A Woman Without Love / The Milky Way
1952 / 1969Director: Luis Buñuel
Cast: Rosario Granados, Julio Villarreal / Michel Piccoli, Delphine Seyrig
B / B+
uis Buñuel could be one of a very few directors who never made a bad film, but whatever his great ones are (excusing his great masterpiece, Viridiana), they’re mostly awaiting DVD release. Los Olvidados, olvidado, is as excellent as it is currently caught in a rights dispute (which is to say, it is excellent). A short stroke of brilliance, Simon of the Desert is stranded on VHS, while other acclaimed works like Nazarín and The Exterminating Angel are nowhere to be found digitally on Region 1 in the United States. And yet this month marks the release of four obscure Buñuels: Gran Casino and The Young One (both unseen by me) on Lionsgate, while Facets opens a DVD series of Buñuel’s Mexican films with A Woman Without Love, and Criterion wipes its hands of Buñuel’s late and loose French trilogy by releasing the first film in the series, The Milky Way.
Buñuel’s great skill was always for showing how absurdities, impracticalities, and paradoxes can be co-opted by institutions and casually accepted by those who follow them, but that vague theme is about as much as A Woman Without Love and The Milky Way have in common. Made in the depths of Buñuel’s Mexican period, which found the great surrealist directing routine melodramas (and a classic, here and there), A Woman Without Love is 19th-century imitation pulp, one of those stories about the social affairs of the upper class that’s clearly marketed toward the less refined (not a bad thing at all).
Buñuel supposedly called it “quite simply the worst movie I ever made,” and although it does compare with his other films from the era like El Bruto and Wuthering Heights, we who eagerly await more Buñuel on DVD can only hope he’s right. A wife falls in love with another man, but breaks up with him to take care of her son, and years later a second son, evidently born soon after this prologue, inherits all the man’s money. Soon thereafter, the younger brother has captured his elder brother’s girlfriend and medical practice, though he is, to his credit, clueless about anything that’s going on, even while the rest of the town figures out why he alone inherited this man’s money.
Actually, it’s a wonderful plot, full of doublings and reversals, in which everyone on every side has, by the end of the film, committed unsalvageable social transgressions, though it is society itself that has left everyone—absolutely everyone—feeling guilty, jealous, and betrayed. The movie, however, isn’t much more than a serviceable enactment of this sardonic premise, while character development is limited to these cardboard cutouts giving bulletins on their current emotional states. Despite a few clever camera moves, Buñuel’s direction is similarly unvarnished, the deadpan grace of his late films already evident here, but without any particularly outrageous content to match it against.
That match comes later, in films like The Milky Way. Deliberately little more than an illustrated trip through the Catholic heresies, the film follows two pairs of self-proclaimed scholars (really, nothing more than a ragtag bunch of peasants) from modern and medieval ages as they wander around the landscape debating religion, and occasionally encountering people, their stories, and hallucinatory events in need of rationalizing. Inevitably the digressive structure recalls Don Quixote, but where the book is concerned with the foibles of fantasy, the movie is concerned with the foibles of logic and sense. The Church’s doctrines receive explanations like, “I say that the body of Christ is contained in the bread like this hare is contained in this pâté,” the pope is lined up and shot by a firing squad, a mystical figure favors a man because he has a beard, and Christ himself, spitting in men’s faces, makes a cameo appearance. Marriage, meanwhile, is indicated to be nothing more than an excuse not to feel guilty about sex.
It’s all nonsense, if not exactly Lewis Carroll worthy only because it mostly thrives off a simple (and mostly superficial) series of systematic reversals (of our expectations) common to the other films in the trilogy, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty. Of course, it’s endlessly amusing, even if it doesn’t question the absurdity of applied theology so much as point it out—as well as point out its own folly in attempting to offer any interpretation on religion at all. Endlessly clever, the movie hits extremely intelligent snark when two men fight a dual over free will and determinism, exchanging blows and philosophical quips at once. It’s a mark of Buñuel’s overall skepticism, generosity, and lack of original opinion or point of view that everything gets skewered: the dual looks stupid, the discussion looks stupid, and religious wars in general begin to look, as is their wont, petty and stupid. Needless to say, like most movies about stupid people, The Milky Way is a comedy, if an extremely dry and smart one. Like A Woman Without Love, it’s well worth anyone’s time—once.
A Woman Without Love and The Milky Way are now available on DVD.
By: David Pratt-Robson
Published on: 2007-08-28