Luis Buñuel's The Milky Way: Crucifiction
Ah, pilgrims, who move along thinkingWhen I think about the movies of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Mae West, or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, I often remember an episode with pleasure but can't reliably name which movie it appears in. This is probably because those movies were the product of the makers' long experience in composite-format variety-show theater. The same thing happens, however, when I think about Luis Buñuel's late trio of movies--The Milky Way (1969), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and The Phantom of Liberty (1974)--which are nothing if not unified by an artistic vision. The fragmentary effect in Buñuel thus feels deliberate in a way it doesn't with the Marx Brothers, et al. In these three string-of-joke movies by Buñuel the director refuses to commit to his plots, such as they are, because he knows how readily, and unthinkingly, we consent to the seductions of narrative. He wants these movies to fall apart on us, to evade packaging as entertainment "product." His attitude seems to be, If you insist Daddy tell you a story he's going to make it one you won't remember.
perhaps of things not present,
do you come from so far a place,
as your faces show,
that you do not weep when you pass
through the center of the grieving city,
like those people who seem not to understand
any part of its heavy sorrow?
--Dante, Vita nuova, ch. XL
In Belle de Jour (1967), his last picture before this trio, Buñuel focused on a central character developed in a dominant, integral story arc and played by a chic movie star (Catherine Deneuve, dressed by Yves Saint-Laurent). For Buñuel, however, the access to a wider audience these components permit isn't the road to freedom but to constraint, from which he seems immediately to have sought escape. (He worked with Deneuve again in Tristana (1970), a Franco-era deromanticization of the story of Tristan and Isolde, in which everybody gets what the movie's seducer-cuckold and feudal-socialist gasbag of a King Mark figure deserves. For this reunion Buñuel dyed Deneuve's signature blonde hair auburn, dubbed her voice into Spanish, and amputated her character's leg.) Thus, to a startlingly new degree in The Milky Way, Buñuel's ironic approach to subject matter merges with an ironic approach to form as a way of challenging our taste for the usual gratifications of storytelling.
The Milky Way is the transition between the tight anecdotal narratives of The Exterminating Angel (1962), Simon of the Desert (1965), and Belle de Jour and the atomized vaudeville of The Phantom of Liberty. The movie does have a venerable structure--Buñuel follows two contemporary pilgrims on the medieval route down through southern France and across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James the Apostle were thought to be interred. (Click here for information about the historical pilgrimage; here for information about the pilgrimage route today.) In chivalric romance the itinerant hero represents the soul on its spiritual journey through life; in the romance of pilgrimage, as in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the hero even more radically epitomizes the soul on its quest for salvation. Buñuel's two pilgrims, an older man (Paul Frankeur) and a younger (Laurent Terzieff), however, are decidedly not the pious seekers of romance and not only seem unengaged in the spiritual meaning of their journey but incapable of learning from what they witness. Thumbing rides down the busy highway, they're quite ordinary sinners--they take the Lord's name in vain, steal a ham when they're hungry, curse a driver who passes them by (with surprisingly immediate results), run into the woods with a roadside hooker. (They make pilgrimage indistinguishable from vagabondage.) They're still the allegorical protagonists of romance but now they represent modern western man, surrounded by the trappings of Christian culture but not meaningfully devoted to it.
The Milky Way sticks to its central subject matter but is loosely associational, picaresque. Buñuel and his co-scenarist Jean-Claude Carrière have these sub-par pilgrims encounter supernatural figures of good and evil as well as an assortment of relatively realistic characters who discuss Christian doctrine (which, as in The Canterbury Tales, they fall short of). They sit down at a grade school pageant featuring well-trained little girls pronouncing anathemas against doubters and deviators, they hear a radio broadcast straight from hell, and into every situation are interwoven parables and fantasies and miracles and time-bending historical snippets.
The coherence of the pilgrimage romance in The Milky Way is thus constantly threatened, and not just structurally by the digressive episodes but internally by the explicit and implicit challenges to orthodox Catholicism that we hear and see as well. The pilgrims reach Santiago but it's not the culmination you might hope for because along the way Buñuel and Carrière have thrown in the central puzzlements and contradictions of the gospel stories and the articles of the faith (e.g., immaculate conception, original sin, the Christ who brings peace and the Christ who brings the sword, consubstantiation and transubstantiation, the nature of the Trinity, God's omniscience and man's free will) as well as the inconvenient fact of various heresies and the church's history of ruthlessly punishing heterodoxy. (The end title tells us that all borrowings from the scriptures and from ancient and modern theological works and church history are scrupulously accurate.) In other words, Buñuel won't let you join this ecclesiastical cruise without taking on board the religion's entire capsizing load of historical and doctrinal baggage. The Milky Way doesn't push these difficulties at us as unanswerable "retorts" to faith, but neither does it suggest satisfactory resolutions. The effect, rather, is to present the pilgrimage romance without the usual enclosing bubble, which is the assumption that the author and his audience share the spiritual conviction that the narrative dramatizes.
Spiritual conviction hardly seems possible when you're confronted with such material in such an offhanded way. But it would be simplistic to call The Milky Way anti-clerical and be done with it. Buñuel seems interested, rather, in fissuring easy belief, comfort, reliance; he engages us with the familiar pilgrimage structure and then disorients us by cutting into it and under it. A satiric attack on the religion, by contrast, would itself represent an "easy" response.
The movie is seen so rarely that it's worth giving an extended example. In the most kaleidoscopic episode the pilgrims ride the rails into Tours, look at the west front of the cathedral, cadge some money from a woman pushing a baby carriage and her mother, and then go up to a posh restaurant to beg for food. Inside, M. Richard (Julien Bertheau), the maître d', fixes his black tie and jacket in a mirror and then continues conducting what seems to be a theological seminar with his staff while they prepare to open the restaurant. M. Richard tells his waiters that everyone should believe in God--atheists are either insane, or else not really atheists. He supports his point with a classic form of circular reasoning, by citing Psalms 14:1, "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God," to which one of the staff says, with something less than total conviction but with an evident desire to agree with his supervisor, "Yes, that's very convincing."
With no segue Buñuel then cuts to a vignette of the Marquis de Sade (Michel Piccoli) lecturing a girl he has shackled by the ankle, and who is bleeding from the ear, that the God she clings to doesn't exist, that no religion bears the marks of fraud and stupidity more than the Christianity they were both raised in, and that it's no crime for him to act on the desires nature has inspired in him. The movie then cuts back to M. Richard repeating that only depraved people deny the existence of God and they do so only to indulge their passions (which is just what we've seen though M. Richard didn't mention Sade).
The staff then bring up various sticking points--how could Christ be a man and God at the same time; if Jesus was God how could he be born and die; whether Jesus ate, suffered, and died like other men, or coughed and laughed. M. Richard parries these innocent questions, mentioning without sharpness that they were also discussed by such heretics as Marcion and the Monophysites--and Nestorius, too, as a waiter chimes in. (Between times, M. Richard oversees the preparations, sending a maid to the cloakroom, telling a waiter to remove an overripe pear from a fruit basket.)
In the most interesting objection, one waiter says that Jesus is always represented as being so dignified and solemn, walking slowly with his hands raised in a hieratic gesture (which he demonstrates), but that, as a man, he must have walked like everybody else. Buñuel then cuts to a Biblical scene in which Jesus runs up to his Apostles and, breathing heavily from the exertion, pats his hair down before beginning to speak. In the contemporary scene the waiter pushes his point, which M. Richard pauses to consider; Buñuel then cuts to a banquet where Jesus, seated at the center of the table, engages in small talk at which his neighbor laugh uproariously. The banquet guests urge Jesus to say a few words, he declines, they press him, he declines, then accepts, and launches into the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-8), as if it were an especially choice yarn. (Later he pauses just before the dramatic highpoint, working the crowd like a roastmaster.) At the end of the parable, though we may be mystified, the crowd cheers, rapping their wooden cups on the table. The movie then slides into the miracle of the Wedding at Cana when Jesus turned water into wine (John 2:1-11).
Buñuel cuts back to the restaurant, where an elegant couple arrive and overhear M. Richard telling the staff about the conflict that arose in the 4th century after the First Council of Nicaea. M. Richard seats the couple and hands them menus, and when they ask what the staff was talking about he demurs, "Nothing. This and that." When they persist he says, the dual nature of Christ, and that they were wondering why, among all the other healers and prophets of the time, Christ was the only one who "succeeded," to which the woman blandly replies, "Because he was the only one who was God." M. Richard, who, in addition to knowing the detailed history of the Church knows that the customer is always right, says, "Of course," and then recommends the oysters to start. At this point the devout M. Richard notices the pilgrims at the door. He goes over and tells them to beat it; the younger pilgrim spits on the outdoor menu and the two holy tourists walk off.
This sequences involves many of the key elements of the movie. First of all, nearly 70 years old and entering his fifth decade of moviemaking, Buñuel has reached a degree of mastery that enables him to get a surrealistic effect without shocks or distortion or emphasis. The maître d' and his staff not only engage in extended theological discussions, which is odd enough, but have immense amounts of knowledge at hand, which, absent a special explanation, is improbable on its face. The affectless way Buñuel interlaces these discussions with business operations speaks for itself: we've entered another world that illuminates ours by combinations that would never occur in it. (In my experience, the matter-of-fact handling of these incongruities has more of the quality of dreams than does the literal dream sequence in Buñuel's Los Olvidados (1950), with its predictable Freudian imagery, its coordination with the allegorical plot, the slow motion film speed, and the leering of the actors.)
The restaurant sequence also features two kinds of connections between the current action and the cutaways: the kind that is justified in the contemporary story (when M. Richard considers what the waiter has said about Jesus's being like other men and the movie cuts to a New Testament episode) and the kind that isn't (the cross-reference jump to the Marquis de Sade). What's notable is that Buñuel doesn't distinguish between them and looking back it appears that it doesn't make much difference whether the story calls for the digression or not. Buñuel respects the story in some technical way and at the same time tickles us with a productive disregard for it. (The looseness of the connections, along with all the specifics packed into the dialogue, also help explain why the movie doesn't hold its shape in memory.)
Furthermore, the Gospel flashbacks tell you that Buñuel's focus is not just on the substance of Christian theology but on its representation in art as well. That's what the waiter is talking about, after all: "They always show Him to be so dignified and solemn...." In these New Testament sorties Buñuel takes a stab at what the waiter is suggesting, a movie Jesus who moves and talks in a way we recognize as "realistic." At the same time, such a literally rendered Jesus verges inevitably on camp.
Buñuel and Carrière's approach is a sardonic cousin to Nikos Kazantzakis's in The Last Temptation of Christ, in which the author translates the passion story from ancient gospel narrative to modern novelistic realism without disturbing the central meaning. Kazantzakis writes from faith but approaches the story as a problem of narrative aesthetics; with his charismatic-Rotarian Jesus, Buñuel uses the problems of narrative aesthetics to dislodge our complacency about the faith. That is, in The Milky Way he attacks by straight-faced parody the sentimental representations by which we like to think we can incorporate ancient myth and ritual and law into our lives. (These sequences devastate in advance all of Jesus Christ Superstar and the kitsch backstory scenes of The Passion of the Christ, when Jesus invents a tall dining table and shows it to his amazed mother.)
Finally, in the restaurant sequence Buñuel also makes clear that these believers consider deference based on social class and workplace hierarchy to be entirely compatible with Christianity. And when M. Richard, the catechist of the wait staff, chases the pilgrims away from the restaurant, this depiction of hypocrisy serves as the punch line to the whole sequence. But what we've seen of the movie's Marquis de Sade, using his philosophical beliefs to justify raping and torturing a young girl, prevent us from nestling too cosily in a rejection of religion. Maybe "Christianity" or "God" aren't the words you'd associate with your feeling of revulsion, but they're related somehow to that natural feeling. In any case, despite the kicker of an ending, what we see of the Marquis de Sade prevents the sequence from becoming pat--Buñuel isn't simply replacing one dogma with another.
In his handling of the pilgrimage romance, it's as if Buñuel had borrowed "our" favorite sweater and returned to us a tangled mass of yarn that could not be knit back up into the whole garment it had been before. We'd have to admit it was the same material in another form (he would say its true, underlying form), it simply would no longer be fit for the purpose we'd used it for. But faith can withstand contradictions and contempt, and Buñuel shows a light comic touch that suggests an old man's acceptance of the futility of a long life of fiercer attacks. I doubt such an unrelenting challenge to the Christian faith, in both its substance and its expression, has ever been made in a more easygoing fashion.
Buñuel seems able to enjoy his blasphemy as never before and to have let go of the results. He can't stop people from clinging to the religion, he simply refuses to say it makes any sense. In Tristana the pontifical fool Don Lope Fernando Rey espouses free love to avoid marrying his mistress but when he finds she's taken a lover he challenges him to a duel. (He formally slaps the lover in the face with his glove; the strapping young artist simply knocks him on his ass.) Don Lope may represent what Buñuel hoped to avoid becoming at this stage of his life--a fount of unsolicited opinions, an ineffectual old man whom people tolerate. And given that the pilgrims in The Milky Way embody the fallible human soul on its journey in this chaotic life, you could argue that a theology riddled with contradictions that have been addressed with bloody grimness by a heretic-scourging prelacy and with superficial cleverness and sentimentality by naïve adherents both in and out of the clergy is perfect in both substance and form.
Maybe I'm giving Buñuel more credit than he deserves, or wanted, for avoiding complacent satire of Christian traditions and institutions. On the other hand, maybe he made a more searching movie than he intended to. He certainly was at times capable of crude ideological commitment, in The Brute (1953), for instance, in which the dried-up, inhuman landlord is destroyed by the mindless, brutal enforcer he sics on the poor folk who refuse to vacate his slum tenement. The Brute represents the landlord's soul and at the same time his inevitable doom--pious socialist melodrama doesn't get much coarser than this. (This symbolic collectivist puppet show is on a par with Gillo Pontecorvo's Wide Blue Road (1957), in which the allegory tells us that the fisherman who looks out for number one, rather than working with the local cooperative to defeat the monopolist wholesaler, is playing with dynamite.) The Brute is far from the top of Buñuel's résumé, but though less sophisticated it's not incompatible with Los Olvidados, that liberal allegory of the impressionable, sensitive boy torn between the example of an honest, hard-working striver and the influence of a criminal bully and braggart, and how poverty tips the scales against him, or The Exterminating Angel, with its relentless images of upper-class spiritual indolence.
The Milky Way is a work of a fully-achieved maturity, conceived and pulled off with the self-assurance of a man who has so many perverse, needling ideas he doesn't have to worry about scoring hits with every one of them. To many tastes the movie may lack something as entertainment. For all the prankishness it doesn't have the breathlessness, the frenzy of comic ideas of the movies of the Marx Brothers, for instance, those absurdists trained to evaluate their material by the laughter it got from live audiences. No career comedian was ever more nonchalant than Buñuel and this coolness makes it a mistake to judge a movie like The Milky Way by how hard it makes you laugh while watching it. That's not nothing as a criterion, but neither is it everything.
In The Seventh Seal (1957), Ingmar Bergman similarly invokes medieval romance to dramatize modern man's quest for spiritual meaning. But Bergman balances the movie between Max von Sydow as the knight, a driven seeker of truth, and Gunnar Björnstrand as his squire, an atheist whom all the evidence of experience deepens in his disgusted conviction, and then resolves it in favor of the young family who take simple pleasure in life and who, by chance, escape the consequences of the knight's losing the chess game to Death. In The Milky Way Buñuel avoids both Bergman's stormy darkness and the compensatory radiance that follows it; his all-clown parade doesn't have the pressurized atmosphere by which Bergman conveys his intensity to us. For Buñuel in The Milky Way just hinting at what he means, in a way that doesn't disrupt the festivity of watching a comedy, is enough. He's too relaxed a host to want to impose his convictions on us, and too experienced an artist to think it would have the desired effect.
You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.