Léonor (1975) unites some of the biggest names in mid-twentieth century European cinema. Michel Piccoli plays Lord Richard, Liv Ullmann plays his late wife Léonor, Ornella Muti plays Richard’s second wife, with whom he has two sons, Catherine and Ennio Morricone provides the haunting score that punctuates the supernatural and paranoid elements of the narrative. Though not as well known as his collaborators or his father, writer and director Juan Luis Buñuel does a good job keeping the tension high throughout the film.
Léonor plays out like some half remembered medieval legend. Everything is performed, blocked and photographed with a sort of matter of fact dourness that contrasts the fantastic elements of Satanism and vampirism. In my mind this places Léonor in the same tradition as Borowczyk’s Blanche (1971) and Polanski’s Macbeth (1971). Each of these films has its ties to the supernatural yet consistently grounds the characters in savagely visceral and earthy environments. This suggests that fear and faith, superstition, are what elevates one beyond the limitations of human mortality. Léonor, with its resurrection narrative, does this particularly well.
Beyond the significance of location (both time and place), Léonor is a meditation of grief. The catalyst is, after all, Léonor’s premature death after a riding accident. No sooner is she entombed Lord Richard has taken Catherine as his bride to be. However his continued obsession with Léonor poisons the marriage for several years before Richard revives his late wife as a kind of vampire. Not surprisingly in the background of all of this Juan Luis Buñuel introduces a subplot about the coming Black Death. Both plots run parallel until they suddenly intersect during the climax of the film. In this way the grief of the King or Lord gives way to the sickening of the land and its people, a motif common in Arthurian legends and other medieval era folktales.
Juan Luis Buñuel’s Léonor is better than its reputation. I’m unsure as to why critics at the time of its release were so hard on the film. Most likely it’s due to the differences between the American release cut of the film and the international version which is eleven minutes longer. Regardless Léonor is a hidden little gem of a film well worth checking out.