Color, 1975, 98 mins. 39 secs. / 84 mins. 30 secs.
Directed by Juan Luis Buñuel
Starring Michel Piccoli, Liv Ullmann, Ornella Muti, Antonio Fernandis, José María Prada, Ángel del Pozo, George Rigaud
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.78:1 / 1.66:1) (16:9)
Despite being the son of the legendary director Luis Buñuel, his son, Juan Luis, never had a breakthrough success in the United States. That may be because his films tread a very thin line between art house and exploitation in a subdued way that made them very difficult to market, but he still managed to pull off a fantastic triple punch with his first three films starting with the vastly underrated supernatural tale, Expulsion of the Devil (a.k.a. Au rendez-vous de la mort joyeuse), and continuing with the quirky Catherine Deneuve fantasy, The Lady with Red Boots. The cycle concluded with his most ambitious bid for international recognition, the medieval art-horror gem Leonor, featuring a stunning roster of heavy hitters in front of and behind the camera. Once again its refusal to be easily classified proved to be the film's financial undoing, with U.S. distributor New Line lopping 14 minutes off the running time to speed up the pace and christening its dubbed version as Mistress of the Devil, complete with a misleading poster.
After her ribcage is smashed during a horse-riding accident, Leonor (Ullmann) lies dying in bed at her castle while her husband, noble lord Richard (Piccoli), tears through an ambush of bandits to get to her bedside. He finally arrives just in time to see her at the hands of a physician who unsuccessfully tries to aid her with some old-fashioned bloodletting. After his wife's death, Richard tries to numb his grief by marrying the extremely young Catherine (Muti) but still fails to find any happiness, even making an attempted deal with the devil to bring back his wife who now lies rotting inside a walled-up tomb. Ten years later, Richard is more despondent than ever and pines for his lost Leonor, even going so far as to tear into her crypt. A chance encounter with a satanic beggar gives him another chance for a deal that results in Leonor's unexpected return. However, she's just a bit different now... and when some local children start disappearing, it becomes clear that both of them have crossed a dark threshold from which they might never return.
A truly sumptuous and haunting film, Leonor is definitely not for all tastes but comes highly recommended for those who like their horror on the suggestive side. It isn't even clear that this is a genre film at all for the first 45 minutes or so, but once the story start to plumb the macabre depths of its central concept, the rewards are plentiful with both leads handling their performances exceptionally well. It's a little disorienting to see the normally urbane and very modern Piccoli running around with a sword and crossbow in such an antiquated setting, but he turns out to be the perfect choice with his natural affinity for sadness and middle-aged ennui clicking perfectly with the character. On top of that the film features one of Ennio Morricone's most beautiful scores, a progression from the melodies and arrangements he had already explored to tremendous effect in his earlier masterpiece, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. Then there's the striking cinematography by the great Luciano Tovoli, who would go on to shoot Suspiria and Tenebrae (and shot The Passenger the same year as this one), and some notable writers credited for adapting the Ludwig Tieck source novel including Bernardino Zapponi (Deep Red) and French New Wave legend Jean-Claude Carrière. The comparisons to the elder Buñuel may be inevitable given the helmer, but the experience is actually far closer to Roger Vadim with several sequences echoing Blood and Roses and his "Metzengerstein" segment from Spirits of the Dead more than anything else. So why did it fall between the cracks so quickly? Who knows, but like its title character, the declarations of its death may have been premature.
Despite its failure to set the box office on fire, Leonor was one of the earliest films released on VHS by Magnetic Video in its shortened U.S. version. After that it was usually spoken of far more often than actually seen, bypassing the main DVD era entirely apart from a so-so German release. In 2018, Scorpion Releasing revived the film on Blu-ray with a bona fide special edition that presents the feature in both its truncated U.S. cut (English dub only ) and the longer Spanish version, either in English or in Spanish with properly translated English subtitles (all DTS-HD MA mono). Since this is such an international production you'll have to put up with dubbing no matter how you see it, but the Spanish one is a more elegant and generally preferable. There are some interesting differences between the two transfers, with the U.S. cut more spaciously framed at 1.66:1 and the longer one a bit tighter at 1.78:1, the latter looking a tad warmer and sometimes darker as well. Both are perfectly pleasant watches and vastly superior to what we've had before, but it's curious to see a marked presentation contrast between them. For the record, the shorter cut basically trims down the opening third or so of the film so Ullmann gets back into the story a lot faster. The longer cut can also be played with a new audio commentary by Troy Howarth, who tackles the film from a European horror angle and makes a case for it as a significant and rewarding work featuring all of its participants at the top of their game. His admiration for the film is quite heartfelt and infectious at times, and not surprisingly he's quite infatuated with Muti, too. Incredibly random bonus trailers are included for Conduct Unbecoming, Caravan to Vaccares, Barbarosa, and The Salamander.
Reviewed on September 4, 2018