Six figures stride restlessly down a barren highway. He falls behind, she adjusts a buckle on her shoe and slowly they outpace one another – hardly an opening scene to arrest the senses. The magic of Luis Buñuel’s Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972) lies in its endless ambiguity. To watch through a prescriptive lens would vanquish it. A group of affluent Parisians comprised of oily businessmen, their haughty wives, a spacey sister-in-law and a paranoid diplomat repeatedly come together for a meal that is continually interrupted by performances of absurdity. The interruptive events range from the death of a restaurateur to the cavalry showing up between courses. Once the premise of the film is clearly articulated we are plunged into the internal dramas of the characters.
Part of a “trilogy” about journeys that began with La voie lactée (Milky Way, 1969) and ended with Le fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974), the opening image of the wandering bourgeoisie establishes the film’s structure as reliant upon a cycle of increasing incoherence (1). This replaces the usual motion of film into catharsis and closure (2). The minimalism of the plot asks that we pay close attention to how the story is told. We watch, listen and watch again. We must be aware but not too aware, as ultimately our own answers will teach us how to consume this film.
Gone is the grace of narration and “form”-ally announcing itself is the theme of interruption – a device that will keep us constantly aloft, yet engaged. Once deemed anarchistic and surreal, Buñuel’s tendency to interrupt a narrative line had become Oscar-worthy by the time of the film’s release. The classical, modern form of bourgeois art emphasises the qualities of order, proportion and harmony (3). The deceptive charms of the characters and tinges of fluxed narrative keep us transfixed as though we are watching a Hollywood tale from the golden era. Any keen purveyor of Mme Senechal’s (Stéphane Audran) sartorial sashaying of silk and little black dresses are instantly transported every time she appears on screen, swigging a martini or panting with her lover at high noon. The endless seductive glamour of the six main characters helps to sustain a certain sense of rationality that carries us through the film, despite all-else rallying against it. Buñuel uses the ordinary yet comical annoyance of interruptions as a structural tool to play out the “anti-form” of the film (4). This is introduced through the nature and extent of interruptions that guarantee the virtual absence of a continuous plot. A unity of contraries is aptly displayed by the bishop-turned-gardener-turned-murderer and the incongruities of space such as the restaurant turned into a funeral parlour and the dining room transformed into a theatrical stage (5). In one scene the stage is literally set for mockery, as an interruption comes when the curtain rises to reveal that the group are all part of an on-stage performance! Being an agitator against the bourgeoisie, Buñuel keenly reminds us at every twist and turn that their civilisation is precarious. So, when struggling to curb his rebellious reflexes to fit in with their traditional artistic ideals, to his and our amusement, he doesn’t. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie demonstrates that form and anti-form can co-exist (6), paving the way for later generations of experimental narrative filmmakers such as David Lynch and Pedro Almodóvar.
The characters’ desire to dine together is continuously thwarted by a series of ridiculous incidents. Our attention is constantly redirected to dreams or anecdotes that are juxtaposed with the main plot and therefore deflect from it (7). An example of this is the scene of the group wandering down the highway that is intermittently spliced into the film. Herein lies the magical ambiguity this film bestows upon us. The image of the six rambling characters may appear to lack purpose since Buñuel himself refused to ascribe any particular meaning to it (8). However, by simply showing us this interpolated sequence, our instincts guide us to the cinematic delights of elucidation and clarification: what it could be, what it might be and what it just isn’t. Thus we also begin to learn the rules of engagement with the film. This pivotal scene plays heavily with and on narrative continuity. It “interrupts” the more conventional sequences that encourage us to trust the story and form expectations in order to reveal the work of the audience in the production of meaning (9). The exclusion of important parts of the dialogue due to the sound of low flying jets and radiator pipes invite the audience to further speculate on this meaning. The wandering scene is also one of few in the film that allows us to identify with the characters. Its broken temporality (the film starts and ends with this scene), discontinuity (characters are in different clothes each time it resurfaces), and its unpredictable appearance are “sympathetic” to this identification (10). I too do up my shoe buckle, fall behind and outpace the others. We are one and the same. However, these feelings are instantly dismissed as the next random scene cuts our stroll short, the interrupter is now the interrupted. The mind must be open to constant readjustment and fluid to its own myriad of interpretations. Why does the 52-year-old housemaid look 17? Why does the diplomat’s aggressor pull a head of lettuce from her bag? To try and understand this film literally will only lead to rage.
According to Buñuel, the ideal life consisted of waking for two hours and sleeping and dreaming for the remaining 22 (11). He often began a film by establishing a framework of latent, rather than explicit, associations that came from his subconscious, eliminating anything that might have obvious symbolic meaning (12). He drew deeply from the dream life in order to confront spectators with the frightening disorder that lurked in the abyss of their minds. But dreams were also considered to be a part of everyday life, so the dividing line between the realms of the conscious and unconscious was abolished. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie uses the Chinese box-like technique of dreams embedded within dreams to exemplify this (13). Towards the end, overlapping dreams of the characters that grow out of seemingly real situations take us from one deceptive trip to another. As the dreamer wakes up, further peculiar things happen until the bizarre reality we began to believe in is rendered totally indistinguishable from the realm of dream.
Every “inserted” tale carries some sort of allusion to death, something the six main characters seem to ignore. The dinner party massacre – and the sergeant’s celebratory torture methods – are inherently macabre flights-of-fantasy boxed up by the social niceties of a discreet bourgeois existence. Buñuel places us in the realm of Surrealism through the incessant blurring of dreams with reality. He is, of course, the original Surrealist. Along with Salvador Dalì, he made the masterpiece Un chien Andalou (1929) – the film that commenced their assault on the bourgeoisie (14). The signature shot from Un chien Andalou is of a razor slicing through an eye. The visual violence of this earlier work starkly contrasts with the soft and sensitive Surrealism depicted in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The instinctual nature of Surrealism (and the reality of daily life) always deflates social propriety. This is comically demonstrated by the Senechals. When frivolity takes over, the couple escapes out the window to consummate their lunchtime love behind some bushes, whilst their guests wait unknowingly downstairs.
Forever the saboteur of cultural and societal charades, Buñuel shattered the complacency of modern viewers by creating a disquieting work that expressed his resistance to bourgeois values. Whereas 40 years previously the surreally frenzied screen was Buñuel’s “weapon of liberation”, it is now manifest in the cognitive power of viewers (15). The grotesquely surreal nature of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie shakes us to the core. But its playful form, exquisite irony and magical ambiguity provoke a sado-chuckle from deep within us.
- James Tobias, “Buñuel’s Net Work”, Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, ed. Marsha Kinder, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1999, p. 146.
- Tobias, p. 146.
- Victor Fuentes, “The Discreet Charm of the Postmodern”, Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, ed. Marsha Kinder, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1999, p. 89.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Interruption as Style”, Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, ed. Marsha Kinder, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1999, p. 188.
- Fuentes, pp. 90-91.
- Fuentes, p. 89.
- Fuentes, p. 91.
- Tobias, p. 148.
- Tobias, p. 152.
- Tobias, p. 148.
- “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972”, mostlycinema 18 December 2012: http://mostlycinema.com/2012/12/18/the-discreet-charm-of-the-bourgeoisie-1972/.
- Augustin Sanchez Vidal, “A Cultural Background”, Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, ed. Marsha Kinder, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1999, p.70.
- Fuentes, p. 91.
- Fuentes, p. 83.
- Fuentes, p. 86.
Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie/The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972 France 102 mins)
Prod Co: Greenwich Film Production – Paris Prod: Serge Silberman Dir: Luis Buñuel Scr: Luis Buñuel, Jean-Claude Carrière Phot: Edmond Richard Ed: Hélène Plemiannikov Prod Des: Pierre Guffroy
Cast: Fernando Rey, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Stéphane Audran, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, Michel Piccoli