The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972)

A surreal, virtually plotless series of dreams centered around six middle-class people and their consistently interrupted attempts to have a meal together.”

So says IMDB in their woefully lean plot description of Luis Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” but in a way, it’s the perfect description one would need going in.  The movie is pretty much plotless, is a series of dreams, and involves six middle-class people and their consistently interrupted attempts to have a meal together.  That’s…pretty much it in a nutshell, and yet that one little sentence fragment doesn’t really begin to describe what this surreal, extremely challenging film is all about.

So yes, it’s about six middle-class people who for some strange reason or another can’t actually get into the dirty business of eating dinner.  On the surface, then, you’d think this movie would complete something of an “unable to do something at a social gathering” duology by Buñuel, to go along with the unable-to-leave-a-party-for-unknown-reasons movie “The Exterminating Angel.”  In that movie, the gimmick of snooty, middle-class party guests being reduced to instinctual animals because of some invisible wall was at the absolute forefront.  Buñuel took his time introducing the inability to leave so that you characters’ actions merely hinted that something was off-kilter, and even when that inability to leave was obvious, Buñuel exaggerated it so much that the movie became wickedly satirical and pretty damn funny: almost a parody of the “trapped in a confined space” B-type movie.  It was a gimmick, no doubt, but a gimmick that Buñuel took to the absolute extreme, and the result was wonderfully funny, almost cruel, satire criticizing the lifestyle of the middle class.

I did not associate “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” with that same gimmick-reliant style and premise that Buñuel used in the earlier “The Exterminating Angel.”  Though both films clearly criticize the middle class and their hypocritically empty lifestyles, I thought “Discreet Charm” was a much more complex and more challenging film, because the gimmick wasn’t as obvious.  In fact, I pretty much disregarded the “gimmick” of being unable to sit down and eat because I didn’t think it was much of a gimmick at all.  Yes, it’s a catalyzing plot device, but the movie doesn’t rely on it, unlike “The Exterminating Angel.”  It’s the increasingly bizarre stuff going on around those potential meals that matters, so that a completely disjointed “narrative” (if it can even be called that…) exposes the empty lifestyle of the middle class.

When I saw Buñuel’s early and famous short film “Un chien andalou,” I was taken aback at how this filmmaker pretty much nailed the essential nature of dreams: just enough of recognizable real-life people and places combined with the absolutely bizarre so that the truly surreal can seem real, and the real seems impossible.  And that’s the approach I took for “Discreet Charm,” because once again Buñuel nailed that essence of dreams and their ever-circuitous nature.  When you dream, you don’t know it, because you see those people and places that you take for granted in the waking world, and therefore your subconscious accepts it as reality when those common sights undergo far from common occurrences.  Quite simply, reality and the subconscious become indistinguishable from each other, and that’s the exact illusion Buñuel accomplishes in “Discreet Charm.”  We find it bizarre when our six main characters find the body of a restaurant’s owner being mourned in the back room, or when Fernando Rey’s ambassador goes all suave, James Bond villain style, on a would-be assassin in his apartment, or when a dinner party is suddenly interrupted by a platoon’s nearby barrage.  All bizarre, but all acceptable, as if what we’re seeing is actually happening.  And why shouldn’t we take it all for truth?  Buñuel, at least at the outset, gives us no reason to think otherwise.  It all makes for completely random events that are funny, but not overly so.  Buñuel leaves it to us to find the subtle humor in all the drug deals gone wrong, the priest disguising himself as a gardener, and shooting a mechanical dog from a long distance (or if not humor, at least extreme irony): such random occurrences, yet also completely void of overall purpose.  Trust me, it’s cynically funny if you see it for yourself.

In fact, you really don’t even consider the dream angle until things get so bizarre that you see characters awaken from dreams when things get out of hand.  Even then, dream and reality become more impossibly indistinguishable.  We see, for instance, our six as guests at a dinner, being given plastic chickens, only to have the curtain go up behind them and an audience getting inpatient for them to deliver their lines.  Our six aren’t horrified at the sudden realization they’re actors on a stage, they’re horrified because, yes, they’ve forgotten their lines.  It’s an interesting breaking of the fourth wall by Buñuel, and it comes off as a cloying and obvious dig at the middle class that Buñuel targeted in so many of his films…until one of the characters wakes up from this nightmare of…drumrole…forgetting one’s place as a semi-prestigious bourgeois, and all is right with the world again.

Or is it?

It’s absolutely fascinating that Buñuel gladly gives you the safety net quite often late in the film of a character waking up, effectively negating the strange, near-impossible situation we’ve just witnessed, and yet we still can’t tell what’s real and what’s in the subconscious.  A priest’s very un-priestly revenge on an old farmer for a long-ago crime might be real (it’s certainly shown to us as realistically and bluntly as possible), or it might be imagined, a fantasy of this man of God.  Or, in an extreme example, consider when the ambassador, his two colleagues, and their wives (all six of our main characters) are arrested on drug charges.  What we see in the scenes afterward involve the six cooling their heels in a cell, denied their right to a lawyer, while in the next room we see a new character tortured in some kind of electrified piano, followed by the man who arrested the six, pale like a ghost and bloody, freeing all of the prisoners.  We even see one of the characters awaken from this nightmare, but we still can’t tell where reality ends and where the subconscious begins (or if they’re even two distinct planes of reality at all).  If it was a dream, why are they still imprisoned post-wakeup?  Weren’t they arrested in the dream, or did I miss something?  Questions like that are never answered, and the movie’s more ambiguous and puzzle-like, and wonderfully challenging and thought-provoking as a result.

Sometimes Buñuel goes overboard with the straight-up surrealism factor, where you’re supposed to know you’re in a dream, and this doesn’t fit.  This involves the description of a traumatic childhood experience and a dream by a soldier who’s only there to inexplicably tell us these things and then disappear.  They involve a Hamlet-like revenge where the ghost of a parent implores the child to murder the other parent, and a reunion with that ghost and others in a bombed-out town.  As far as I knew these had nothing to do with, well, anything.  Clearly Buñuel’s trying to tell us something here, but damned if I know what it is.  The bizarre exploits of our six Bourgeois are thought-provoking enough, why get us even more sidetracked?  It was a nice little piece of moody, surreal filmmaking, but in the end doesn’t fit in the otherwise cynical mixture of surrealism and reality that is the rest of the film.

But, when Buñuel doesn’t get sidetracked from his plotless plot, his storyless story (ironic, no?), what a jigsaw puzzle, what a Rubik’s cube, this movie is!  When things get their most bizarre, involving stuff like that impromptu stage play and that electrocution via piano that we’re pretty sure is dreamed up, we’re reminded of stuff we saw earlier that we took for granted as real, and suddenly we must question reality itself.  Late in the film we see a flurry of gunfire, and we’re reminded of earlier scenes where Fernando Rey pulls a gun on a man who insulted him, or holds his would-be assassin at gunpoint, or shoots a cute little dog toy sniper-style.  The earlier in the film you go, the more realistic and seemingly benign these events become (although the entire film has that cynically detached, blunt style that you could only associate with Buñuel), but you begin to question where to draw the line of what Fernando Rey is actually capable of and what he and the others’ subconscious only imagines him capable of.  Sometimes it gets too labyrinthine in the combination of the utterly bizarre and the completely benign (or boring, really), so that we don’t know whether we want these uniformly dull characters to live or die.  I suppose they’re supposed to be dull to accentuate the futility of their lifestyle, but does that necessarily make for good watchin’?  Maybe, maybe not, but what is interesting is how Buñuel lets actions speak louder than words, whether they’re real or imagined, and how our perception can paint an occurrence as either “normal” or “surreal.”  Either way, those blank slate occurrences involving our characters give a hell of an indictment of the middle class…I think 😆 .

I suppose the characters’ inability to sit down to a meal could mean a number of things.  Perhaps eating is the one activity that any person in any social class can do expertly, and God forbid the snooty bourgeoisie dare to leave the safe confines of their social class, right?  That’s what Buñuel was going for in “The Exterminating Angel” when the partygoers were unable to leave their haven of mild decadence (and frankly in that movie compared to “Discreet Charm,” the characters were a little more compelling and charicature-ish, and the satire a little more biting, but that’s picking hairs 😛 ).  Or, perhaps the constant distraction from eating is itself a criticism of the banal distractions of the middle-class culture that to the outside observer can seem bizarre.  Either way, Buñuel’s saying something bad about the mid-to-upper class here, but frankly I didn’t really care.  I was more into psychoanalyzing these people who frankly are probably too vapid to be psychoanalyzed anyway, so that that task is pretty much impossible.  In that same vein, “Discreet Charm” is an impossible puzzle to solve, but boy will you have fun trying and failing to solve the banal intricacies of these peoples’ lives.  Forget about the recurring image/situation of being unable to eat for a minute, and consider the films’ recurring image involving our six and an open road.  Damned if I can figure out what it means.  Are they walking towards absolutely no destination, just like their everyday lives ultimately lead to nowhere?  Are they futilely trying to escape that lifestyle, just as other supposed dream sequences show their deepest desires and flaws as an ironic juxtaposition to their outwardly genteel demeanor?  Either way, it’s an interesting little image sticking out of the rest of this sub-two hour supposed mélange of the real and the imagined.  Even more interesting, though, is how this is one of the few outright bizarre images in the film that isn’t followed up by the obligatory character-waking-up moment.  Chew on that one.


1 comment so far

  1. ShotgunAndy on

    I shall chew on that one.

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