Three Films by Luis Buñuel
More than four decades after he took a razorblade to an eyeball and shocked the world with Un chien andalou, arch-iconoclast Luis Buñuel capped his astonishing career with three final provocations—The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, and That Obscure Object of Desire—in which his renegade, free-associating surrealism reached its audacious, self-detonating endgame. Working with such key collaborators as screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and his own frequent on-screen alter ego Fernando Rey, Buñuel laced his scathing attacks on religion, class pretension, and moral hypocrisy with savage violence to create a trio of subversive, brutally funny masterpieces that explore the absurd randomness of existence. Among the director’s most radical works as well as some of his greatest international triumphs, these films cemented his legacy as cinema’s most incendiary revolutionary.
Having lost the rights to them many years ago, The Criterion Collection has reacquired Luis Buñuel’s last three films and are presenting them on Blu-ray: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, and That Obscure Object of Desire. All three are available exclusively in the box set 3 Films by Luis Buñuel, each film appearing in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on their own individual dual-layer discs.
Though That Obscure Object of Desire did receive its own Blu-ray edition from Lionsgate in North America, the others didn’t so it’s wonderful to be finally getting them here. Sadly, Criterion appears to be simply reusing older high-definition masters, more than likely the same ones used for their previous DVD editions. The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire actually don’t come out looking too bad, but Discreet Charm has a number of more obvious problems. While compression is improved upon over Criterion’s original DVD there are still a number of artifacts that hamper the image, from mild noise to edge-enhancement and little digital jumps in the frame (which were also present on the DVD). Film grain is also a bit of a mixed affair: though never great, it is present most of the time, helping deliver details, while there are other moments where some form of management looks to have gone on, creating a mushy image that has more of a digitized look (the screen grabs for this film are presented full-size in the gallery below).
The other two fare much better. Though grain still never looks as good as it can in either presentation, the films at least have a more consistent film-like look. Details are also better and the images are far more stable. Compression is better for both in comparison to their DVD counterparts.
Colours can look a little washed in all three films, Phantom also featuring a bit of a sickly green tint, but they’re fine on the whole if nothing special. Black levels are iffy, looking okay sometimes, murky in other instances, but still better than the DVD presentations. Further restoration work has been done on all three, Discreet Charm probably receiving the most work: Criterion’s DVD was still laced with a lot of damage.
Altogether the films do look better than Criterion’s older DVDs, and the upgrade is noticeable, but these films are screaming for new restorations and I hope they can get a revisit of some sort in the future.
All three films present French monaural audio tracks in lossless 1.0 PCM. That Obscure Object of Desire also features an English dub presented in 1.0 Dolby Digital.
The French tracks are all fine, though nothing exceptional. Dialogue lacks much in the way of range through all three films, though more action-oriented scenes push things a wee bit. All of the tracks are clean, with no severe signs of damage.
The English dub on Obscure sounds really flat and tinny, and I assume it was included more as a curiosity.
All three films present a number of features, porting over most of the content from Criterion’s original DVDs while adding on some new material.
Disc one, which features The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, starts things off with the 99-minute Speaking of Buñuel, the 2000 documentary about the filmmaker directed by José Luis López-Linares and carried over from Criterion’s original DVD. The film gathers many that knew the director (from longtime friends to those that worked with him) along with academics to discuss the director’s life and work, from childhood to his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire. The format of the documentary is familiar, stepping through Buñuel’s life story step-by-step through interviews and archival footage (even archival interviews with the filmmaker himself), but it is nicely edited and moves at a good beat. It’s issue is that it does speed through everything, only focusing a small amount of time on a handful of films, Bourgeoisie only getting a brief mention (the short Simon of the Desert ends up receiving more time, though charmingly the documentary presents “new” interviews with the locals that appeared in that film).
The documentary is also available on other releases for Buñuel’s films (BFI’s L’age d’or has it) so chances are most Buñuel fans have seen it, but if one hasn’t by this point it’s still worth watching.
Also carried over from the DVD is the 24-minute documentary The Castaway of Providence Street, which has been made up of footage of Buñuel at his home in Mexico City filmed by Arturo Ripstein through the 60’s and 70’s, mixed in with discussions with those that knew him. It ends up being a profile of the man himself and his ability to mix martinis (though Buñuel does talk about his work to a certain degree) that, while entertaining to an extent, does feel a little shallow on the surface. It's worth watching just for the footage of the director. This is also a shorter edit (the same as how it was shown on the DVD) that drops footage from his films.
This edition also adds on a couple of new features. The best one is a 52-minute episode around the film from a program called Once Upon a Time, a program Criterion has used for other releases (most recently for La dolce vita in their Fellini set). While the episodes usually provide thorough details about the making of the film through new and archival interviews along with behind-the-scenes footage, their key draw is that they also place a film in the context of the time in which it was made. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, though still relevant today, is very much a product of its time and the documentary does pick out the various situations and characters found in the film, relating them to the political and social scene of the late 60’s/early 70’s, from the basis of the fictional Republic of Miranda to the terrorists and the significance of the central meal that never happens. The May 68 protests also play into things. I think anyone coming out of the film for the first time feeling a bit lost will more than benefit from this.
To accompany that Criterion also includes a 14-minute segment from a 1972 episode of the French television program Pour le cinema, which visits the set of Discreet Charm. Buñuel does appear (though agreed to appear as long as he didn’t have to talk on-camera) while the television crew also gets interviews with the key members of the cast, Fernando Rey getting a lot in. The disc then closes with the film’s theatrical trailer.
Disc two sports The Phantom of Liberty. Criterion’s original DVD for the film was an enormous disappointment, only containing one substantial supplement outside of the film’s trailer (also found here), which has been ported over: an interview with writer Jean-Claude Carriere that didn’t even run 5-minutes, with a minute of it devoted to clips from the film.
Taken from a longer interview (the bulk of which showed up on Criterion’s release for That Obscure Object of Desire) Carriere simply goes over the basic premise of the film and his (and Buñuel’s) favourite section: the “missing” girl. While an okay introduction the film itself really screamed for more and Criterion thankfully remedies this, to a degree anyway. The one notable academic inclusion is a 20-minute discussion with Peter William Evans, recorded in 2017, around the film, its structure, the influences for the various segments, and how the title of the film and “liberty” play into them. It will help newcomers to the film (especially newcomers to Buñuel) but it’s disappointingly dry. A visual essay would have probably been more desirable.
Criterion also digs up a couple of archival interviews: a 5-minute excerpt from the television program Pour le cinema featuring Michel Piccoli and Jean-Claude Brialy, and another 7-minute excerpt featuring just Brialy for the program Le dernier des cinq. For the first excerpt the two actors (filmed separately) talk about the script (Piccoli saying it read like it was written by a young man) and working with Buñuel, while the second has Brialy expand a bit on his character, working with Monica Vitti (much to his delight) and how the filmmaker pushed the two of them to play their sex-crazed characters straight. They’re both short but manage to offer some insight into Buñuel’s working method and his sense of humour.
To represent producer Serge Silberman (who produced the three films in the box set) Criterion then includes the 31-minute profile on the man, The Producers: Serge Silberman, made around the time he was working on Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. The profile looks at his early beginnings, which included working with Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Becker, before he was able to land Buñuel, whom he was thrilled to be working with (Silberman recalls thinking Buñuel would laugh at the idea of working with a “nobody” like him). It’s a great little profile that also includes a fascinating conversation between him and Carriere around how to properly distribute arthouse films, doing a slower rollout to build up the film’s reputation, a technique still done today.
The third and final disc presents That Obscure Object of Desire. Along with the film’s theatrical trailer, Criterion ports over the 19-minute interview featuring screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere from their previous DVD edition. Carriere talks extensively about how he and Buñuel worked together, which usually involved them living together for weeks or months. The writer then gets into how Buñuel came up with the idea of casting two actors in the same role, which was born out of frustration (Buñuel had initially cast Maria Schneider and he found it difficult to work with her).
Also included here are three scenes from Jacques de Baroncelli’s 1929 silent film, Le femme et le pantin, an adaptation of the same novel That Obscure Object of Desire is based on. The notes indicate that Buñuel had seen the film several times and based on the scenes here it’s easy to see that it did inspire him, at least in small ways. The scenes featured include: Conchita’s dance, the scene where Conchita humiliates Mateo/Mathieu, and the beating scene. Though Buñuel’s film takes each scene a little further (Buñuel's beating scene is far more graphic, nudity and sex are more explicit in the other two), you can see how elements from this film make their way into his. I would have loved to get the whole film, but I’m not sure how prohibitive that would have been. Unfortunately, the footage is ported directly from the DVD, and is presented in interlaced standard-definition. The notes, like with the DVD, provide the chapter index for the matching scene in the main feature.
Criterion also ports over a couple of features from the StudioCanal edition, including a 16-minute piece featuring director of photography Edmond Richard and assistant director Pierre Lary, called Portait of an Impatient Filmmaker. The two talk about making the film, offering further explanation around the dual-casting for the role of Conchita (that idea bringing his spirits up after fearing he’d have to abandon the film) before each getting into how Buñuel directed and what he would put all his focus into; it’s explained he hated being a “prisoner of technical issues.”
Much better is the 37-minute Lady Doubles, featuring interviews with the two Conchitas, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. Hearing the casting process is a bit amusing as it was not explained at first to either that there were two being cast for the same role, and Bouquet had actually tried out initially before the role went to Schneider, so her confusion was doubled since she thought the role had already be cast. The two actors talk about their performances as well as the other’s, Bouquet admitting to feeling more out of her element, which may have been enhanced because she felt Buñuel and Molina had more of a rapport, which Molina confirms. Scenes were also randomly assigned to each actress (it’s explained elsewhere that Buñuel was trying to avoid audiences assuming each actor represented a different side of the character) and Bouquet feels Molina may have been more suited for a few of the scenes she appeared in. It’s a really fascinating feature, the two explaining their approach to the role and how they worked with Buñuel, both of which differed greatly from the other. One of the best inclusions in the set as a whole. (Criterion’s notes indicate this feature was created in 2017, though it did appear in the 2012/2013 StudioCanal Blu-ray edition from StudioCanal).
Criterion then digs up a couple archival television segments. There is a 15-minute excerpt from a 1977 episode of Le monde du cinéma, featuring Carriere, actor Fernando Rey, and producer Serge Silberman talking about Buñuel and his latest film. There is also an extensive 31-minute episode made for a program called Allons au cinema, which gathers a number of people who had worked with the director—including Carriere, Rey, Muni, Julien Bertheau, Michel Picolli (coming in late), producer Claude Jaeger, and others—around a table sharing stories about the man and his work. I’m sure it was done more as a promotion for the release of the film but it’s a great reflection on Buñuel and I liked the loose nature of it.
Finally, the set includes a 56-page booklet first featuring two excellent essays by Adrian Martin, who covers both The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire, replacing, respectively, the essays written by Carlos Fuentes and William Rothman for Criterion’s DVD editions. The booklet carries over Gary Indiana’s essay from the DVD edition for The Phantom of Liberty. The booklet also reprints interviews the filmmaker participated in around each film, which were conducted by José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent. The interview portions also appeared in the booklets for the DVD editions of Phantom and Obscure Object.
Altogether Criterion’s set has compiled a solid set of material that anybody, whether already familiar with Buñuel’s work or coming to it for the first time, should be happy to go through.
It’s a handsomely put together set with some wonderful supplementary material, improving over Criterion’s skimpy DVD editions. Sadly, none of the films have received new scans or restorations, delivering, at best, average looking presentations.