Sunday, January 1, 2012

Film #69: Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972)

Title for us English-Speaking Types: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Director: Luis Bunuel

Initial Release Country: France

Times Previously Seen: once (about 3 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Sextet of middle-classers try to get some grub repeatedly. Fail repeatedly. Have weird dreams between each failure.

Extended Summary (Slightly longer plot synopsis. Spoilers included. Fair warning.)

Actually, my little caveat above is more pointless than normal. It's all but impossible to “spoil” this movie, given the story.

In early 1970s Paris, four middle-aged, middle-class people arrive at a pleasant home for an evening dinner, only to surprise the supposed hostess, who tells the four that their dinner date is for the following evening. This also explains why the hostess' husband is not there. The five improvise and head out to a nearby inn for some dinner. Their effort is thwarted, however, when they enter the inn to find a funeral service being given for the recently-deceased owner.

The next day, the three men, two of them French government officials and the other a diplomat from a South American country, meet in the diplomat's office. The three are involved in drug smuggling. The two Frenchmen's wives and single sister-in-law are clueless to their doings.

Just one of the many soon-to-be interrupted attempts at dinner. If you look closely, you can almost see the arrogance and entitlement radiating off of all six of the "friends".

Over the next several days, the sextet repeatedly attempt to have a meal or a drink together, only to be thwarted at every turn. Whether they are in pairs, trios, or larger groups, every time they are about to be served, something interferes. Some interruptions are mundane: the first evening's schedule mix-up, or a restaurant being out of basically everything. Others are far more bizarre, such as being interrupted by strangely forthcoming soldiers barging in and unburdening themselves with odd tales. Still others take the form of dreams begun but unfulfilled.

Most of the six people get lost briefly in a dream of theirs. Some include the embarrassment of being caught on a theater stage, having forgotten one's lines. Others have dreams about being in a duel, or being arrested with all of their friends for their illegal drug smuggling. Whatever the dream or interruption, not one of the person's tales, or even tales within tales, is completed.

One of the more violent dream sequences, with the Senechal gunning down a man who has offended his honor.

Interspersed throughout the menagerie of unfulfilled narratives are occasional looks at the entire group of six, walking along a desolate road in the middle of the country, with no clear goal in sight.

I would offer a link to a more detailed, complete plot synopsis, but finding one it rather difficult. Read into that what you will.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing of the film, before any research.)

When American comedians make fun of “weird European movies”, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is almost certainly what they have in mind. As you may be able to tell from my rather vague plot synopsis, this movie does not fit into any standard categories. There is no main story arc (aside from six people trying to get some food), and virtually no standard cohesion from one scene to the next. The mad hopping between dream sequences and quirky occurrences can be dizzying, and I think any viewer can be excused for uttering “Whaaahh...??” more than a few times while watching.

Did I like it? Actually, yeah. More or less.

I felt like I had a pretty good handle on what director Luis Bunuel was doing with this movie. I had seen it before, and I felt like I “got” the point. And then, after watching, my girlfriend articulated it far better than I could. She explained that she'd never seen a film that captured the “unfulfillment aspect” of dreams so well. Every single little story, of which there are no less than a dozen, leaves the viewer wanting, just as the characters in the movie are constantly left wanting. This is, for many people, much like their own dream experiences.

One of the more universal dream fears is revealed in the dinner-on-stage scene. The main players almost all flee due to self-consciousness or nervousness at having "forgotten their lines".

When dwelling on it, I can't help but compare it to a recent blockbuster film dealing with dreams, Inception. In that much more recent movie, the hyper-organized Christopher Nolan deals with the malleability of dreams, but keeps the story air tight, almost to the point of snapping the seams. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Bunuel was clearly going for the true dream-like experience: the tighter you grasp for the meaning or a sense of closure, the more you're going to lose them. Once you figure this out, it's easier to sit back, stop wondering about the point, and enjoy the bizarre spectacle.

Lest you think the movie is just a cluster of peculiar scenes thrown against a wall, I need to clarify. There is a rather loose narrative that holds things together. The six middle-class main characters are rather self-absorbed and not exactly likable. For this reason, I didn't mind seeing them spun about and tormented by their own mildly warped circumstances or inner thoughts. It also brought to mind the wonderfully strange Flann O'Brien book, The Third Policeman. In it, a young thief and murderer is sent to hell, but doesn't know it. As things go from familiar to strange to absolutely torturous, he never realizes exactly where he is. Every time he comes close to getting a handle, the entire situation shifts, leaving him even more confused, frustrated, and dejected than before. Bunuel's film isn't as disturbing as all that, but the general feel is similar.

The film also keeps a nice level of humor throughout. The oddity of many of the situations is humorous, if in a wry way. More than this are the dead-pan performances of most of the cast. Weirdness is at its funniest when it's played straight, and the actors got it right on in this movie. This isn't a gut-busting, laugh-fest by any means. Still, I found plenty to smile and laugh at, from the attempts to eat plastic stage prop food in the “theater dream” scene, to the clever little evasions about exactly where the fictitious country “Miranda” really is, and even to the oddly open soldiers’ tellings of their private dreams. Added to it all is the acceptance of every other character of the quirkiness of all of these things.

The second of two wryly humorous scenes in which soldiers simply show up, interrupt, and tell bizarre tales about their own dreams of horror and death. A contrast with the pithy concerns of our egocentric sextet? Possibly.

This is yet another movie that you need to be in the right frame of mind to deal with. If you take each scene at a time and don’t attempt to judge the whole by the standards of most narrative films, you should find it enjoyable. I certainly did, though this isn’t a movie I see myself running back to anytime soon.

Take 2: Or, Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research on the movie):

In reading up on this film, I realize that my Take 1 missed mention of the obvious – the social commentary. This is not something that is difficult to miss in the film, though other commentators have done a far better job analyzing it than I could.

What gives The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie an even greater helping of food for thought is what gave most, if not all, of Luis Bunuel’s movies the same: the revelation of hypocrisy. I’ve only seen a few of his other films, but the theme is clearly there. Politeness, manners, and fashion are a thin fa├žade behind which lurk the basest animal desires and fears. Lust, humiliation, and death are all represented in this movie, filtered through the self-interested viewpoints and subconscious of the main characters’ dreams. These things might be presented as horrifying by many other directors, but Bunuel always had a different approach.

The Senechal, almost escaping notice and capture, reveals his own presence to the police by reaching out a taking a sandwich from the table. One example of some common visual humor blended into other moments of a dryer comic type.

In this review of the film, Roger Ebert does a nice job explaining some of the subtleties of Bunuel’s themes, and how he used humor to reveal the human psyche. The interesting thing to me is that Bunuel never really took a side in his commentaries on social classes. His works seemed to attempt to reveal the hypocrisies at work in all people. Some of these revelations are humorous, while some can be highly disturbing.

In this 1973 essay by Carlos Fuentes (done shortly after the release of Discreet Charm), a much broader and deeper look is taken into Bunuel’s life’s work up to that point. It’s an interesting read, in which Fuentes ties together not only the themes mentioned by Ebert, but also the visual techniques that Bunuel employed to convey his messages as an artist. It’s a good little read for anyone who has seen a handful or more of Bunuel’s films.

After this reviewing of the movie and a little bit of research, it is now no surprise to me why The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is on the TIME 100 list. It truly is a different species of film, and piece of art that may very well be a part of the artistic landscape for decades, if not centuries, to come. Like an abstract Picasso painting, you may not always “understand” every little thing about it, but it certainly does catch the eye and stimulate the mind.

That’s a wrap. 69 shows down. 36 to go.

Coming Soon: Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1973):

Another one that I watched a number of years ago, but probably didn’t appreciate very much. I’ve come to like Werner Herzog quite a bit, so I expect to get more out my second viewing of this early work of his.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.