One of cinema’s great subversives, Luis Buñuel spent nearly half a century taking aim at a number of humankind’s most cherished orthodoxies. Now on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck, we’re presenting editions of four of his late-career French films, which plunge into the surreal and satirical. A ribald deconstruction of contemporary and traditional views on Catholicism, 1969’s The Milky Way inaugurated what Buñuel saw as a trilogy about “the search for truth.” That cycle’s next two films, the masterpieces The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty, take place at high-society gatherings disrupted by occurrences, revealing the hypocrisy of conventional morality and the arbitrariness of social arrangements. Buñuel’s final film, 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire, is a dizzying game of sexual politics that brings full circle the director’s lifelong preoccupation with the darker side of desire. Supplements in this program include a documentary about Buñuel’s life and work, and a video with Jean-Claude Carrière.
Also up this week: two variations on a twisted fairy tale, one of Oscar nominee Greta Gerwig’s most enchanting on-screen performances, a pioneering music documentary, and a classic Hollywood prison drama paired with an idiosyncratic take on the genre.
A classic fairy tale, read two ways. With his colorful claymation short Bluebeard (1938), Jean Painlevé departed from the nature filmmaking that was his specialty, giving a playful charge to the dark story of a young wife and her murderous new husband. For her 2009 adaptation of Charles Perrault’s classic fable, French director Catherine Breillat keyed into the material’s more provocative elements, using the fable to explore her perennial themes of sex, power, and sisterhood.
A leading contender for this year’s best director Oscar, Greta Gerwig delivered one of her most enchanting performances as Frances, a woman in her late twenties in contemporary New York trying to sort out her ambitions, her finances, and, above all, her intimate but shifting bond with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Meticulously directed by Noah Baumbach with a free-and-easy vibe reminiscent of the French New Wave’s most spirited films, and written by Baumbach and Gerwig with an effortless combination of sweetness and wit, Frances Ha gets at both the frustrations and the joys of being young and unsure of where to go next. This wry and sparkling city romance is a testament to the ongoing vitality of independent American cinema. SUPPLEMENTAL FEATURES: a conversation between filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and Baumbach; a conversation between actor and filmmaker Sarah Polley and the film’s cowriter and star, Greta Gerwig; and more.
Before Woodstock and Monterey Pop, there was Festival. From 1963 through 1966, Murray Lerner visited the annual Newport Folk Festival to document a thriving, idealistic musical movement as it reached its peak as a popular phenomenon. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, the Staple Singers, Pete Seeger, Son House, and Peter, Paul and Mary were just a few of the legends who shared the stage at Newport, treating audiences to a range of folk music that encompassed the genre's roots in blues, country, and gospel as well as its newer flirtations with rock and roll. Shooting in gorgeous black and white, Lerner juxtaposes performances with snapshot interviews with artists and their fans, weaving footage from four years of the festival into an intimate record of a pivotal time in music-and in American culture at large. SUPPLEMENTAL FEATURES: a documentary about the making of the film; a selection of unreleased performances by Clarence Ashley, Johnny Cash, Elizabeth Cotten, John Lee Hooker, Odetta, and Tom Paxton; and more.
Get a glimpse of life behind bars in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 drama Birdman of Alcatraz and Jim Jarmusch’s 1986 misfit “neo-Beat noir comedy” Down by Law. Featuring a powerful performance by Burt Lancaster, Frankenheimer’s film is one of the blueprints of the prison movie, telling the story of a convicted murderer who, after developing an affinity for birds while in prison, goes on to become a distinguished ornithologist. Jarmusch’s sophomore feature turns that blueprint on its head, bringing together Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni for an idiosyncratic tale about a Louisiana prison break that leads to a dreamlike adventure.