Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie

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(The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie)

France-Italy-Spain, 1972

Director: Luis Buñuel

Production: Greenwich Film (Paris), Jet Film (Barcelona), and Dean Film (Rome); Eastmancolor, 35mm, Panavision; running time: 105 minutes. Released 15 September 1972, Paris. Filming began 23 May 1972 in France.

Producer: Serge Silberman; screenplay: Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière; photography: Edmond Richard; editor: Helen Plemiannikov; sound engineer: Guy Villette; sound effects: Luis Buñuel; production designer: Pierre Guffroy; music editor: Galaxie Musique; costume designer: Jacqueline Guyot.

Cast: Fernando Rey (Ambassador); Paul Frankeur (M. Thévenot); Delphine Seyrig (Mme. Thévenot); Bulle Ogier (Florence); Stephane Audran (Mme. Sénéchal); Jean-Pierre Cassel (M. Sénéchal); Julien Bertheau (Bishop); Claude Pieplu (Colonel); Michel Piccoli (Minister); Muni (Peasant); Georges Douking (The moribund gardener); Pierre Maguelon (Police sergeant); François Maistre (Commissioner); Milena Vukotic (Inès); Maria Gabriella Maione (Guerilla); Bernard Musson (Waiter in the tea room); Robert Le Beal (Tailor).

Awards: Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, 1972.



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* * *

Recent critical attacks on realism have tended, at their most extreme, to collapse it with narrative itself, as if to tell a story were an act of oppression. During the 1960s and 1970s there appeared a number of important and diverse European films (Bergman's Persona, Pasolini's Teorema, Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small, Godard's Tout va bien, Rivette's Céline et Julie vont en bateau are prominent examples) whose project involved retaining narrative while calling into question its realist/illusionist tyranny. Attention was drawn to the process, and the pleasure, of narration, detaching it from the traditional support of a coherent diegetic world. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie belongs in this group, of which it is a particularly fascinating and delightful member.

Four levels of narrative can be distinguished within the film. (1) "Reality"—for want of a better word. Like any traditional fiction Discreet Charm begins by establishing characters and plausible action (a car-load of guests driving to a dinner party). This "reality-level" is never entirely undermined; the action, however, becomes increasingly implausible and absurd, a principle built mainly on the motif of meals frustrated or interrupted. (2) Dream. At four points in the film male characters wake up, and the spectator is jolted into realizing that what has preceded that moment has been a dream. The boundary between this and the "reality" of (1) is ingeniously blurred: the dreams are scarcely more fantastic than reality; their beginnings are never signalled. Retrospectively, we can work out by the use of "common sense" where each dream started; but there remains the lingering doubt as to whether common sense can validly be applied to the film at all. One of the dreams is definitely established as being contained within the dream of another character. It is not impossible to read the entire film (until the last couple of minutes) as Fernando Rey's dream. (3) Inserted narratives. During the film three stories are told (always by peripheral male characters) and rendered visually by Buñuel. Offered as truth, they are just as fantastic as the dreams or the reality; they are also the three most intense and disturbing episodes of the film. (4) The country road. Barely a "narrative," (the "story" would amount to no more than "These people went for a walk in the country"), this remains the most enigmatic aspect of the film, unrelated to reality, dreams or narrations. It seems to express the ambivalence of Buñuel's attitude to his bourgeois characters, as to whether they are redeemable or not. On the one hand, they appear to be wandering aimlessly, lost, going nowhere; on the other, they are shown otside their artificial and constricted environment, amid images of natural fertility (perhaps, after all, they could be going somewhere?).

The dreams and the narratives work in a dialectical relationship. The three narratives all have strong Oedipal connotations. Two are literally about parent/child relationships, the third about a symbolic father, the "bloody sergeant" and a rebellious son, the young revolutionary. As fantasies, they represent the reality underlying the patriarchal order, the strain and horror upon which that order is constructed. The four dreams (all dreamt by middle-aged patriarchal authority figures) are singlemindedly concerned with anxieties about the collapse of authority. This explains why no dreams are dreamt, or stories told, by the women, who have no authority to lose.

Finally, the food motif. Buñuel uses the dinner party to epitomize bourgeois rituals: its purpose is not to eat but to assert one's status. The frustration of every meal—until the last moments of the film— represents the bourgeoisie's collapse of confidence depicted in other ways in the dreams and narratives. Why can Fernando Rey eat at last, at the end of the film? He is alone; he eats because he is hungry not as part of a bourgeois ritual. He is not waited on—he serves himself out of the refrigerator—hence is acting outside the class oppression that is an essential factor in bourgeois ritual. Finally, he has just dreamed the annihilation of his entire circle, including himself. There has always been a close relationship between Buñuel and the characters Rey plays in his films: something less than identification but more than compassion.

—Robin Wood

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Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie

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