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The Essentials: Luis Bunuel

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist March 19, 2013 at 3:51PM

Anti-establishment to the core and arguably one of the original enfante terrible filmmakers, Luis Bunuel had three preoccupations, no, obsessions that he charted for his entire career: religion, class and sexual desire. Labeled a surrealist early on his career due to "Un Chien Andalou," his famous collaboration with Salvador Dali (responsible for one of cinema's most famous images, of a razor blade slicing an eyeball, and made when the filmmaker was just 29) it would be extremely pat to reduce Bunuel's long and eclectic career to that idiosyncratic work. A blasphemous heretic to the church, several of Bunuel's films were flagrant censures of religion and the Catholic church, which saw him fleeing Spain more than once during his career.
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The Diary of a Chambermaid

The Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964)
Not to be confused with the Jean Renoir-directed 1946 film of the same name starring Paulette Goddard, “The Diary of a Chambermaid” marked the beginning of Luis Buñuel’s second French period (that also included “Belle de Jour,” “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”). The film stands out amongst Buñuel’s work as a conventional narrative rather than his characteristic surrealism. This adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s novel also marked the first project with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, with whom Buñuel would work with for the rest of his career. Jeanne Moreau stars as the titular chambermaid, and nabbed the role after meeting Bunuel for lunch, with the director taken by the sway of her ankles (which came in handy for the foot fetish scene). Buñuel once said, "Sexual perversion repulses me, but I can be attracted to it intellectually." And Buñuel met his match in “The Diary of a Chambermaid.” The film follows Célestine (Moreau) after she moves from Paris to a rural Normandy estate where she works for a family of hypocrites and perverts. This seedier side of the French upper crust includes an avid animal hunter and woman chaser (Michel Piccoli, marking their second of seven collaborations), a haughty and frigid mistress of the house (Françoise Lugagne), and an elderly gentleman who calls on Célestine for his “whims” (which translates to indulging his foot-fetishism). Our heroine is no angel either as she attempts to use her feminine wiles to secure a place above her station while overlooking the possible repercussions of indulging an idle upper class. Transplanting the story from late 1800s to 1930, Buñuel was able to comment on French fascism and extremist politics, blaming the moral decay of the bourgeoisie for the subsequent political demise. The film ends with a political demonstration and protesters shouting "Down with the Republic! Death to the Jews! Long live Chiappe!" The name Chiappe is Buñuel’s revenge against the rightwing civil servant Jean Chiappe, who suppressed Buñuel’s “L’Age D’Or” in 1930. Its flirtation with moral depravity, absurdist satirical touches, and an unflinching Jeanne Moreau make “The Diary of a Chambermaid” a must-see Buñuel film. On a more current note, Marion Cotillard is in talks to star as Célestine in an upcoming Benoit Jacquot-directed adaptation.

Simon Of The Desert"

"Simon Of The Desert" (1965)
Bunuel's last film in Mexico, and the final part of the trilogy on religion preceded by "Viridiana" and "The Exterminating Angel," "Simon of the Desert" might seem slight on the surface -- it's less than 45 minutes long. But you wouldn't want it to be a second longer as it's small, perfectly-formed and profound. Based loosely on the Syrian saint Simeon Stylites, the film follows his son, Simon (Claudio Brook) , who's spent 6 years, 6 weeks and 6 days living up on an eight-foot pillar. He's brought down to try out a new pillar built for him by the locals; only the first in a series of temptations, mostly brought to him by a female Satan (Bunuel muse Silvia Pinal) that will eventually see him transported to a 1960s nightclub New York. While the film is as skeptical and savage about the Catholic Church, and religion in general, as most of Bunuel's films of this period (Simon heals an amputee, who then uses his hands to hit his child), in Simon, there's a holy fool at the center of the film for whom Bunuel shows surprising empathy. It's a reminder that the director's issue was never with God, but with the people who act in his name. Stylistically, it's an austere, ascetic piece of work, marking a shift between his Mexican films and later masterpieces like "The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie," and while it’s little bit more dry in comparison to his more mischievous works, and perhaps a film for completeists only, it’s still well worth seeking out.

Belle De Jour
"Belle De Jour" (1967)
Perhaps as iconic and well-known a film as anything that Bunuel made other than "Un Chien Andalou," "Belle Du Jour" was atypical for the filmmaker in its success, and a firm evocation of his merits and values. (It was his biggest commercial hit, and won the Golden Lion and earned a BAFTA nomination for star Catherine Deneuve, though the filmmaker attributed its popularity "more to the marvelous whores than to my direction"). Deneuve plays Severine, a young Parisian housewife who loves her husband (Jean Sorel), but is unable to be attracted to him physically, despite her own sadomasochistic fantasies. After advances from one of her husband’s friends, Husson (Michel Piccoli, again), she starts working in a brothel, becoming involved with a younger gangster (Pierre Clementi), but he becomes obsessive, ultimately shooting her husband, and leaving him in a coma. Despite the scurrilous subject matter, there's little explicit material in "Belle Du Jour," but it's still among the most erotic films ever made, the repression, secret desires and fetishes seeping out of every frame. Bunuel knows that true eroticism comes from the mind, not from images, and the surreal tinges meld with psychological realism in a way that's pretty much unforgettable (not least in the famous box scene). But the film has much more on its mind than just sex; it's a wry, witty comedy of manners, and a pathos-filled love story, too. And of course, it provides Catherine Deneuve, one of the cinema's greatest screen goddesses, with her most iconic part. It's telling that, when Manoel De Olivera directed a belated sequel forty years on with "Belle Toujours," (without Deneuve), it fell decidedly flat; "Belle De Jour" without Bunuel's touch simply doesn't work.

The Milky Way

"The Milky Way" (1969)
Bunuel began on another cinematic triptych (as he termed it in his autobiography "My Last Sigh") with "The Milky Way," one of his most anarchic, provocative and divisive pictures. The filmmaker said that along with “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and "The Phantom of Liberty," the three films had the same themes, “the same grammar; and all evoke the search for truth, as well as the necessity of abandoning it as soon as you've found it." The film centers on two men, making a pilgrimage from Paris to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, who along the way, encounter a number of incidents and characters who depict, or represent, Catholic heresies, from debates over the divinities of Christ, to the crucifixion of nuns, to the virginity of the Virgin Mary (played by "Eyes Without A Face" and "Holy Motors" star Edith Scob). While sounding like a dry exercise, the film is playful and absurd, nodding to Chaucer and reminiscent of Monty Python as it hops through time, while the script (co-written with Jean-Claude Carriere) makes the theological arguments engaging and surprisingly even-handed. Talky in the same way that ‘Bourgeoisie’ is without being quite as enjoyable or ironic, we can see why it's a film perhaps better suited to the hardcore Bunuel fan than the beginner, but "The Milky Way" is still worthy and conspicuous in the director’s oeuvre.

This article is related to: Features, Luis Bunuel


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