Ah, pilgrims, who move along thinking
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
When 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.
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.