service, but as the years go on he continues to encounter her, whether by chance or by design, and gradually he works his way closer and closer to her heart—but although she declares her love for him, she never surrenders her virtue. Buñuel and his totally committed trio of actors push the dramatic scenario further than you would think possible: the erotic tension builds and builds until surely, you think, something has to break. Either Conchita will give in or Mathieu will tire of being teased and rid himself of her forever. And yet, after each frustrating encounter, the bourgeois businessman comes back for more, and Conchita is willing to continue the dance. There are moments when rape seems inevitable, but that solution would wreck the game, so they push right to the brink before pulling back and resetting.
It’s not all unbearable erotic tension: Obscure Object is, at heart, a droll and absurd comedy, full of sophisticated, off-kilter jokes; even if you don’t always get them, you feel smarter for chuckling at them. Some gags are obvious: there’s a variation on the old “waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!’ joke—this time, it’s in a martini. One night, Mathieu lures Conchita to his bedroom; Angelia Molina asks “can I change?” and goes into the bathroom to put on her nightgown; she emerges as Carole Bouquet. At other times the humor is more oblique and surreal, and we’re not sure what to make of it. Mathieu tells his story to traveling companions on a train; one is a dwarf, and a professor of psychology—but he only gives private lessons. A Spanish fortune teller carries a pig wrapped in a blanket like a baby. The movie is set in a Europe where terrorist bombings are a background fact of life; one of the revolutionary groups is named “the Revolutionary Army of Baby Jesus.”
This being a Buñuel film, there’s a constant subtle mockery of the unexamined values of the middle class. Mathieu casually tells the strangers in his train compartment how he essentially tries to purchase Conchita off her cash-strapped mother, and how he beats and humiliates the girl after he’s been sexually frustrated. Rather than being scandalized by the shameful confession, everyone takes his side, nods understandingly and comforts the respectable victim. Obscure Object is Buñuel’s attack on what he sees as the capitalist system of romance: men, the class with the capital, protect and provide for women, and in return they receive love and sex. This arrangement, based on inequality, can never satisfy either sex: men will remain emotionally frustrated because women only give in to them out of hardship, and the disenfranchised women use the only weapon at their disposal—their erotic power—to revenge themselves upon men. Just as the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie never get to eat, Mathieu never gets to… you know.
As for why two women play Conchita, it’s one of those deliberate Surrealist accidents that suggest interpretations that remain obscure. Do Bouquet and Molina represent two sides of the same woman, a divided personality, female duplicity? I lean to the reading that there are two women because Mathieu, the bourgeois man, can’t understand the “object” of his own desire; he no more notices that his love changes before his very eyes than he sees that the society around him is crumbling into anarchy.
According to co-writer and longtime Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, the idea to cast two women in the role of Conchita occurred in an early draft of the script, but was discarded. When production began on the movie Buñuel was unhappy with the woman chosen to play Conchita (Last Tango in Paris’ Maria Schneider) and came close to abandoning the project before resurrecting the idea of using dual actresses in the role.
The Criterion Collection lost the rights to Studio Canal’s Buñuel collection, and therefore the 2013 Blu-ray of That Obscure Object of Desire was released by Lions Gate (buy). It has different special features than the Criterion DVD, including interviews with both Bouquet and Molina.
“[Günter Grass] called our [first draft] script ‘Protestant and Cartesian.’ It was lacking the irrational dimension of time, the nodal points where everything becomes confused and collapses in an illogical and tragicomic way. He wants more hard realism on the one hand, and on the other, more courage in the unreal. Imagination as a part of unreality –Oskar’s reality… Another visit to Grass, almost a year after the first, this time with the finished script. It is now more ‘Catholic,’ and less rational…”–Volker Schlöndorff, in his Tin Drum production diary
DIRECTED BY: Volker Schlöndorff
FEATURING: David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler, Daniel Olbrychski, Katharina Thalbach
PLOT: At the age of three, Oskar, a boy who always carries his beloved tin drum and whose scream can shatter glass, decides that he does not want to grow up, and throws himself down the cellar stairs to stunt his growth. As Hitler rises to power, his mother becomes depressed and kills herself by eating raw fish; his uncle, who may be his real father, is killed by the Nazis. Still looking like a child, Oskar lives through Fascism and World War II and has love affairs, eventually joining the Nazis and entertaining the soldiers with his drum.
Die Blechtrommel [The Tin Drum] is based on Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass’ schizophrenic 1959 novel of the same name. The film adaptation only covers approximately the first half of the book.
Actor David Bennent had a “growth disorder” and was actually twelve years old when the movie was filmed.
The Tin Drum is set in Danzig, which at the time of Oskar’s birth was a Free City located between Germany and Poland, although the population was mostly German.
The Tin Drum shared the 1979 Palme D’Or with Apocalypse Now. It also won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
In the United States, New World Pictures—Roger Corman’s company—distributed the picture. Some of New World’s other releases that year were Humanoids from the Deep and Shogun Assassin.
The movie ran into censorship problems due to brief sex scenes between David Bennent and Katharina Thalbach (then 24 years old, but portraying a 16-year-old). The oddest case occurred in Oklahoma in 1997, almost twenty years after the film’s release, when a judge ruled that the film violated state child pornography laws which banned even non-explicit depictions of sex between minors. Police seized videotapes from the homes of people who had rented the movie. The documentary Banned in Oklahoma, included on some editions of The Tin Drum as an extra, details the controversy. The film was later vindicated, and today Oklahomans no longer need fear being labeled as pedophiles for watching 1979’s Best Foreign Film winner.
In 2010 Volker Schlöndorff created a director’s cut of the film, restoring about 20 minutes of footage which had been removed to shorten the running time.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Wild-eyed Oskar pounding away on his drum in an insane, trance-like fury is undoubtedly the film’s emblematic image, although the horse’s head filled with eels is probably the most shocking one.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Tin Drum is a comic nightmare about “little people’s” acquiescence to Fascism in the 1930s and 1940s; as Germany goes insane, children refuse to grow up, eels breed in horse’s heads, and Santa Claus turns into the Gas Man.
PLOT: Séverine is a wealthy young newlywed who proclaims she loves her husband, but refuses to sleep with him. Her erotic life consists of daydreams in which she is bound, whipped and humiliated. She decides to secretly work as a prostitute during the day, taking the stage name “Belle de Jour”; in the course of her adventures a macho young criminal becomes obsessed with Belle, and he sparks sexual passion in her, as well.
The movie was based on a scandalous (but moralizing) 1928 novel of the same name by Joseph Kessel.
Belle de Jour marked Buñuel’s return to France after his “Mexican exile.” It was the 67-year old director’s most expensive production to date, his first film in color, and his biggest financial success.
The director did not get along with the star, and the feeling was mutual. Buñuel resented Deneuve because she was forced on him by the producers. For her part, the actress felt “used” by the director. Whatever their differences, however, they made up enough to collaborate again three years later on Tristana.
Séverine’s courtesan name, “Belle de Jour” (literally “day beauty”) is the French name for the daylily; it is also play on “belle de nuit,” slang for a prostitute.
Too spicy for critics in 1967, Belle de Jour won only one major award at the time of its release: the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It now regularly appears on critics top 100 lists (Empire ranked it as the 56th greatest film of world cinema).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The ecstatic look on Catherine Deneuve’s face as, tied up and dressed in virginal white, she’s insulted and spattered with shovelfuls of mud (or is it cow dung?).
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although the movie weaves in and out of dreams and reality until we don’t know which is which, by Luis Buñuel’s standards Belle de Jour is a straightforward dramatic film. Even the dream sequences are relatively rational, unthreatening, and easy to follow, making Belle the favorite “Surrealist” film of people who don’t like Surrealism. But something about the dilemma of Séverine/Belle’s divided personality, and her uncertain denouement, sticks with you long after “Fin” appears. The movie’s weirdness is subtle but persistent, like the scent of a woman’s perfume that lingers in the air long after she’s departed the room.
PLOT: Two tramps follow the ancient pilgrimage road leading from France to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, where the bones of the apostle James are supposed to be interred. Along the way they meet strange characters from various times who debate ancient Catholic heresies, a child with a stigmata, an angel of death, and a nun voluntarily undergoing a crucifixion. Also scattered throughout the film are recreations of fictional and historical events, including dramatization of an Inquisition trial, a cameo by the Marquis de Sade, and scenes from the Gospels.
In retrospect, director Luis Buñuel realized that The Milky Way formed the first part of a trilogy about “the search for truth” along with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974). The subsequent two films use the same fragmented, non-linear narrative style pioneered in The Milky Way.
The film is exhaustively researched, with many of the episodes composed of direct quotes from the Bible or the writings of heretics.
Released while the general strike and student protests of May 1968 were still fresh in France’s mind and a spirit of liberal revolution was in the air, some leftists were not happy that one of their own had chosen this moment to make a non-political film about the history of heresy in the Catholic church. According to anecdote, Buñuel’s novelist friend Julio Cortazar accused the director of having completed the film with financing from the Vatican.
Although the film is often blasphemous on it’s surface, it was well-received by the Catholic Church, who even intervened with the Italian censors to reverse their decision to ban the film. This was an unexpected reaction, as the Vatican had declared Buñuel’s 1961 film Viridiana “blasphemous”.
With it’s large, almost epic cast, it’s inevitable that several French actors with significant contributions in the weird movie arena appeared in cameo roles, including Delpine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad) as a prostitute, Julien Guiomar (Léolo) as a priest, and Michel Piccoli (La Grande Bouffe, Dillinger is Dead) as the Marquis de Sade.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The execution of a pope by a gang of anarchists, a scene that leads to the film’s funniest and most unexpected punchline.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In The Milky Way two worldly pilgrims make their way through a
Original trailer for La Voie Lactée
strange, heresy-obsessed world in which every maître d’ is an expert theologian and Renaissance fops duel to the death over arcane philosophical doctrines, while any random stranger they meet may actually be God, an angel, or the fulfillment of a recent prophecy.