Sunday, June 19, 2011

Subtlety Meets Insanity: Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Before viewing Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), I had already seen his early film collaborations with the great artist Salvador Dali, An Andalusian Dog (1928) and The Age of Gold (1930). With 44 years separating his first film entry in The Book and his last (this film, obviously), Bunuel has the longest career in making Book-worthy films, even beating out The Book's most prolific filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock, at 43 years with Blackmail (1929) and Frenzy (1972). Obviously, even for a filmmaker with a much shorter career, their early pictures are bound to be different from their late picture. That is true in many ways for Bunuel, but not in all way. Discreet Charm certainly differs from his early films in the fact that it is in color, it is a "Talkie," it is over 90 minutes, and it actually manages to have a plot. However, what it has in common with his early, surrealistic masterpieces is the sheer insanity of many of its surrealistic images, but this time given the added punch of being perfectly missed with often very subtle (and often very unsubtle) comedy/social commentary.

The films mostly follows a group of 6 upper-class friends living France. One is an ambassador from the completely fictitious nation of Miranda in South America. His two friends/cocaine-dealing business partners, along with their wives and one sister-in-law, set out on a single, seemingly simple mission: have a nice, pleasant meal together. Throughout the film, however, they are thwarted at every turn in this endeavor.

These are our 6 main characters. Plus the maid. But she's a dirty commoner, so she doesn't matter.

What thwarts our friends in their efforts to dine together are a combination of simple misunderstanding, restaurants that run entirely out of tea and coffee, hosts too busy fucking to attend to their guests, army maneuvers  taking place outside, the fact that often the meals they are attempting to have are only occurring in someone's dream (or their dream of someone else having a dream), and a series of unexpected guest ranging from patricidal lieutenants to mobsters. Confused? So am I. Here are some examples. At one point, the groups goes to a local inn for a meal. Despite the fact that the place is locked and no customers are there, someone lets them in and assures them that they will be served, explaining the the inn is "under new management." Before they can even order, they hear weeping in the next room. Upon investigating, they discover that the inn owner has died, that his corpse is in the room, and the funeral is currently taking place. Despite the fact that the men still want to eat right next to a funeral (WTF?!) the women insist on leaving. On another evening, the group is unexpectedly interrupted by a troop of Cavalrymen, who were invited to stay at the house the next day, but had to come early. Before the meal can start, the Marijuana-smoking commander immediately has to take his troops to go participate in military maneuvers right outside the house...but not before he lets one of his privates tell them all about a dream he had last night where he was searching for his dead mother.

Whoa, man, is that, like, some food? My men and I totally have the munchies! Hey, ya wanna hear about Bill's dream? It's, like, totally trippy.

For the most part, the first half of the films takes place in "reality" while the second half takes place in a series of dreams that characters in the film have. I placed the word reality in quotation marks because the non-dream world of this film in no way resembles actual reality. The stuffy, upper-class characters of the film respond to incredibly random and nonsensical events without batting an eyelash, which adds much of the comedy to the film. For example, in one scene, the three women are out at a restaurant together, when a young soldier comes up and asks them if they had happy childhoods. He tells them he did not, and asks them if he can tell them a long but interesting story about it (without so much as giving his name). He then tells them about how, as a child, the ghost of his mother asked him to poison her husband to death because he was not really the boy's father and had killed her only true lover in a duel. He does so before going off to military school. Then, story told, he begs their pardon and takes his leave, with the women acting as if he had done nothing more interesting than talk about the weather. Later, a Bishop come up to one of their houses, dresses up in their overalls, and asks if he can be their gardener... and of course they agree, while still always remembering to respectfully address him as, My Lord.

This woman doesn't actually think she's Napoleon, but even if she did, she'd still be the sanest person in the film.

And the insanity of the "real world" doesn't stop there. There is a subplot in which the ambassador is being hunted down by a young, sexy female assassin. When she tries to kill him at his house in the name of Mao Zedong, he sneaks around behind her and forces her to give up her weapons, taking his opportunity to fondle her afterwards. When someone sees her standing in the street outside his office playing with a toy dog, he takes out a rifle and shoots the toy dog to scare here away.

It's okay folks, he said he knows what he's doing. He looks sane enough right now, right?

So, if reality is this messed up, you know the dreams have to be pretty crazy for them to be obviously dreams. Usually if somebody important dies it is a dream. In one dream after the 6 friends are arrested (again interrupting their dinner), they ghost of a dead police chief who liked to torture young men by placing them inside of electrified pianos comes around and frees them from jail. In another dream, their dinner is yet again interrupted when they find that they are actually on a stage, and that their dinner is actually part of a play. Of course, none of them can remember their lines, and despite some valiant efforts to save the show by the Bishop, they give up and again leave without eating.

Gives new meaning to the term "Dinner Theater."

Now you might be surprised to learn that despite the description of this film's insane, surreal plot, it actually managed to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. This is for two reasons. Firstly, though insane, the plot points I have described and more are completely hilarious in context. Secondly, there is a lot subtle visual humor and other more appreciable comedic points throughout the film. Of course, there is the social satire. When the rich couple try to throw out the Bishop when he is dressed in overalls, only recognizing him when he returns dressed in "proper" religious garb, and then hire the impoverished man as their gardener while still addressing him as My Lord, that is pretty biting. At one point they invite their driver to come inside and have a drink so they can mock they uncivilized way in which he drinks his martini, and all the while one of the high class ladies has gotten staggeringly drunk to the point of vomiting in the space of 5 minutes. Also, as a matter of course, the ambassador and his friends are involved in illegal cocaine smuggling. There is also a lot of subtle humor that, if recognized, is truly hilarious. My favorite part is when the Bishop continues to misappropriate landmarks in the ambassador's homeland of Miranda. The ambassador assures him that Bogota is not in Miranda, nor are the Pampas, nor are the Pyramids, to the Bishop's increasing dismay. The hilarious things is that of course the Bishop is getting confused, because Miranda does not really exist.

The film's biggest preoccupation, however, and its biggest weapon in its assault on the mannerisms of the rich, is sexual politics. The ambassador is of course shagging his friend's wife, and though he discovers his wife in his house he thinks nothing of it, and the brash ambassador even tries to sneak a quickie in before they all leave together. One couple leaves their guests to go have sex in the garden, and return with grass in their hair that the Bishop is kind enough to point out for them. At one point, the young girl states she cannot stand to look at an old man playing the cello in the restaurant, and a zoom-in to his hands reveals that his playing suspiciously resembles a man playing with a woman's clitoris. The woman comments by saying, "It's too bad he isn't younger."

In utilizing comedy to attack an upper class that is shallow and preoccupied with empty hyper-sexuality, Discreet Charms often closely resembles Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939), as well as the films of Italian directors Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. However, the madcap surreality of Bunuel's film makes it much more fun to watch than Antonioni's slow, often boring pretension and even manages to out-crazy Fellini's often carnival-like atmosphere. In conclusion, the film is superbly acted, incredibly well shot, and just plain fun to watch. Not everyone will "get it," but the film is much more accessible to an average audience than his early films, and I would recommend it to anyone I though had any appreciation for film. I give this film a personal grade of an A and an official grade of an 8/10.

Final Note: I have my own grading system. It Goes as follows:
B=Bad, I did not like it and did not even want to finish the film.
F=Fine, I finished it, it was OK, I'm glad I saw it, but do not want to see it again.
Go=Good, it was worth watching and I might see it again, but it had nothing special.
Gr=Great, I loved it and would see it again in a heartbeat, though it did lack anything truly remarkable or unique
A=Amazing, this film is not only fantastic but it does something that no other film has done before or does things better than most other films
E=Essential, I will tell everyone that they MUST see this film in their lifetime, no exceptions.

1 comment:

  1. "More accessible" is a good way to put it--but it's certainly not simpler than his earlier films. I'm learning to adjust to the absurdity present in Bunuel's films, in part because the subject matter he selects, as with this film, is approachable only played completely straight or as theater of the absurd.

    Welcome to blogging!