The Buñuel Collection. DVD review

The Buñuel Collection DVD Boxset directed by Luis Buñuel, StudioCanal, 2017

Reviewed by Matt Barber

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Belle de Jour, StudioCanal have released a boxset of Luis Buñuel’s seven final movies from the later 1960s and 1970s. Buñuel’s films, from Un Chien Andalou onwards have trod the fine line between social satire and outright fantasy, and of these seven films, three stand out as drawing most from the fantasy genre.

The Milky Way, directed by Luis Buñuel in 1969, is a strange movie that follows two pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela as they encounter episodes from the history of the Catholic Church, priests, prostitutes, nuns, philosophers and soldiers. The pair of travellers are from the 1960s but apparently travel through time (or time warps around them) seemingly without questioning it. It reminds me a little of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark in the way it plays with time and space, but, appropriately for a path that crosses the borders of countries, Buñuel uses the pilgrimage route as a way to explore the nature of faith and heresy rather than nationality. Buñuel’s film resists romanticising the history of the Church, the nature of the act of pilgrimage and the route itself. Often scenes set in the modern day see the pilgrims walking along the edges of roads or hitching lifts from motorists, whilst the historical vignettes they encounter, often surreal in nature, deal with sacrilege, religious dogma on the fringes of the Church, sex and madness. The pilgrims themselves, don’t have a noble reason for journeying along the path, other than to beg for money, to avoid life or, in the case of one, to get to Santiago de Compostela in order to have sex. For all its philosophical religious subtexts, it’s also a witty movie, the absurdity outrageous and hilarious at the same time. The final scene in which two blind men meet Jesus in the woods near Santiago de Compostela and are given back their sight, only to find they still cannot understand what is around them, acts as a metaphor for the path itself and, indeed, for the whole film. It seems that for Buñuel the pilgrimage route is a spiritual fiction that anyone can journey on but no-one can understand.

Tristana, directed by Luis Buñuel in 1970, is a Spanish movie based on a novel by Benito Pérez Galdós, but with Buñuel’s characteristic alterations and flourishes. The plot focuses on a triangular relationship between Tristana, played by Catherine Deneuve, Don Lope, her guardian and lover played by Fernando Rey and Horacio, an artist Tristana with whom falls in love. As with Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, this is a film about layered relationships and the shifting power roles within them. The title character in Buñuel’s movie, much like Marlene in Fassbinder’s, begins as a submissive and passive victim. Tristana is forced into a warped sexual relationship with her adoptive father and then seeks to take control by leaving Lope and finding Horacio, only to suffer from an illness that leads to the amputation of a leg. This drives her back to Lope and leads to her finally taking the ultimate control over him by facilitating his death. The movie resembles Belle de Jour more than The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but still includes touches of Buñuel’s precise surrealism, most notably in a Freudian dream sequence in which Tristana sees the severed head of Lope substituting the clapper in a church bell. But it is the ambiguous and corrupt relationships between the characters, and the equation of Tristana’s assumption of power with her loss of a moral centre that form the core of Buñuel’s satirical, cynical style. It’s a lavish film, as roaming and open as Fassbinder’s is enclosed and claustrophobic. In this film, the submissive/dominant subtext is played out primarily through the performances rather that any abstract or allegorical mise-en-scène. There’s a great deal here to digest. Buñuel is clearly preoccupied with the conflicts between men and women, between the religious and secular and between the different political poles, and all these tensions are condensed within this film and focused on the tragic life of an orphan.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, directed by Luis Buñuel in 1972, is a surrealist satire that follows three upper-middle-class couples as they try to hold a series of dinner parties. At each attempt, something different prevents them from finally eating: the corpse of the restaurant manager in the kitchen, a company of soldiers, a café that runs out of tea, coffee and milk, the police, a group of armed terrorists. These characters are solipsistic to the point of parody, a depiction emphasised through the film as Buñuel begins to present dream sequences. At one stage a character is dreaming that another character is dreaming. The effect is like Inception but with civil servants and diplomats and with dinner parties instead of heists and action sequences. Despite the lack of conventional plot and the mind-bending approach to reality this is a surprisingly accessible film. As with surrealist art, a key aspect of this is unlikely or ridiculous juxtapositions, but where Dali used textures and tactile transgressions, Buñuel uses the collisions of different social orders to create his tensions. A bishop becomes a gardener; a chauffeur is invited to join the party and then dismissed; soldiers smoke cannabis like hippies and then recount their dreams; diplomats behave undiplomatically. I couldn’t help feeling that this is what David Lynch would produce if he ever adapted one of G K Chesterton’s more absurdist paradoxes. The bones of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie are clearly a critical satire on wealth and class, but the meat is Buñuel’s colourful and, at times, grotesque eye for detail. As with his much earlier collaboration with Dali, ‘Un Chien Andalou’ (notable for the famous eye-slashing scene), Buñuel does not shy away from shocking and visceral imagery. The dream sequences, complete with gory ghosts and eerie, uncanny effects, almost tip this movie into the horror genre.

Rather than creating coherent, fantastic worlds, Buñuel creates disjointed and unsettlingly paradoxical worlds that serve, not to explore or satirise our own, but rather to crack reality open. His movies are like cultural grenades thrown into middle and upper-middle class culture, designed to deflate social and religious dogmas through ridicule and profanity. Buñuel, in short, does not seek to understand the world, but instead he seeks to break it.