Expecting the Unexpected: Four by Luis Buñuel

The late masterpieces by the infamous surrealist revel in disrupting and subverting expectations.
Jeremy Carr

Four late films by Luis Buñuel are showing from February 22 - March 28, 2018 in the United States in the retrospective Buñuel.

“Chance governs all things.”

—Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh

Striving for the surprising has always been a prevailing part of Luis Buñuel’s aesthetic practice. At first, this endeavor manifest itself in overtly incongruous visual terms, with the succession of shocking and often inexplicable images that dominate his earliest efforts, namely Un chien andalou (1929) and L'âge d'or (1930). After these two surrealist masterworks, though, both of which Buñuel made in collaboration with the movement’s eminent enforcer, Salvador Dalí, the director’s output went in a decidedly more systematic direction. The films Buñuel made in Mexico, twenty of them from the late 1940s into the early 1960s, could at times be just as provocative as anything else filling his filmography, but their formal and tonal constitution was comparatively tame and, dare one say it regarding Buñuel, almost—almost—conventional. By 1961, Buñuel was born again, so to speak, and returned to Europe, to his native Spain, to make Viridiana (1961), a scandalously subversive comedy that was then followed, back in Mexico, by The Exterminating Angel (1962), a prime initiation of the third and final phase in the career of this always-evolving auteur.

Of the eight films after that, four of them—Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), The Milky Way (1969), The Phantom of Liberty (1974), and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)—are particularly representative features, showing Buñuel not simply exercising the surreal standard of anomalous imagery (there is certainly some of that), but also applying tenants of his own idiosyncratic policy, as well as that of surrealism generally, to encompass narrative strategy and intention. The subsequent storytelling frameworks, as slack as they are, often then took shape in a manner conducive, and comparable, to the visual absurdities themselves, harnessed within unchained constructs. Just as so much of surrealism’s function is to provoke the unexpected, largely via visual means, so too do these later Buñuel films revel in disrupting and subverting narrative expectations, the way stories should be told and how characters should function within these sketches. 

Proceeding from a screenplay written with newfound co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière, a kindred spirit who worked with Buñuel on equally illustrative features like Belle de Jour (1967) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Diary of a Chambermaid is among the more straightforward of these late period titles. Based on the 1900 novel of the same name, by Octave Mirbeau, the film stars Jeanne Moreau as the titular housekeeper, Célestine (though Moreau was a hot commodity at the time, thanks to her French New Wave prominence, Buñuel originally wanted Viridiana lead Silvia Pinal). When Célestine arrives at the Monteil manor, situated somewhere outside 1928 Paris, she is instantly exposed to a relentless range of insinuations and confrontations, first from groom Joseph (Georges Géret), a brutish right-wing anti-Semite, then from the family proper: the frigid and exacting Mme Monteil (Françoise Lugagne), her philandering husband (Michel Piccoli), whose lascivious ways have put more than one prior servant in the family way, and her elderly father, M. Rabour (Jean Ozenne), who is never exactly cruel to Célestine, but does act upon his own, let’s just say, unique, demands.

If Buñuel’s surrealist standby was to undermine expectations, Célestine embodies this predisposition as one who is herself subject to occupational requirements and personal judgements. The skeptical lady of the house chides Célestine’s urban (see immoral) background, her dress, and her penchant for perfume—“It’s obvious you’re from Paris,” she scoffs. Similarly, Joseph implies a behavioral pretense when he challenges Célestine with, “Right, play the innocent,” and later observes, “You never really know people when you meet them.” While Célestine is the primary target of such derisory remarks, and to be sure, she does have more than one ulterior motive, hidden personalities in fact infect nearly every character in the film. And in that regard, despite the strained outward appearance of civility and cultivation—the devotion to cleanliness, fine, fragile embellishments, and refined decorum—this surface stability conceals dormant desires and domestic disturbances. Diary of a Chambermaid is a film built on taking first impressions and presumed positions, and delightfully pulling back the concealing curtain to uncover eccentric behavior and fetishistic fancy.

For Joseph, this veiled comportment cloaks politically verbose, bigoted commentary, his caustic true colors first shown around the servants’ dinner table. It’s debatable as to how much his character is played for laughs; while his cry of “Vive Chiappe!” is most certainly amusing, in that it refers to the police chief who halted the exhibition of L'âge d'or, his rape and murder of a pre-teen girl is anything but. Nevertheless, his fascistic, xenophobic critiques reveal an edgy political side still bristling behind Buñuel’s deprecation of bourgeois conformity. Cut to five years later, in the midst of late ‘60s upheaval, and the chief concentration of this condemnation settles on his perpetual love-hate relationship with Christianity, Catholicism in particular.

The Milky Way, its title derived from a route traveled by religious devotees on their way to Santiago de Compostela, pivots around two French vagrants, Pierre (Paul Frankeur) and Jean (Laurent Terzieff). Their pilgrimage roadmap surveys a path rife with religious imagery, Christian legacy, and a good-natured dissertation on heresy through the ages. The film begins as if a serious, scholastic inspection—“Everything in The Milky Way is based on authentic historical documents,” stated Buñuel in his often-dubious autobiography, My Last Sigh—but an abrupt cutaway to freeway traffic under the credits, a minor initial juxtaposition, serves as but a sampling of Buñuel’s freewheeling procedure. His oscillation between diverse settings and epochs, some cued by character asides, some seemingly at random, resists any attempt one may make to pigeonhole The Milky Way as an orthodox religious treatise. As theoretically dense as the film may be, and though it contains a catalog of references, usually obscure, along with a litany of incendiary pious observations (everyone is Catholic, contends one ecclesiastic, including Muslims, he says, and Jews “even more so”), Buñuel’s audacious bridging of backdrops and his witty contrasts and tangents tend to moderate any austere interpretations.  

During a scene of literally dueling philosophies, Buñuel cuts away as an apparent agreement has been made, thus obstructing the concerted reconciliation and side-stepping what could have been one of the film’s firm resolutions. Indeed, The Milky Way posits numerable questions, but Buñuel is rather less concerned with the answers. “The action flits constantly between present and past,” writes Mark Polizzotti, “sometimes mixing the two with apparent abandon. So it is that, along the way, the vagabonds encounter, bypass, or mysteriously coexist with figures representing major aspects of Christian history and mythology, including a Spanish inquisitor.” What results from this strange brew—one part religious rhetoric, one part surrealist provocation—is a narrative layering that fans out into a vast tapestry of space and time, a jokey, ambiguous, ironic, and resistant assembly defying face value expectancies, especially as they concern an undemanding leisurely flow (which the superficial road trip also suggests).  

By the 1970s, Buñuel was an aged master, renowned the world over, award-winning, and respected by his peers, audiences, and critics alike. It should come as no surprise, then, that this confidence would permit him to spin such stories with beguiling abandon and expressive spirit. His central challenge to form and content was conveyed with a balanced tempo and a taste for assured, anarchic unpredictability. Anything is possible in a picaresque tale like The Milky Way, but this narrative rebellion was most deviously achieved with The Phantom of Liberty. Riffing on Karl Marx (its title a nod to the Communist Manifesto’s opening passage) and The Milky Way itself, which contains the line, “Freewill is nothing more than a simple whim! In any circumstance, I feel that my thoughts and my will are not in my power! And my liberty is only a phantom!” The Phantom of Liberty was born from the dreams of Buñuel and Carrière and grew into an exploitation of this very whimsy, and the freedom to form one of the director’s most comically brazen chronicles.

Opening as if a historically-based period piece, set in 1808 Toledo, The Phantom of Liberty abruptly and without any traditional indication jumps to present day France. From there, as opposed to The Milky Way, which did have a flimsy road trip thread to hang onto, and certainly opposed to Diary of a Chambermaid, which for all of its diversionary flights of fantasy moved along at a linear measure, Buñuel makes no attempt to sustain or even establish coherent, consistent progress. The film, writes John Baxter, “wanders with a deceptively cool lack of narrative coherence.” By swapping stories just as viewer interest peaks, Buñuel manipulates a fundamental principle of frustration, taunting the accepted penchant for beginning-middle-end construction, joyfully entering and departing select stories and leaving snippets incomplete and unfinished. Writing about The Phantom of Liberty, along with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire, Gary Indiana posits that these movies can seem like, “three long, differently configured sections of a single film, and one of their glories—something that might not be especially flattering in the case of another director—is that once you’ve seen all three, it’s difficult afterward to say which indelible scene happens in which film.” The Phantom of Liberty, he continues, “has, if you like, ‘a beginning, a middle, and an end.’ But it also has several other films with beginnings, middles, and ends running inside it, around its edges, and hurtling through it.” Artistically, there is tremendous liberation in this model, this unrestricted shifting of attention by continuously diverting from the ostensible plot, though some might feel the approach exasperating and senseless. “Buñuel and Carrière may be viewed as a little sadistic towards the spectator,” observes Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, “and yet they are also being completely generous in offering us all the opportunity, as individuals, to enjoy the freedom of the interpretation of the events that unfold before us.”

Pointing to an early scene in The Phantom of Liberty, where a young girl is given a collection of (seemingly pornographic) postcards from a stranger (seemingly a pedophile), only for it to be revealed that those pictures are of French landscapes and architecture, Foster notes, “One of the charming lessons we learn almost immediately from the film is that if there is any such thing as perversion it tends to exist in our minds.” Buñuel banks on our tendency to assign analytical reasoning, only to continually usurp those probabilities. “This is hilarious, yes,” Foster adds, “but it also should be noted that it carefully challenges the definition of what is considered prurient and immoral and who upholds those rules.” Along those lines, these latter Buñuel films do include a riotous range of wanton taboos, hovering around the enticing nature of forbidden sexuality and the curious ways in which sexuality can appear in a non-sexual situation (Mme Monteil seeking lovemaking advice from the local priest in Diary of a Chambermaid, for example, a priest who happened to be played by Carrière). Such carnal themes are front and center in That Obscure Object of Desire, Buñuel’s final feature.  

Adapted from Pierre Louÿs’ 1898 novel, La femme et le pantin (The Woman and the Puppet), which had seen the screen several times before, most famously Josef von Sternberg’s 1935 Dietrich vehicle, The Devil Is a Woman, Buñuel’s film stars regular actor Fernando Rey as dignified, mature Frenchman, Mathieu (his voice dubbed by Michel Piccoli in but one of the film’s casting binaries). Aboard a train from Seville to Paris, Mathieu recounts to his fellow passengers his maddening relationship with young Spanish dancer Conchita, played by Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, interchangeably and without any clear consequence (the second casting couple). Mirroring the narrative progress of films like The Milky Way and The Phantom of Liberty, Mathieu’s situation is likewise one of denied advancement and thwarted expectations. And like Diary of a Chambermaid, much of this stems from presumptions about one’s character. Upon meeting Conchita, Mathieu believes her to be amorously ready and willing, but she is quick to retort, “I’m not that kind of girl.” And yet, later actions point to the contrary, which is then reversed: “Don’t cry victory too fast!” she proclaims. Mathieu is befuddled by the erotic tension, the misunderstandings, excuses, and the painfully prolonged sexual release. Seeing similarities to Viridiana, Belle de Jour, and Tristana (1970), Danny Peary maintains, “The tendency is to feel sorry for the benign Mathieu and detest Conchita for being a sexual tease, but Buñuel is on her side.” Noting the power struggle at the heart of their affiliation—she trying to take his money, he trying to trap her in a relationship, and on and on, back and forth—Peary’s observations hinge on the film’s principal theme of control, of maintaining the upper hand. It’s not at all unlike the methodology of Buñuel the storyteller, who triumphantly proffers certain scenarios, inserted with sly suggestions of regularity, then agitates those same developments in a test of viewer patience and endurance, all under his omnipotent auspices.

These are wholly self-conscious productions, with blatant repetitions, equivocal character appearances and disappearances, and fantastic digressions (among the funniest is an out of breath Christ plodding over rocks in The Milky Way). With few exceptions (mostly in The Phantom of Liberty, but also the disturbing vision of young Claire’s corpse in Diary of a Chambermaid, riddled with squirming snails), these films tend to eschew the graphic imagery of Buñuel’s earliest surreal submissions. Instead, they are at their best when highlighting real-word surrealism, awkward moments when characters can’t hear each other speak and must halt the conversation (which Buñuel cuts away from before they can ever resume), or when off-hand allusions to terrorism are but a passing hindrance. These instances, both from That Obscure Object of Desire, are hilariously greeted by deadpan performances and a poker-faced, reserved timbre.  

Beginning near the supposed end of their tumultuous relationship, Buñuel provides only scant preliminary details about what went wrong between Conchita and Mathieu. When she confronts him before his train departs, and he in turn throws a bucket of water on her head, Mathieu is quick to assure his companions who saw the deed that he is no lunatic. Recalling the external manners of Diary of a Chambermaid, he does so in the politest of pleasantries, explaining the peculiarity of his actions in an instance of Buñuelian characters recognizing, and conceding, the outlandishness, but also attempting to assure normalcy. It’s part of an intriguing initiative in some of Buñuel’s work, specifically these later films, in which characters preserve a semblance of normality just as we try to reason away the strangeness or at least assign meaning and lucidity. See Jean-Claude Brialy’s Foucauld, from The Phantom of Liberty, who acknowledges unusual feelings and nocturnal delusions, but chalks them up to an illness of some sort, even providing evidence to convince another; it’s surreal, yes, but he knows it’s surreal and wants to do something about it. In another variation, Pierre and Jean at times seem to dictate what transpires in The Milky Way, wishing death on a character who promptly expires in a car crash, and they commonly appear cognizant of the in-film phenomena, as when one’s pope-shooting fantasy seeps into the real world and is experienced by an unsuspecting bystander. A police instructor in The Phantom of Liberty, who seems to guide that film’s uproarious scatological flashback, is a similar example of one assuming governance over the narrative, however bizarre it seems.

There is no tedium in this continual anti-narrative acquiescence, even if we, too, temper our prospects and welcome irrational contradictions, deceptions, and a stream-of-conscious coordination of defeated momentum. Instead, we marvel at the clever capriciousness and the humorous inventiveness. Perhaps in some way inspired by these instances of narrative management, we also assume the possibility of purpose. In these films that revel in unrestrained fruition, where extraordinary activity is the anticipated norm, it may seem like a rationale exists, just waiting to be discovered. Despite so much to indicate the contrary, we simply can’t reject innate attempts to ascertain motive; is it arbitrary, or is there an intricate web binding the bedlam? Contributing to this intrinsic propensity is Buñuel’s editorial execution, which is smooth, seamless, and engrossing. He lulls us into acceptance, as we await the linking threads and patterns. Besides, as Piéral’s psychologist character observes in That Obscure Object of Desire, “Subconsciously, we know there’s no such thing as chance.” 

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