“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
“People always want an explanation for everything. It is the consequence of centuries of bourgeois education. And for everything for which they cannot find an explanation, they resort in the last instance to God. But what is the use of that to them? Eventually they have to explain God.”–Luis Buñuel , “My Last Sigh”
“The best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.”–Opening epigram to The Exterminating Angel
PLOT: After an elaborate dinner, the many guests of Edmundo Nobile find themselves trapped inside a single room of the mansion; at first they stay under reasonable pretenses, but after sleeping over they become physically unable to pass the room’s threshold. As their high society ways break down from the proximity and lack of provisions, concerned police and citizens on the outside find it impossible to enter to help them. Things degenerate until they attempt a desperate gambit relying on a vision of one of the guests. Meanwhile, sheep and a bear wander around the house.
After briefly returning to his native Spain from his Mexican exile to direct Viridiana, Buñuel went back to Mexico to make The Exterminating Angel after the Vatican denounced the previous film and the Spanish banned it.
Buñuel borrowed the title from a poet friend (José Bergamín) ostensibly for marketing purposes, remarking in his biography, “If I saw ‘The Exterminating Angel‘ on a marquee, I’d go see it on the spot.”
Despite its acclaim (both contemporaneous and otherwise), Buñuel often said he considered The Exterminating Angel a failure. Mostly, he regretted not being able to proceed along a more “cannibalistic” trajectory.
The dozens of repetitions found in the film greatly worried the cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, when he saw the final cut. It took Buñuel to calm him down, assuring Figueroa that it was a creative choice.
Won a “FIPRESCI” award at Cannes on its release.
While Russia at the time banned any number of films for any number of reasons, ironically, this Marxist movie rubbed Soviet officials the wrong way because the theme—not being able to leave a party—was considered anti-government.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Throughout The ExterminatingAngel, the household’s domesticated (pet) bear herds a small clutch of sheep. Wandering around the place with impunity, a shot where the demi-flock scoot up the grand stairway, with the bear taking up the rear, sticks in the mind. The guests’ doom is mirrored by the sheep’s mindless wandering toward the great prison room, ensuring their barbaric destruction.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dead man’s hand; symbolic tasty sheep; a sacrificial host
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A gaggle of bourgeois personages spend more and more time in close quarters with each other—they simply cannot leave the room. The strangeness of their prison is matched by the strangeness found outside: a society that at first doesn’t notice their absence, and then is unable to help them. Time skips like a scratched record, servants are uncannily eager to jump ship, a disembodied hand appears, and animal friends romp around a mansion, adding up to a fine Buñuelian omelet of social commentary and Surrealist comedy.
“It is LOVE that brings about the transition from pessimism to action: Love, denounced in the bourgeois demonology as the root of all evil. For love demands the sacrifice of every other value: status, family, and honor.”–from the program to L’Age D’Or
PLOT: It begins as a documentary on scorpions. “Some hours later,” reads an intertitle, and suddenly we are on a rocky beach where a peasant spies four chanting bishops perched on a rocky outcropping. Later, on the same beach, a man and a woman are discovered locked in an embrace; they spend the rest of the movie attempting to consummate their love, as the action shifts to “Imperial Rome” and a private concert at a wealthy bourgeois garden party.
The bohemian aristocrat Vicomte Charles de Noailles commissioned this film as a birthday present for his wife (a poet and a descendant of the Marquis de Sade). Because of the scandalized reaction to the film’s blasphemous content, the Vicomte was threatened with excommunication by the Catholic Church, and quickly withdrew the film from circulation.
The film’s original title was to be Un Bête Andalou.
As with Un Chien Andalou, Buñuel originally planned to co-write and co-direct with Salvador Dalí, but the two had a falling out before the film was completed. Dalí is credited as co-writer, but disowned the film later, and what remains of his contributions is a matter of conjecture.
Painter Max Ernst had a large role in the film; other less-famous members of the Surrealist circle appear in smaller parts.
The opening is footage from a 1912 documentary. The ending is a reference to Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom.”
Along with official members of the Surrealist movement, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Vladimir Nabokov, and Gertrude Stein were among those in attendance at a private screening hosted by the Vicomte.
Buñuel had hoped that Un Chien Andalou would incite riots and was disappointed when it was a huge popular success. L’Age D’Or did inspire violence. Members of the Fascist-leaning “League of Patriots” threw ink and the screen and destroyed paintings by Dalí and other Surrealists that were being exhibited in conjunction with one screening. The French authorities banned the film within a year of its release “to preserve public order.”
Because the de Noailles family removed L’Age D’Or from distribution, the film was not legally screened in the United States until 1979.
At the urging of the Spanish Communists, who considered Surrealism bourgeois, Buñuel later re-cut L’Age D’Or into a 20-minute short to make it less difficult and more accessible to proletariat viewers. This version of the film did not survive.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: For its poster image, distributor Kino Lorber takes the scene where Lya Lys, frustrated that her finger-sucking foreplay with Gaston Madot has been temporarily interrupted, satisfies her desires by fellating the toe of a nearby statue. But we find the moment where she walks into her boudoir to see a cow lounging on her bed to be funnier, and less expected. (Footnote one: one source reports that this scene is a pun, since the word for “cow” [“vache”] was then-current French slang for “cop.” If so, the fact that this meaning is lost on contemporary audiences makes the image even more surreal. Footnote two: a still that frequently accompanies reviews of the movie shows a man crouched down next to the cattle-infested bed; this shot does not appear in Kino’s cut of the film, and may be from a promotional still).
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Shoo cow; stone toe sucking; Jesus leaves the orgy
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Skeletal bishops on the beach, cows in the bedroom, and Jesus at a murder orgy: the scandalous L’Age D’Or was too hot and weird for 1930, and still carries the power to shock today. Watch it for its historical importance, but also as a profane prayer—an unapologetic hymn in praise of unfettered individual desire.
Viridiana (1961) has quite a reputation among film critics and historians, often being listed as one of Luis Buñuel‘s best efforts. It is certainly among the most heterodox offerings in his considerable canon.
Viridiana marked Buñuel‘s return to his native Spain after a twenty-five year absence. With the fascist Franco still in power, Buñuel was severely criticized and accused of making his bed with the enemy, but the filmmaker’s critics should have known better. Buñuel had an ulterior motive, with a predictably incendiary opus tucked securely in his Surrealist vest pocket.
Upon receiving Buñuel’s original script, which ended with the protagonist nun engaging in ménage a trois with her cousin and his mistress, the government promptly rejected the story. Undaunted, Buñuel rewrote it, with all the implications gloriously intact through the trio joining in a card game inside the cousin’s bedroom. Having outwitted the censors, Bunuel congratulated himself over an even more immoral ending.
Despite Viridiana having won the Palme D’or, the Spanish government was furious for having been so easily duped by the insurgent Surrealist, and banned him from the country until after Franco’s death. Predictably, the Vatican followed suit and condemned both filmmaker and film as blasphemous. Fortunately, attempts to burn all existing copies proved futile. It had to be a hell of a compliment to Buñuel, who soaked in his resounding success of provoking the status quo. Years later, when a pope removed a ban from one of Buñuel’s films, the filmmaker was reported to have lamented: “What has my life and this world come to when even a pope accepts me?”
As one may expect of Buñuel, Viridiana is a far more labyrinthine composition than its shock publicity would indicate. Rooted within an anti-clerical, anti-pious battering ram is a film so intrinsically religious that its heterodox classification was inevitable.
An incandescent Silvia Pinal embodies the title character with such singularly stoic personality that her Buñuel followup as the Devil in Simon of the Desert (1965) seems perfectly apt in hindsight.
Viridiana is content in her cloister, about to make her wedding vows to Christ, when Mother Superior orders her charge to visit uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey). He is Viridiana’s only living relative and, more importantly, a financial backer of the convent. Viridiana is the quintessence of objectified perfection, a forbidden Eve’s apple in a black habit. Viridiana is so thoroughly reduced to potential receptacle that she never entirely convinces as a novice, which was clearly Buñuel’s motive. In typical Buñuel fashion, it is the ecclesiastical curator who throws the innocent out of a self-styled paradise into a fetishistic, reptilian den.
Dom Jaime could be seen as a prodigal’s uncle, lording over the remnant of his estate with the wayward niece returning from her explorations of a pious, alternative culture, as opposed to one of debauchery. The returning pariah is not treated to a celebration with fatted calf, prepared by the loyal servant maid. Rather, the servant aids and abets her master in drugging Viridiana in a pathetic effort to transform the virgin into a centerfold for “Necrophilia Illustrated.”
Disgusted with her uncle’s incestuous advances, Viridiana flees the homestead yet again, only to be stopped by the news that Dom Jaime has hung himself and left her half of his estate, which she will share with her cousin.
Viridiana’s interpretation of St. Paul’s dictum: “the greatest of these is charity” proves delightfully absurd when taking in the uneducated derelicts of the world. Buñuel shows the underclass as having sensibilities of cruelty and avarice equal to, if not surpassing, the affluent elite. “Sin” is not the sole property of a single social status. Both rich uncle and penniless leper like the feel of a garter on their thighs while squeezing into heels. Uncle and son seek to soil the unspoiled flesh. Viridiana’s self-humbling only squeaks with charitable intent. She is a counterpart to Buñuel‘s earlier, hopelessly naive Padre Nazario from Nazarin (1959).
The film contains two infamous scenes. The first is a cruelly symbolic one, involving two dogs and their carts. Bunuel choreographs the vignette like a rabid string duet, doused in venomous futility. It is a canine stations of the cross with Simon of Cyrene alleviating the dolorous passion of one mutt, only to be oblivious to the sight and sound of a second dog’s death march.
The second vignette is less restrained; a setting of da Vinci’s pedestaled “Last Supper,” brutally mocked and violated in a Tod Browning photo session.
Of course, it all ends with a cinematic assimilation of theological trinity, filtered through Bunuel’s compulsively subdued filter. Viridiana herself is rendered something akin to the Ever-Virgin’s ripped holy card, scattered and stained with the lay wasted epithet: “I don’t want to be touched.”
PLOT: The guests at an upper-class dinner-party are inexplicably unable to leave; their thin veneer of civility rapidly breaks down as conditions worsen.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The predicament in which the protagonists find themselves is utterly irrational, and no explanation whatsoever is offered for it. Sheep and a bear roam the house for only marginally more rational reasons. And along the way we get an ambiguously hallucinatory sequence where a witch summons Satan, who manifests himself as a homicidal severed hand.
COMMENTS: Buñuel himself considered this film to be a failure because he didn’t go far enough—he later regretted not including cannibalism. But all the same, it’s the breakthrough film in which he finally understood that, if you give mainstream audiences a nice simple plot that they can understand with no trouble at all, the justification for that plot can be as weird as you like. And perhaps, as he so often was, he was joking when he publicly stated that it would have been a better film if they’d eaten each other, since ten years later he made The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which is a kind of anti-remake that precisely inverts the basic plot of the earlier film (the twist double ending is also neatly reversed). And cannibalism doesn’t occur that time round either.
The shooting title was The Castaways of Providence Street, which Buñuel changed when a friend pointed out that he’d automatically see any film called The Exterminating Angel without stopping to find out what it was actually about. As with The Phantom of Liberty (1974), the titular supernatural being, if it even exists, makes no overt appearance whatsoever. The left-wing agenda is as blatant as it possibly could be. The servants, with the exception of a very faithful butler, are stricken with irrational fear and leave for the flimsiest of reasons or none at all, even if it means their dismissal. The impending punishment is meant for the upper-class scum alone!
And scum they are. The best of them try to be decent but are hopelessly weak. As for the rest… A window broken by a highly-strung guest is casually ascribed to “a passing Jew.” They laugh uproariously when a servant trips on a rug and falls over because they assume he’s been set up to do it for their amusement. They seriously discuss the alleged insensibility to pain of the lower classes by comparing them with animals. They are casually and cynically promiscuous, and explicitly describe sexual continence as a perversion. And even the best of them stimulate their jaded appetites with serious drugs. They deserve everything they get.
And get it they do! This is basically “Lord of the Flies” with adults. Trapped in one room for no reason at all, they suffer hunger, thirst, stench—a man who dies early on is stuffed into a cupboard and remains there for many days in warm weather—and sanitary facilities consisting of a closet full of antique vases (not an issue normally addressed in movies made this long ago). And in addition to all this, they’re horribly spoilt people who can’t possibly get along, and end up squabbling like the lowest guttersnipes: a situation which, towards the end, they temporarily defuse by getting spectacularly stoned, in a sequence which, though very low-budget indeed, is still extremely psychedelic for its time.
Along the way, we get black magic, a doctor who mysteriously confuses baldness with death, and a very, very strange crawling hand sequence with a curious backstory. In his autobiography, Buñuel claimed to have written the outline on which the 1946 movie The Beast With Five Fingers was based, though of course he wasn’t credited. That may or may not be true, but if it is, this scene is his not very oblique reference to it. As with almost all his best films, this is not modern Japanese-level in-your-face-and-all-over-the-place weirdness. But the oddness of it all builds perfectly throughout, culminating in a last-minute resolution that, as so often in Buñuel’s films, is a set-up for a merciless punchline in the epilogue. A classic, and highly recommended.
PLOT: What plot? The screenplay was co-written by Salvador Dalí! A man and a woman long to have sex, but for various reasons they never do. Along the way, other things happen for no reason at all.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is a direct follow-up to Un Chien Andalou, arguably the weirdest film ever made; it’s the only other film by the Bunuel/Dalí combo; and it’s the only other official Surrealist movie by Buñuel. So it ought to be a shoo-in. Unfortunately, as with so many sequels, it utterly fails to live up to the promise of the first film.
COMMENTS: Although this is often described as a collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, they fell out before shooting started, so Dalí’s contribution was probably minimal (though depending on who you ask, he may have contributed little to Un Chien Andalou either). Scripted to run for 20 minutes, it somehow ballooned out of control and tripled in length during shooting. Fortunately, the aristocratic patron who provided the finance simply reached for his checkbook and told them to carry on regardless. Or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it. Un Chien Andalou is 16 minutes long, which is about as long as that level of blistering irrationality can realistically be maintained for, both in terms of the scriptwriter’s imagination and the audience’s patience. Stretched to just over an hour, the same kind of thing feels baggy, and is at times downright boring.
After a totally irrelevant prologue—the first three minutes are a documentary about scorpions—the film proper begins with a ragged man observing four elderly bishops sitting on a rock by the sea mumbling prayers. He rushes to a tumbledown shack and informs the other ragged men within, who appear to be guerrillas of some kind, that the “Majorcans” have arrived. In what seems to be a typically sly joke expressing Buñuel’s growing disillusionment with the Surrealist movement (he left in 1932), these men listlessly perform utterly pointless activities, and when they take up arms to combat the forces of religion, they’re so crippled and worn-out that almost all of them collapse, apparently from sheer apathy, before making it as far as the coast. The one man who gets there has just time to observe that the bishops have spontaneously turned into skeletons anyway before he too collapses. In an otherwise nonsensical speech, the most listless of the lot tells the others that they’re sure to win because they have paintbrushes. And their leader is played by the Surrealist painter Max Ernst (who remained a faithful Surrealist, so maybe the joke’s on him too).
At this point a flotilla of small boats arrives, and numerous civic dignitaries and smartly-dressed persons disembark. It becomes apparent that the death of the four Majorcan bishops has inspired these people to build the city of Rome (in 1930). However, the ceremony of laying the foundation stone is interrupted by the first appearance of the two protagonists, who are attempting to have very loud sex in a pool of mud. Not surprisingly, they are prevented by the outraged crowd and dragged away.
Not a bad beginning, but from this point on, it’s strictly by-the-numbers Surrealism. Gaston Modot, a very prolific character actor, is suitably intense, but kicking puppies and blind men is a poor substitute for slashing a woman’s eyeball! Lya Lys at one point comes across as the world’s worst actress, and is obviously using an autocue, but this must have been deliberate, since she too had a mainstream career (weird movie buffs can see her in The Return Of Doctor X, in which Humphrey Bogart, for the first and last time, plays a vampire). The almost-consummation of their passion goes on far too long without being anywhere near as intense or explicit as the similar scene in Un Chien Andalou. Priests and bishops in vaguely comical situations recur time and time again, we see the first use of Buñuel’s characteristic “incongruous animal indoors” trope, random passers-by kick violins down the street or have loaves on their heads, and so on. But it all seems a bit tired.
There are standout moments—a man cold-bloodedly killing his son for the most trivial of reasons, a suicide falling not to the floor but the ceiling, Lya Lys passionately sucking the toe of a statue—but not enough of them. There’s a tacked-on ending, in which, as a lengthy intertitle informs us, a quartet of degenerates emerge from a bestial orgy (actually the one described in the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom), and one of them turns out to be Jesus Christ. It comes across as a rather childish ploy to get the film banned on purpose.
Ultimately this is an ambitious failure, and not really very interesting. So many specific motifs from this film cropped up 44 years later in The Phantom Of Liberty that the latter movie could not implausibly be viewed as a secret remake. Perhaps Buñuel, always a lover of in-jokes, knowing that his career was almost over, was making his biggest in-joke of all?
PLOT: There isn’t one! Numerous bizarre situations are briefly explored, but none are resolved. It’s the ultimate shaggy dog movie.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Monks behaving badly are randomly exposed to exhibitionist sadomasochism. Two people are somehow the same person. A spider-fixated family find architecture pornographic. The dead make phone-calls from their coffins. People who feel no shame about sitting on lavatories together are embarrassed and disgusted by any mention of eating. Etc., etc., etc…
COMMENTS: As with the other two films (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire) in Buñuel’s very loose swansong trilogy, Phantom of Liberty gives us a sense of an artist tying up loose ends. In many ways Phantom is one of his most Surrealist movies, as if he was revisiting the glories of his youth one more time. And yet, it should be remembered that, although he is often described as a Surrealist filmmaker, Buñuel formally abandoned Surrealism in 1932, being forced to choose between active membership of the Spanish Communist Party, which regarded Surrealism as a decadent bourgeoise affectation, or belonging to a pretentious club that mucked about with art and pretended it mattered. Or maybe, like most other short-lived Surrealists, he simply couldn’t stand the movement’s awful, awful founder, André Breton. Since Buñuel was a control-freak himself, the latter explanation is perhaps the more probable.
Given his obvious intelligence and love of complex in-jokes and hidden meanings, it’s significant that in an interview recorded around this time, Buñuel says—very perceptively—that Surrealism triumphed on a superficial level, while utterly failing to change the world in any way that truly mattered. (In the same interview, he jokes about making a melodramatic but utterly insincere deathbed conversion to Catholicism just to wind up those of his friends who militated against religion in the most humorless way imaginable). Sure enough, The Phantom Of Liberty uses almost exactly the same dramatic structure as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus“: the ultimate manifestation of unofficial Pop Surrealism. And yet, given the very short difference in time between the creation of Python and this film, and the implausibility of an initially marginal BBC series being sufficiently internationally famous for Buñuel to have already seen it in a language he understood, it has to be assumed that any similarities are purely coincidental.
And similarities there most certainly are! The episode in which a crazed sniper randomly kills numerous people (which was cut from early UK TV broadcasts on grounds of unacceptable nastiness) and then, having been found guilty, is unaccountably released with no consequences at all, and instantly becomes tremendously popular, is almost identical to a Python sketch aired the previous year. Plagiarism? I doubt it. Zeitgeist? Almost certainly. More significantly, the entire film follows the Python ethos of not wasting a good idea just because you can’t think of a punchline. Problem ending the scene? Forget it, and arbitrarily move on to something else!
As more than one critic has observed, Richard Linklater’s 1991 Slacker is remarkable for being the first film (or at any rate, the first film that anyone’s heard of) to use the technique invented by Buñuel 17 years previously. But actually they’re wrong. Richard Linklater shows us vignettes from the lives of various people who are going nowhere, then cuts away to somebody else because if we followed this particular non-story any longer it would become boring. Buñuel gives us glimpses into situations that have no rational explanation whatsoever, and abandons them because any punchline he could possibly provide would be an anticlimax. The title, insofar as it refers to anything, seems to invoke a spirit which pervades the movie without ever being in any way discernible to the characters or the audience—a direct reference to The Exterminating Angel, in which the Angel of Death is supposedly responsible for the inexplicable events without directly manifesting itself at any point in the film. The characters drift into completely random situations, every one of which involves a massive breach of social norms, or laws even more fundamental than that. And nobody notices a thing. The entire film could, if the title is taken literally, be said to document the progress of an invisible and otherwise totally undetectable entity that capriciously drifts around altering the nature of reality for reasons all its own. And that’s the spirit in which it should be viewed. Buñuel’s best film? No. Buñuels weirdest film? Definitely in the top three. Worth watching? Yes! Just don’t expect a satisfying sense of closure.
PS – In recent years certain scenes in this movie have been played out for real in the UK by radical Islamists with no understanding of irony, who used their democratic right to demonstrate to hold demonstrations against democracy. What a pity Buñuel didn’t live to see it! Though maybe he wouldn’t have been all that surprised.
PPS – Are there any other films featuring two Bond villains?
PLOT: Six friends attempt to have dinner together, but repeatedly fail for increasingly bizarre reasons.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A plot so simple it’s barely a plot at all starts out small and, through masterly use of the running gag, steadily builds throughout the film, getting more and more absurd until the apocalyptic finale. And if that’s not enough, there are numerous dream-sequences, sometimes nested inside one another, and not always clearly distinguishable from reality. Also, undead policemen!
COMMENTS: Leaving aside Un Chien Andalou, which will forever be in a class of its own, Discreet Charm might just be Buñuel’s masterpiece. The Academy Awards Committee certainly thought so when they gave it the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1973. No close-ups of razor-slashed eyeballs this time; this is a nice, gentle, middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser. Except that that description would be as misleading as taking the title literally. It’s true that there are no pianos full of dead donkeys, but we do get an electrified piano used as an instrument of torture, from which cockroaches stream as the convulsions of the screaming victim create impromptu musique concréte-–an act for which the policeman responsible is first murdered by outraged student radicals (offscreen), and then condemned to return as a gory apparition (onscreen) every Bloody Sergeant’s Day (June 14th, if you’re thinking of throwing a party). There’s definitely something unusual going on here!
So unusual that “whose subconscious are we in now?” is a very pertinent question, 38 years before it was asked in Inception. One particularly bizarre scene turns out to be only a dream, and the action picks up where it left off. But then it turns out that this too is a dream, and the character who dreamed the first dream is not only still dreaming, but dreaming that he’s somebody else! Confused yet? The visibly nervous professional movie critic in the useless featurette on the Region 2 DVD clearly was. He correctly points out that this is a dream within a dream. Not so tricky, since the film explicitly says so. What he seems to have missed is that the dream-within-a-dream is probably a continuation of the previous scene, in which implausible events take place, and characters who don’t appear in the rest of the movie behave very oddly. One of them entertains the assembled company by recounting a dream about his dead mother, which we see. So what he have here is almost certainly a dream within a dream within a dream…
Then again, other incredibly strange things occur which aren’t dreams at all. Or are they? There isn’t any sure way to decide which parts of this film are “real”, and ultimately it doesn’t matter: it’s fiction, so none of it’s real. Still, there’s obviously some strange kind of logic holding it all together, even if we aren’t told what it is. This is why, like David Lynch, Luis Buñuel belongs on the A-list of weird film-makers. Throwing the rules out of the window is enough to make a movie “weird” in the sense of weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, but to reach the next level, you need to replace what you threw out with something else. Buñuel understood this perfectly, and plays with it all the way through the film. A very distinctive object features in what turns out to be a dream, yet reappears in the scene that follows: a subtle clue that we’re still in the dream (there’s absolutely no way Christopher Nolan wasn’t taking notes here). But another dream seems to be genuinely prophetic. And so on: a tangled web indeed!
Almost every joke follows the pattern of the main plot by starting off quite tamely, but turning out to have at least one more layer. The initial appearance of a saintly bishop results in his mild humiliation and all-round embarrassment, due to a silly and quickly resolved misunderstanding that wouldn’t be out of place in a Seventies sitcom. But just when you think Buñuel’s attitude to the church has mellowed with age, it turns out that the unsuspecting monsignor is being set up for a punchline which, when we finally get to it, is as dark as they come.
This film is not weird in the sense that watching it is an endurance test. This is mainstream weirdness with excellent production values. But don’t let that fool you: every single thing that happens here is as off-kilter as the attitudes of the main characters, who honestly believe that the lower classes are subhuman because they don’t know the correct way to drink a dry martini. Discreet Charm may or may not make the List, but it’s definitely on mine.
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.