The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

(Luis Bunuel, France, 1972): To the perennial question of “Do I have to kill somebody to get served around here,” Luis Bunuel, in his Oscar-winning art-house blockbuster The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, answers “Yup. And then some.” Dinner, if and when it ever comes to Bunuel’s sextette of over-pampered society barnacles (Fernando Rey, Stéphane Audran, Bulle Ogier, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Delphine Seyrig and Paul Franker), will only be served once the neurotic underpinnings of their anxious and aimless lives have been suitably exposed. Diplomats will starting sniping at suspected terrorists through embassy windows, a priest will kill a poor and ailing gardener with a shotgun, duels will be fought over martinis, and the army will show up hungry just as dinner is about to hit the table. And the dreams? They will creep in everywhere: characters will stop the narrative — such as it is — dead in order to graphically recall what visions have plagued their sleep. So pervasive are they that not only does the entire movie, with its unstressed insistence on presenting dreams as merely part of the texture of the action, fade into incomprehensible absurdity if not interpreted as a collective dream of these happily oblivious parasites (and their less lavishly appointed servants, underlings and martini-wranglers), dreaming is offered as the only window through which the cowering insecurity of their true natures can be seen. The catch is, only we can see it. At least for what it is. For the majority of these dreamers, the dreams are little more than amusing parlour entertainment, annoying distractions from the real goal of a decently cooked lamb, and pointless reminders of their fundamentally animalistic natures. If the dreams in the movie tend to blend both so seamlessly (and therefore unnervingly) into the larger current of narrative, it’s because they are dreamt largely by those impervious to their implications. Ergo, the movie’s simple but eloquent recurring image: the dreamers walking hastily but happily along a country road, no destination in sight or perhaps even in mind. It is the horrifying but hilarious imperviousness of these entitled upper class that the dreams stress and the movie makes such ruthless sport of. The world might as well be ending and they wouldn’t notice. Take the entire premise a step or two toward then-emerging genre convention, and Bunuel, then seventy-two and having been bounced around some by the various international movie industries his status as subversive exile made his foster homes (France, Spain, Mexico, Hollywood), and you’re firmly in zombie apocalypse terrain.

Not that Bunuel ever would have made a straight-up horror movie. He was too interested in horror as a daily condition of maintaining order to isolate it as fantasy or wrap it in tidy convention or resolution. The point to Bunuel’s sense of horror comes from the discrepancy between act and attitude: no atrocity is too atrocious if it preserves the status quo or provides cocktail chatter, and no possibility of change (let alone revolution — also mercilessly mocked as futile) is possible so long as the monster continues to convince itself it’s just doing what comes both naturally and according to the capitalist playbook. Even when you’re dead you’re not dead. In one sequence, a group of terrorists (who look instead like movie mob thugs) bust in on a feast just about to be served and open fire. Everyone is killed except the corrupt South American diplomat played by Rey, who may be facing certain death but who can’t help but reach up from the table he’s hiding under to grab and devour an irresistibly convenient leg of lamb. He’ll be killed for the effort, but no biggie: in the very next scene he awakes in his own bed, chewing away like a dog that just plundered Sunday dinner.

Bunuel, one of movie history’s most singular and original artists, was always drawn to dreams: what’s Un Chien Andalou but an inspired liberalization of dream logic and churning up of subterranean desire, and where would his characters — from the boys in Los Olvidados to the various priests, nuns, perverts and pious hypocrites who caught his withering attention — be without their dreams to guide us (if not them). But this movie, written along with his frequent late-period collaborator Jean-Claude Carriére, is all dreaming all the time. There are no clear markers delineating where the dreams stop and even dramatic reality begins, and the dreams themselves are minimalist masterworks of blunt expression. While most unfold or intrude in a manner that is formally indistinguishable from the nominal waking action — that form being Bunuel’s signature, transparently ordinary nonchalance — some demonstrate only the most phony (and therefore even more disturbing) and basic gestures to stylization: note the obviously cardboard street one dreamer finds himself on as he is lured to an encounter with a dead mother, or the way a phantom figure, still bearing fresh evidence of the wound that killed him, wanders about like someone less dead than sleepwalking. A veteran of the Algerian war intrudes upon the women’s table at a café in order to recount a chilling story of a dream — or was it? — in which his dead mother convinced him to poison the man he thought was his father, but who actually killed his father. (“A few days later I left for military school where an exciting life awaited me,” he concludes.) More than anything, the women just wish he’d go away. In this movie, the things that go bump in the night are people stumbling around in their internal sewer psychic systems, colliding but never connecting with any of the other dreamers crowding the corridors of the unconscious.

Predictably, Bunuel was slammed in certain quarters for selling out when Bourgeoisie was released to such conspicuous critical praise and box office viability. He was accused of endorsing the sociopathic diffidence of his characters rather than attacking or more savagely satirizing it, of capitulating to the complacency of bourgeois hegemony rather than undermining it, of basically being one of the very people his movie was about. This was only to be expected in that heated and contentious period following the deflation of revolutionary dreams from the previous decade, but it not only missed the point — Bunuel never pretended to be a revolutionary, and he quite contentedly lived the life of upper middle-class comfort so savagely depicted in so many of his films — it proved it: Bunuel’s most popular and internationally celebrated movie was about people too comfortably insulated from self-awareness not only to change but to even see the need for it. In this sense, the fact that so many people did see it, presumably before or after sitting down to a pleasant meal or impeccably prepared martini — another of the movie’s (and director’s) fixations — simply proved the old surrealist right on the money. There is no greater enemy to social justice in the world than comfort on the part of the powerful. You can expose them as murderers, drug dealers, cuckolds, horndogs and hypocrites, but there’s no exposing those who see absolutely nothing wrong, and everything right, in their defining crusade just for a decent meal and soft pillow to release nightmares on. You say you want a revolution? Dream on. (Criterion)

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