Luis Buñuel Box Set Review

“Bourgeois morality is for me immoral and to be fought. The morality founded on our most unjust social institutions, like religion, patriotism, the family, culture: briefly, what are called ‘the pillars of society’.”

Thus Luis Buñuel concisely summarises the overriding theme that would dominate the thirty-two films he would make over his fifty-year career. Working with Salvador Dali, Buñuel would make two of the most important films in the early years of cinema – Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930), surrealist experiments through which Buñuel sought to expose the hypocrisy and absurdity of what is accepted as the prevailing order.

Buñuel left Spain during the Civil War for the United States, where he worked within the film industry on documentaries, but it wasn’t until he moved to Mexico that he returned to filmmaking after a 15 year hiatus. Developing his ideas and themes Buñuel made some exceptional films during this period including Los Olvidados (1950) and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955). The director returned to Europe in 1955 where, after the success and controversy of Viridiana (1961), he would go on to create many of his greatest films, three of which are included in this Warner Bros boxset.

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)
Celestine (Jeanne Moreau) travels from Paris to a country mansion be the maid for M and Mme Monteil (Michel Piccoli and Françoise Lagagne) and servant for Mme Monteil’s father M. Rabour. She quietly brushes off the petty barbs of Mme Monteil and the servants about her Parisian dress-style, resists the flirtations of the M Monteil, who has a reputation with the maids, and even submits to the eccentric demands of M Rabour. After the horrific death of a young girl however, she plans to leave and exert some influence on the subsequent playing-out of events.

Apparently a typically Buñuel satire of the bourgeoisie, depicting life as seen from the point of view of the servants, the provincial middle-class are depicted as a neurotic lot – petty, sexually dysfunctional and barbaric in their love of hunting. However, the film – a remake of Jean Renoir’s 1946 film, and by most accounts better than the original – is wider in its targets, showing the narrow-mindedness of the peasant population, their fostering of racist and anti-Semitic sentiments and a self-loathing among the servants that is every bit as pronounced as that of their masters. The film however says more about the director than it does about French society, taking in obsessions and themes that he had examined much better in earlier films such as Viridiana (a young maid, bourgeois family, grotesque servant-life, religious satire) and Archibald Cruz (sexual dysfunction and leg fetishism). There are some great moments in the film, and a great performance from Michel Piccoli but frustratingly it is hampered by some directorial excesses. The script is razor sharp and incisive, able to depict the deepness of the hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness into a single exchange between characters, but on the other hand the criticism of the clergy is rather heavy-handed and forced, as is some appallingly obvious symbolism showing a boar chasing a rabbit in the woods.

The picture quality on Diary of a Chambermaid is almost great. Transferred anamorphically at about 2.29:1, the black and white tones are clear, blacks are strong and detailed and the image is reasonably sharp. Moreover, I didn’t see a single mark on the print. The only problem here is some very minor artefacting, causing the odd, rare shimmer in narrow, parallel vertical or horizontal lines and some blurring of movement. Occasionally the macro compression produces a faint flicker in the image. Edges look overly sharp, but there is no sign of any edge-enhancement haloes. The audio track is a little dull on this film, with a little bit of noise around the edges, but it is certainly adequate. All films in the set have fixed English subtitles, which is a pity, but they are a good-sized font and clearly readable. No extra features on this DVD – scene selection is the only selectable feature on each of the DVDs.
Film 7/10, DVD 8/10.

Belle de Jour (1967)

A repressed and unfulfilled newlywed young woman Severine (Catherine Deneuve) fantasises situations of masochism and humiliation, but is sexually remote from her doctor husband (Jean Sorel). When she finds out from the scandalous M Husson (Michel Piccoli) that an acquaintance housewife of theirs works part-time in a brothel, Severine’s imagination is fired by the sexual exoticism of this, on the surface, demure and respectable lady. She herself begins to lead a double-life. Working at Madame Anaïs’ house during the day while her husband is at work, she becomes known as Belle de Jour (“The Daytime Beauty”), and is introduced to a selection of diverse high-class clients with peculiar, individual demands.

There is barely any nudity in the film, but it does retain a certain frisson of eroticism. Deneuve characteristically plays the ice-queen to perfection, but her performance shows greater depth, showing real softness and warmth as her mind is opened to her deepest desires. This is however, no textbook dissection of female sexuality by any means, rather a typically sly, humorous satire of middle-class mores and behaviour and the artifice that supports them, elegantly played and rich in wit and humour. The ending also has a typically Buñuel twist, which is baffling for some, but to me it just underlines the absurdity of the lives of the characters.

Transferred anamorphically at 1.66:1, Belle de Jour also has a beautifully clear transfer and lovely, slightly muted Eastmancolor tones, giving a pastel effect with vivid reds. Compression artefacts are again visible, at times looking a little smeary and soft-looking around edges, but this is rarely noticeable during normal playback and only occasionally during camera movements. Generally, the image is pleasantly soft, clear and free from any marks or damage. Not striking, but a reasonably good transfer. Audio is reasonably clear and free from noise. English subtitles are fixed and there are no extra features, so this is a pretty basic, but good quality barebones release.
Film 9/10, DVD 8/10.

The Milky Way (1969)
Two pilgrims journey through France on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Along the way they encounter strange figures from different ages and time periods, are witness to miracles, visions, revelations and discussions of religious mysticism. They meet a stigmatic child, a lunatic priest, theologian waiters, heretics, fanatics and blasphemers – all of who have words of heavenly wisdom to dispense, but little in the way of earthly charity.

The Milky Way (La Voie Lactée), in no uncertain terms, sets about debunking what it sees as the hypocrisy, pomposity and authoritarianism of organised religion – more specifically, the Catholic church. For anyone not familiar with Buñuel’s trips into absurdity and surrealism or interested in the subject of Catholic dogma, the journey can be a bit heavy going, such as the scene where a Jansenist and a Jesuit duel over a theological schism: “Grace does not always obtain its object” one spars, “The will is submitted to preponderant delectation” the other parries. Of course, the ridiculousness of the pronouncements and the situation is intended, but numerous repetitions of the same sort of satire can be a bit tiresome. Although it can be a bit tedious because of the nature of the subject it is lampooning, the film never misses its target, is rich in symbolism and meaning, is never less than thought-provoking and is often simply hilariously funny.

The Milky Way DVD has a beautifully clean print, strong, vivid colours, deep blacks and a clear, sharp image. The quality would be almost perfect but is slightly marred by the artefact-ridden transfer, showing rather blocky grain and blurring slightly whenever there is movement on the screen – exactly like the transfer of Belle de Jour. The audio track is quite clear and English subtitles are fixed, but clearly readable. There are no extra features on the disc. A dual-layer DVD9 with a higher bit-rate would have no doubt improved this transfer and the quality of the other releases in the set, but it’s more than adequate as it is.
Film 8/10, DVD 8/10.

Warner’s Luis Buñuel boxset contains three fabulous films from a key period of a great director. Possibly only Belle de Jour can be considered alongside the director’s true masterpieces, but the other films included here are also essential viewing and contribute much to the complete Buñuel oeuvre. The DVDs for each film, only available at present in this collection, are completely barebones and basic, which is a pity as these films could benefit from some supplemental material. While the transfers could no doubt be improved on, the source material is in immaculate condition, making this a very welcome release and an enjoyable viewing experience.

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