In the year that it's been open, Metrograph has become one of New York's best repertory cinemas, and its new Luis Buñuel retrospective shows why. “Buñuel in France” features five films that the Spanish director made in France at the end of his life. Ignoring better-known late works like Belle De Jour, Tristana and Viridiana, the series highlights the equally acclaimed but lesser seen Diary of a Chambermaid, The Milky Way, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire.
Made in the 1960s and '70s, these films are witty, subversive attacks on the norms of that era—a time of political activism, distrust in institutions and a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Sound familiar? Buñuel's characters deal with the surreal situations they encounter the same way we might; by treating the absurd as normal. The questions that Buñuel's surreal films ask—Does religion really make any sense? Are the rich better than everybody else?—are ones that haven't gone away.
The earliest film in Metrograph’s series, Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), is also the least weird. It follows Célestine (Jeanne Moreau), a chambermaid at a Château in the 1930s. There, she endures the staff’s bigotry, her employers’ sexual peccadillos and the competing attention of multiple men. The light social satire of the film is disrupted, however, when a young girl is raped and murdered.
While it’s far less surreal than Buñuel’s other work, the film’s pessimistic view of human nature is one that appears throughout the director’s corpus. In this, it is closest to the similarly cynical The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), which lampoons pretension and priggishness in the episodic story of a group of rich snobs whose attempts to eat together are consistently interrupted. In a typical scene, the characters invite a servant to drink with them, only to mock him once he’s left.
“That was precisely the way not to drink a dry martini,” one says.
"You're being hard on Maurice. He's a commoner. He's uneducated," says another.
"No system can give the masses the proper social graces," the first says.
Never mind that throughout the scene, the couple who invited them are having sex in the bushes outside. While The Diary of a Chambermaid recoils at our darkest urges, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie laughs at the pretensions we use to hide them.
The Milky Way (1969) mines similar terrain. Also episodic, the film follows two pilgrims (Paul Frankeur and Laurent Terzieff) as they travel along the way of St. James. On their journey, the two stumble on religious debates, meet biblical figures and have bizarre daydreams. The film takes every opportunity to poke fun at the absurdity of close-minded dogma. In one instance, a maitre d’ lectures his staff on Christ’s divinity. “How could Christ be both Man and God?” a waitress asks. “Yes, it's difficult, Martha” he responds, “But say the Devil takes the shape of a wolf. He's a wolf, yet he's still the Devil. It's the same with Christ.” This already ridiculous statement is compounded by the fact that it comes from a hotel maître d’ who in between discourses on Christ instructs his staff to check on the freshness of the oysters.
The Phantom of Liberty (1974) is Buñuel's most unfocused and surreal film. Closer to a sketch show than a movie, it doesn't limit its targets to just the church or the rich. In the film’s most well known episode, a professor goes to dinner at a friend’s. Instead of a sumptuous meal, however, the characters sit on toilets around an empty table. At one point, the professor excuses himself, and asks a maid where the dining room is. She escorts him to a windowless room, where he sits on a chair and eats.
It’s ridiculous to see a group of well-to-do Parisians sit on toilets around a dinner table. But why is defecation more shameful than eating? This is Buñuel’s signature gag: nonchalance in the face of the bizarre. Like remembered dreams, the events in the films are never strange to the characters, only to the viewers. Take the most famous scene from The Milky Way, in which a left-wing firing squad executes the pope, followed by a cut to one of the pilgrims. “What was that? Is there a shooting range around here?” a man asks him. “No that was me. I was imagining they were shooting a Pope,” the pilgrim responds.
All of Buñuel’s obsessions come together in his final film That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). It follows an older bachelor, Mathieu (Fernando Rey) and his affair with a young woman named Conchita (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina). Throughout, Mathieu is frustrated by Conchita’s refusal to have sex with him, even as the two grow closer. "I want to possess her, naturally, but when she's with me I'm overjoyed," Mathieu tells a friend. "If I married her, I'd be entirely defenseless."
It is in That Obscure Object of Desire that Buñuel's surrealism serves its clearest purpose. Although the idea of having two actresses play the same character seems like a gimmick, it serves a deeper purpose. Each woman’s portrayal is tied to a different aspect of Conchita’s personality. Molina’s Conchita is sensual and sweet; Bouquet’s shy and withholding. Mathieu goes throughout the movie trying to "possess" Conchita, but we, who can so clearly see the depth of her being, realize that this is impossible.
The Metrograph team claims they didn’t pick these films to be topical. “We’re showing them because they're excellent films. There's no particular political motivation,” Metrograph artistic director Jacob Perlin told me. But in an increasingly surreal era, Buñuel’s critical eye toward the conventional is more relevant than ever.
“Buñuel in France” runs from March 30 to April 6 at Metrograph