the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie (1972)
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie sees Bunuel at an affirmed stage of his career, playing his game with more verve than in the days of his youth. A subdued film, with a plethora of cinematic conventions eschewed, Discreet Charm paints a picture of the cues and assumptions that hold social order and propriety together, each one slightly tilted to the left. Like a western where bananas replace the guns but none of our players remark on it, Bunuel paints mustaches on the elements of society that give us privilege and status. For much of the film, the archetypal elements he turns upside down are in favor of humanization, which sets the film vastly apart from other would-be lampoons of social convention. When Bunuel refutes the image of a soldier, it is to show us a scared little boy reaching out to his mother from beyond the grave. When he refutes the idea of the preacher it is to show us a man with the human weakness for revenge even in the face of piety, rather than denigrate the cloth. Discreet Charm plays as narrative within narrative and dream within dream, Bunuel asks his own audience the question "Why are you watching this film?, seeming to muse on the oddity of everything in modern life if looked at from an outside lens; how uncomfortable our characters look when their dinner hour is placed on a stage in front of a gawking crowd. How unaware of it all, that they have been players on a screen for the entire duration of the film, each act of God and circumstance carefully plotted by Bunuel to give them a run for their money. Above all Bunuel crafts a world where his characters are at his mercy, creating false life and toying with it, devising reactions for the false personas to emote whenever fate deals them a joker. It is the mere act of living in this false reality that is simultaneously reminding us of the eccentricities and ridiculousness of our own while also reminding us of true human frailty in the face of a world they do not understand that gives the film its unique blend, its dreamlike power. Much as in a dream state, the film has no consequences, and when it uses up one narrative it simply leaves it behind for another. It keeps the loosest of continuities as it goes along, in a constant state of re-invention.
Bunuel's refusal and any kind of visual play and outright surrealism cause a cinema of consistent disruption. Each time we are shaken out of the ordinary, we are subsequently lulled back into a state of passivity by the generally believable scene or two that follow, only to be time and again reminded of our world's complete falsity. Bunuel centers the action around the act of eating, or in more specific terms, around the meal (which may or may not in reality have much to do with eating). The ritual of the meal, its place in bourgeois culture and, of course, the bourgeois confusion and loss of self at the upset of their ritual, the existential stasis experienced at the breaking of propriety. For this culture, Bunuel finds, is built on propriety and ordinariness; anything that is to come along and break stride with the general flow of predictability causes a sort of frozen gaze or mental paralysis until a reset of the propriety can take place. Into it all, Bunuel injects an outsider, an ambassador from South America who walks amongst these bourgeoisie but is not one of them, who has learned their ways and easily navigates their circles, even pantomiming their behaviors much of the time, yet always existing on a level of more honest or authentic thought process. A critique of the European. This bit of savvy does nothing for him, of course, as the inherently ridiculous is not limited merely to cultural customs, but to the entire construct that is the society the characters are existing in. Into their limited view and confused proprieties, Bunuel injects ghosts and spirits, former members of the confused herd that look on. Do they look on with pity? Do they look on with admiration? With jealousy? No, Bunuel's dead merely look, vacantly, commanding the living to carry out final acts of vengeance. Vengeance is Bunuel's transcendent human emotion, the animal emotion that we try so mightily to stamp out of ourselves by all of our propriety, yet fail at every turn. When one is offended, one must have the satisfaction of acting out against the offender. Even shooting them down in their own home, at their own dinner party no less. The joke being that our dear colonel broke merely social convention yet was reacted toward with the most ferocious jungle-law consequences.
With each scenario Bunuel builds his staircase to nowhere, our characters wandering a long country road among the fields. No car, no means of getting anywhere faster than they're going, senselessly dressed to impress, the women in their best heels. Bunuel paints a picture of modern life that would be depressing if it weren't so tongue-in-cheek, would be distressing if it weren't done with such humanity and humor. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie sees the surrealist toward the end of a long career approaching life with a smile at the oddity of it all. Bunuel posits that much of humanity is like his dull characters, going through life in mimicry, putting on heirs and doing their best to perform the type of character and role that will suit their desired station. Above all, he seems to show us that the roles, be they politician, priest, war hero or terrorist, are ultimately of little consequence as the dance we perform with one another goes on; the series of meals is uninterrupted no matter how hard we try to interrupt them. In the series of meals Bunuel terms ‘life’, whether or not we eat is entirely up to us, even if we have to hide under the table and eat with our bare hands. The sequence of propriety and manner will continue whether we satisfy ourselves or not, whether we get ours or not, we will have to take part in the ritual and that is a never-ending fact. In Bunuel's comedy we don't laugh, we smile and nod.