Buñuel on the set of The Phantom of Liberty (1974)
“Middle-class morality,” Luis Buñuel once said, “is for me immoral. One must fight it. It is a morality founded on our most unjust social institutions — religion, fatherland, family culture — everything people call the pillars of society.” Despite that plainspoken fury, the Spanish filmmaker’s way of fighting morality proved complicated, at times even indirect. Toward the end of his career, that battle found its most refined and entertaining iteration in a series of comedies that the director made in France, and Metrograph’s five-title series offers an ideal chance to visit (or revisit) these gems.
This retro focuses on the films Buñuel made with the producer Serge Silberman and the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. (Buñuel’s best-known work from this period is probably 1967’s Belle de Jour, which was co-written by Carrière but produced by the notoriously conniving Raymond and Robert Hakim, and is not included here.) Metrograph’s series begins with 1964’s Diary of a Chambermaid, the director’s loose adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s turn-of-the-century novel about a young maid (Jeanne Moreau) who goes to work at the rural home of a wealthy and bizarre family and is soon coveted by the twisted men around her. The elder patriarch has a foot fetish; his grown son is an aggressive womanizer; the head servant is a proud fascist who fantasizes about killing people.
Shot in lush, widescreen black-and-white, Chambermaid is a supremely elegant film, its graceful surfaces sometimes at odds with the cruelty of its story. Buñuel’s typical injections of perversion and narrative non sequiturs quietly accumulate, so that early on you could mistake the movie for an almost conventional one. Perhaps the picture’s greatest virtue is Moreau’s central performance. Her often outwardly calm appearance, especially in the first half, can be read as either calculation or a kind of muted fear, allowing us to fill the void with our own interpretations of the gathering class and sexual conflicts. Is she a victim, a submissive, a provocateur, an avenging angel? Often, it’s hard to tell.
In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), which won an Oscar for best foreign film, we find the director in far more cutting form, with his depiction of a few well-heeled socialites and their constantly undermined attempts to dine and drink. The movie opens with four of them arriving at a friend’s for dinner, only to discover that they had the date wrong. They convince their hostess to come with them to a nearby inn for dinner — but there, after a series of mysterious interactions with the waitstaff, they discover that the manager died earlier that night. And so the film goes, with our heroes constantly foiled in their attempts to sup, drink, consume. One couple keeps trying to have sex and failing.
Meanwhile, the narrative cuts in and out of dream sequences; at one point, one character’s dream turns out to be embedded in another’s. Buñuel at times seems to be daring the viewer to make sense of his story. It’s a savvy strategy: The text falls apart, so we find ourselves focused on the subtext, on the constant dance of consumption and frustration, on the way the placid surfaces of formality and pleasantry are undercut by appetite, carnality, and violence. But what makes the movie so strange and transfixing is the characters’ dry mannerisms in even the most outré circumstances. Someone pulls out a gun and casually fires out his office window at a female street vendor; he says she’s a terrorist, but his demeanor betrays no fear, urgency, or even anger. It’s just a thing he does. Violence is yet another mundane daily ritual.
For all its intricate symbols and confounding narrative, Discreet Charm is never a “difficult” film. That is in part because it seems so comfortable in its milieu; despite the movie’s pointed weirdness, you can lose yourself in it. Buñuel understood this world intimately: Though he spent most of his life in exile, the director was born into wealth, and he knew his way around a dinner party. For all his anger at bourgeois life, Buñuel was a connoisseur of swank hotels and bars and restaurants. His autobiography, My Last Sigh, offers several encomiums to the Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room. Metrograph’s press email about the series even featured a link to a famous clip of the director mixing the perfect dry martini, which echoes a similar scene in Discreet Charm in which one character discourses on the proper way to prepare a drink. Buñuel can slay this world because he knows it so well — and maybe, on some secret level, loves it.
Buñuel’s final work, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), could be a companion piece to Discreet Charm (which itself could have been a companion piece to his earlier bourgeois dinner party movie, 1962’s The Exterminating Angel). A similar sense of frustration pervades this film about a wealthy Frenchman (Fernando Rey) who falls in love with a beautiful young Spanish immigrant named Conchita, who is played by two very different actresses — angular, always composed Carole Bouquet and earthy, vivacious Angela Molina. The actresses will sometimes switch within a scene, and Conchita’s demeanor changes with them, thus making the male protagonist’s failure to possess her a formal element as much as a narrative one.
Obscure Object and Discreet Charm both have secured places in film history. Still, the two most intriguing works in this series might be The Milky Way (1969) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974), in which Buñuel brings a sketch-comedy-like levity to his thematic preoccupations. In the first, two men making a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain find themselves in a variety of absurd situations involving sects, arcane rituals, and hilarious arguments over Catholic dogma. An atheist, Buñuel had little love for religion, but somewhere amid the savagery of his anticlericalism in The Milky Way you might sense a fondness for the naïveté of his impoverished pilgrims: Their faith is genuine and their asceticism compelling, but the world around them seems concerned mostly with doctrinaire nonsense, hierarchies, propriety. It’s a striking look at how the organized part of organized religion often conflicts with real matters of the spirit.
The Phantom of Liberty, on the other hand, plays like a manifesto. Buñuel’s most aggressively episodic film, it’s built around a series of vignettes that turn propriety on its head. So often, Buñuel and Carrière’s strategy is to remove, or drastically change, one element from a given situation to underline the fundamentally ridiculous nature of human life. In the movie’s most notorious episode — and possibly the funniest thing Buñuel ever filmed — couples arrive for a dinner party and sit around a table, only the seats are actually flushing toilets, and the guests are all basically taking dumps. Then, one excuses himself to go to a small private room, where he’s served food. By simply switching around the processes of consumption and excretion, the director draws our attention to the random absurdities of our daily rituals. This is satire that cuts deep: Somewhere beneath our laughter, Buñuel is completely rearranging the way we see the world.
Buñuel in France
March 31–April 3 Metrograph