“I’m an anarchist, but I’m totally against the anarchists.”- Luis Buñuel
This seven-disc Blu-Ray boxset includes all of Buñuel’s later films from Diary of a Chambermaid up to That Obscure Object of Desire–except for Simon of the Desert, for which there has never been a UK release since a VHS release. While I actually prefer some of his earlier work, this group of films sees Buñuel back working in Europe after many years working in Mexico. He had fled his homeland of Spain when Franco was in power, coming to Hollywood but finding very little work outside of writing subtitles for Spanish-language films during his seven years there. He had been offered Under the Volcano, but could never pull the funding or script together. Just imagine what he could have done with money behind him! However, when Dali’s autobiography came out, it accused Buñuel of being a Communist, and this resulted in blacklisting. His reception in Mexico was much friendlier, and he worked there from around 1946 to 1960. Mexico was where he made Los Olvidados (possibly his finest film, and a Palm d’Or winner), which put his career back on track. And although he returned to Europe to work, Mexico remained his home.
In Europe, he was offered Viridiana, which renewed Spanish animosity towards Buñuel. Back in Mexico, he directed Exterminating Angel, Simon of the Desert, and Diary of a Chambermaid–where this box set takes off and was the first of the later European films. The latter was one of his most straight-forward films, a remake of a Jean Renoir movie (although he did not see the Renoir original). Octave Mirbeau and Jeanne Moreau starred, although Silvia Pinal was his first choice. Moreau was a bigger name, and is quite good in the rather strange but not surreal film. It’s full of the perverse sex references that one would expect, but the narrative is direct.
Also in this set is Belle de Jour, starring Catherine Deneuve, who was already a big name at that point. It’s one of his best-known films, no doubt helped by the scandalous subject matter. It’s been debated for years over what in Belle de Jour is intended to be real and what scenes are her fantasies, and Buñuel would never explain what the ending actually meant. The version included is a new restoration.
The Milky Way is one of his most damning films about religion, a twisted movie that fits well with Bunuel’s famous quote, “Thank God I’m an atheist.” It’s about two drifters who go on a pilgrimage from France to San Juan Capistrano. Buñuel himself plays the Pope, who is shot by a revolutionary. It’s full of gags about the Catholic Church and Jesus is depicted as an ordinary man. Although there was no love lost between Buñuel and the Church, Nazarin made its list of films believers should see.
Tristana is next up which he worked on it off and on for a decade. Buñuel had been offered it, and tried to make it in Spain without success. Eventually he pulled together enough investors, and a new version of the script came together with Catherine Deneuve and regular collaborator Fernando Rey. The main surreal element is a dream sequence; otherwise it’s more of a gothic romance between a young woman and a rich socialist who turns out to be a hypocrite. Although the performances are good and it did gain an Oscar nomination (which Buñuel claimed to not want), it’s not one of my favourites.
Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was made when Buñuel was getting older, and it returns to some of the themes of Exterminating Angel. His take on the bourgeoisie is much more valid and critical than Godard’s, and the film skewers a group of middle-class tossers during a dinner party interrupted by dreams and fantasies. The Saragossa Manuscript (directed by Wojciech Has in 1965) had clearly had an influence on him, and it shows in this and his final two films. It’s a bafflingly insane film full of dreams within dreams, a total Chinese box sort of thing, and it’s safe to say that it made an impact. Buñuel had clearly always had a fondness for terrorists, radicals and revolutionaries, but they also show up more often in his final films.
Phantom of Liberty is his penultimate film, and finds him riffing a bit on Fellini-style looser narratives–unusual for his firms, as after his first two films made with Dali, his plots usually were carefully crafted, even when they left some questions unanswered. But Fellini’s later Odyssey-style, near-plotless films find echoes here. The title itself is a smarmy joke on The Communist Manifesto, as the director was completely disillusioned by Communism at this point. The film follows different characters, and you can draw a direct line from this device to what Richard Linklater did with Slacker.
The set is rounded off by That Obscure Object of Desire, one of the finest movies ever. It’s set in Spain and France, the two places in Europe he knew best, and is about an older guy telling a story about a young Spanish Flamenco dancer who has played twisted games on him, and who is played by two different interchangeable actresses. Its set against a backdrop of terrorist insurgency, with Fernando Rey in the lead role. It has one of the greatest final shots of any film which is an explosion which can sum up his impact on world cinema.
Buñuel was one of the original surrealists, and so his brand of surrealism was to use everyday objects in strange and disquieting ways. His work is always worth a watch, and this boxset presents a rich experience. Each disc includes not only a film but additional documentaries and special features.