The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Just Waking Up


“To compare me with Goya is a nonsense. Critics speak of Goya because they don’t know anything about Quevedo, Theresa of Avila, the picaresque literature, Galdòs, Valle Inclàn and others. … Today’s culture is unfortunately inseparable from economic and military power. A ruling Nation can impose its culture and give a worldwide fame to a second-rate writer like Hemingway. Steinbeck is important due to American guns. Had Dos Passos and Faulkner been born in Paraguay or in Turkey, who’d read them?”  “Sex without religion is like cooking an egg without salt. Sin gives more chances to desire.”                                                                                    

 -Luis Buñuel 


Whenever I watch “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” I get this weird smile on my face. Not out of bemusement, really. Not out of joy or happiness. It’s more out of a confused satisfaction. I’m not directly sure what happened in front of me, but I know it was satisfying. I can intellectualize what I saw (and intellectualizing a pseudo-surrealist political satire is a necessary second to a viewing), but the immediate emotional reaction is just a… um… a kind of… bewildered smirk. A bewildered smirk that comes from deep within me.

            The genius of Luis Buñuel’s 1972 film is how it manages to be three distinct things, and yet form into a homogenous and satisfying whole. At once we get the following:

            1) A political satire.

            This was a time when the
U.S. was fighting in
Vietnam, and social upheaval was lumbering about many areas of the world like a large slow-moving dog under a blanket. The leaders were in questions and the so-called working classes were finally shouting loud enough to be heard. The Threat of Communism was a valid excuse from the leaders, and many of the people saw this as being paper-thin (I see a similar excuse in the current
U.S. presidential administration’s use of “finding the terrorists,” but I will save my own criticism of our beloved president for another time). And, what with all this talk of Communism, class consciousness began creeping into people’s minds. The rich became suspect.

            No one saw this more clearly that Luis Buñuel, the troublemaker. He had made a career of pissing people off. One of his more notorious moments was his 1929 film “Un Chien Andalou” (a film also on my list; essay forthcoming) which he made with Salvador Dalí, and was only 17 minutes long. Reportedly, the two of them had heard that there had been rioting in the streets over the recent opening of a film in
Paris, and they wanted to recreate the experience by making the most offensive, confusing and outrageous film as possible. The story goes that Buñuel put stones in his pockets to throw at the oncoming rioters. Sadly, their coveted provocateur status didn’t come that night (although the film still has its evocative power to disturb and move), and the riots were never thrown. He had also already made “The Exterminating Angel,” (1962) a very good and rather amusing film about a group of rich, snooty dinner guests who arrive at a big mansion, eat, retire to the sitting room, and find that they cannot bring themselves to leave. Their visit in the sitting room stretches out for days and days.

            In fact, Buñuel’s entire career is peppered with subtle and surreal lambaste. Every one of his films either, in a subtle and often coded way, blasts the upper classes, the Roman Catholic church, and the absurdity of human being claiming to be astute and sophisticated, when we’re really fueled by or animal passions. Films like “L’Age d’Or,” (1930) which features a woman kissing the toes of her statue lover, or “The Phantom of Liberty,” (1974) which features groups of people who gather around a table to defecate together, only to sneak off into private rooms to eat. His films are all political in some way, and have a grand old time comparing the political mind to the more animal part of humanity.

            The title “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” seems to imply, whether ironically or not, that the upper classes do indeed have some kind of charm. I think Buñuel was indeed entertained by his subject. Sure, they’re all shallow and empty and, in cases, wicked people. Sure, their lives surround the ritual of eating dinner together rather than, oh, making sure the world is functioning smoothly (the upper classes, in many cases – contemporary Hollywood types aside – seem to be the ones least interested in getting directly involved in politics. Even though it is they who, with their wealth, seem to control a great deal of it. It’s like they would rather sneak in the backdoor of control than actual be involved in direct leadership), but I think that Buñuel not only appreciates this irony, but finds it rather funny.

            Consider the following scenes: Don Rafael (the striking Fernando Rey) meets in his consulate, bemoans the fact that young revolutionaries are trying to kill him, hearkens to a better time in world politics, and then proceeds to make a drug deal right there in the office. Don Rafael also gets into a brawl later in the film, over someone insulting his country.

            The most telling, though, is the running gag of the film: whenever the quintet of heroes sits to eat dinner, they cannot. Dinner, at least according to Buñuel, is the central ritual of the upper classes. They meet to eat, talk, drink, and belittle those who do not understand the importance of this ritual. The rich do this often, and have the correct ways to drink, the right circumstances under which one has certain dishes, the right drinks with the right meats… the food itself becomes less important than talking about and showing off that you can do this ritual even more correctly than the person sitting next to you. My dad (hi, dad) moticed that, during the scene in which a soldier sits with the three women, and after he regales them with a violent and emotional mini-Hamlet story of murder and revenge, the three women nod, smile, tut-tut, and offer condolences. But when the waiter informs them that they are progressively out of coffee, milk, and tea, they actually become visibly upset. These people are so bankrupt that a real human story of real death, containing fantastical things like ghosts, cannot move them. The things that do move them are whether or not they get dinner right.

            Even the church is not safe, as a bishop (Michel Piccoli) is often not what he seems. In fact, when we first see him, he is a bishop, but when the other chatracters first see him, he is dressed as a gardener. He is rudely rejected, only to return in his robes explaining himself. The faith, Buñuel seems to be saying, is not what’s important, but the clothing. The rich seem to keep him around less for moral guidance, than as validation to their lives. Christ, if you’ll recall, said something about the rich involving camels and needles. Yet many rich people are Christian. Perhaps they keep the bishop nearby, as to make sure they can continue being rich.

            The bishop also, later in the film, commits murder. Upon hearing a confession, he finally meets the murderer of his parents, and rather than taking the high road and forgiving him, he kills. Not only does he kill, but he fires a shotgun. A bishop with a shotgun is a very Buñuellian image. Buñuel, you should know, was born into a Jesuit household, and given a very strict religious upbringing in various Jesuit schools. This experience was obviously the seeds to many of his images involving both straightforward religion, and the constant depiction of subversive behavior.

            2) A comedy of manners.

            This is closely related to my first point, as most of the characters manner are derived from their caste, so to speak, but some of the rather funny scenes in this film are less intended for bit, it seems, than being directly funny; poking fun at human quibbles. Buñuel may have been a politico and a social upstart, but many also forget that he was a great comedian as well. He does poke fun at the habits of the rich in this, and other films, but no one is really safe. In fact, “Discreet Charm” on a level is a lot about our animal impulses getting the better of us.

            Consider the scene where guests arrive for lunch, but the other two cannot yet attend as they are furiously necking upstairs. The want to have sex, but cannot right there because she’s “too loud.” They actually sneak out the window to go canoodle in the bushes, and return shortly later with sap and sticks in their hair. This is a scene worthy of Blake Edwards. The guests may be waiting, but, as they say, first thing’s first.

            Also, later in the film, when our heroes sit to eat, they are interrupted by a group of soldiers looking to kill them. They all hide. In one of the film’s more famous shots, we see one character reaching up onto the table to grab his meat, even when in mortal peril. He is caught, his hunger giving him away.

            One of the three universal truths of humanity is that we have bodies, and our bodies have needs that can far surpass out minds’. Buñuel is very interested in this, of course, and is sure to depict the people in his films as having animal desires first and foremost. “Belle de Jour,” has a woman who is a slave to her unusual sexual fantasies. “Discreet Charm” has people doing drugs, eating, having sex, committing murder, and basically doing all the things that we, as a so-called enlightened society tend to consider more “base” or “animal” (or, if you like “id”) desires. In fact, all of his films contain the comic juxtaposition of unseemly behavior in a civilized place. It’s funny when Groucho behaves wacky because he is a fool in a mannered world. Buñuel seems to be saying that we are all potentially Grouchos, and it is decorum and manners that keep us in check. Bubbling below the surface, though, are our instincts and more foolish (and more funny) behaviors. It’s this juxtaposition that is at the heart of Buñel’s unusual comedy.

            The maid (Milena Vukotic) smiles politely and does everything they say, yet she is not what she seems. How old is she, do you remember? Well, the actress was 33 when the film was shot, but her character is in her 60s. No makeup. It’s an odd moment. And then… the film… seems to slip… into something…

            3) The dreamstate

            As the film progresses, things begin to unravel.

            Odd things happen, only to have a character wake up. A soldier tells of a dream he had where he sees a dead comrade. We see our sextet wandering along a road, which is… where is that road, and where are they going exactly? The sextet finally sits to eat, but soldiers bust on and wreck up the place, gather them into the center of the room, and kill them (!) only to have a character awaken. The sextet is jailed for their political transgressions (overlapping the political and dreamstate themes), a ghost wanders the halls, a ghost the other police all fear, and then the police chief awakens.

            Buñuel is tricking us. He’s doing this on purpose. The universe he has set up, the careful comedy of manner, the politics, the chatacters… he’s intentionally wrecking it all. Like a joyous child who stomps on the clay castle he’s build, Buñuel is stomping away all the convention rules of film and storytelling by redefining what we are seeing moment to moment.

            What is Buñuel doing with these tricks he’s playing on us? Why all the rug-pulling? I think at this point in the film, he is trying to reach past the socio-political shenanigans and save the film from being a polemic; rather than preach about his own personal views, he wants to give us something a little more universal. The politics and the class consciousness seem boring to him as well. In fart, when a plot point or some vital piece of information is offered, when a character begins to say something that will be pertinent to us figuring out what this is all about, all this criminal hoo-hah, Buñuel drowns out the dialogue with some artificially increased background noise. A plane engine, a car, and, repeated twice in a row, a loud typewriter. He seems to be saying that the dialogue and the details of this part of the story are just what Hitchcock called The McGuffin: the dull story elements used to put the characters into the more interesting emotional position.

            Politics, after all this, is not what’s important; they’re not humanly universal.

            Dreams, however, are universal.

            Everyone must sleep, and hence, everyone must dream. All humans may not be familiar with the dream images that Buñuel presents us with, but we are all familiar with the half-conscious disorientation one gets from just waking up. All of Buñuel’s films, in fact, seem to take place in that state of mind a human being goes through just as they are waking up. The half reality, half unreality. Where the dreams are still rifting off of your body, but elements of the waking world are in the room as well.

            The politics, the manners, the dreams, they are all borne of the same place: the human mind. We first have manners: how we react to those right in front of us. We then have politics: broader and more important (at least to the individual thinker); a connection of the individual mind to the world at large. Then, beyond all that, beyond all realms of conscious though, we have the true human mind. The dreamstate. The one place where our minds seem to be out on their own, away from us, playing by their own rules. The mind is a chaotic character, and dreams are where it’s allowed to be itself.

            The six walk along a road… Where are they? They are in between. They are just waking up. And Buñuel has put us on the road with them in “The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie.” They are rich, they are funny, they are discreetly charming despite themselves, and, at the end of the day, they are just as much a slave to the chaos of the human mind as the rest of us.

             There are only three things that can be said are truly universal among all humans: We all have a physical self, we all have thoughts and dreams, and we all believe in something. Or, to put it simply, we all have a body, a mind, and a soul. Buñuel has, with his film, really nailed down the second of these elements. He has taken us for a walk into the human mind with a tricky, silly, funny, biting film. He once said that he would love to live much longer, but only if he could spend the time in his dreams. Chasing dreams was a hobby of his, and, with this film, we are allowed to take a look at his collection.

-Witney Seibold

Published in: on May 23, 2007 at 4:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

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