In school, I remember being enthralled by Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at Folie Bergerie” when it donned on me we were integrated into the piece, and the artist was messing with our preconceived notions by literally toying with our perceptions.
As an artist who came into his own a generation later with the likes of Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel oftentimes manages the very same feat of artistic manipulation through his films. He’s the iconoclastic prince and lambaster of the bourgeoisie. He is a craftsman with an intuitive sense of how to toy with, not only his subject matter and his characters, but the audience sitting before him.
Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which we might posit as an exemplary monument to his life’s work, begins with a vaguely familiar premise. People are gathering on the pretense of a dinner party, not unlike Exterminating Angel. Except there is no invisible force holding them there. Quite the opposite. For inexplicable reasons, they keep on getting interrupted and thwarted in their attempts to sit down together for the most curious of reasons.
To their credit, the central sextet sells out to the whole charade. Fernando Rey is up to his smutty old tricks as a respected foreign ambassador with a lecherous side cultivated under the right circumstances. His frequent companions are the Thevenots, Francois and Simone (Paul Frankeur and Delphine Seyrig). Nor can one forget the Madame’s air-headed sister Florence who always seems to be perpetually tagging along.
First, they go to their dinner engagement at a friend’s home for round 1. Alice Senechal (Stephanie Audran) isn’t expecting them because she thought she invited them on a different date and her husband Henri (Jean-Pierre Cassel) isn’t at home. It’s an honest enough mistake. Except the next time, it’s more of the same as their libidos get the best of the hosts. Their maid Ines takes it all bravely with a sweet, unassuming smile as if playing dumb to all the idiocy going on around her on any given day.
It is most definitely a film of first world problems gone awry. We have a bunch of dense and pompous people of exceptional superficiality before us. However, this very easily arrived at prognostication starts giving way to more and more surrealist tinges.
The film hits the skids as Bunuel takes us into a realm all his own. Whether it’s the mind of a mad genius or a perverse old man is up for debate among the literati. But of course, he would hardly give their discourse (or mine) a thought.
Things start getting ridiculous with meal after meal stacked one on top of the other to the point of dizzying regularity. Every scene crammed together features a new dining table or a new conversation over drinks with a dash of the absurd for garnish.
Not to mention nested dreams before the days of Inception because of course, everyone, even Bunuel, seems to have some fascination with the meta, going so far as inserting his own dreams into the story purely because he can.
What becomes the guiding force is this quintessential fluid sense of absurdism accentuated through the execution of more complex shot sequences utilizing zooms and tracking shots. They maintain the continuity while helping to maintain this Bunuelian sense of dreamscapes. Because for him that’s much of what the world is, a stream of consciousness, and there’s no necessary distinction. And yet there are times within the film he acknowledges them so explicitly as if to send a self-aware wink to the audience.
Meanwhile, he has gleeful fun forcing his characters to walk down the road together toward nothingness. One moment they’re waking up from a crazy dream. The ladies settle down for tea only for none to be available and instead they’re treated to the ghastly stories from a sad-sack lieutenant’s abysmal childhood.
All bets are off when they’re interrupted by cavalrymen winding up their maneuvers and then passing around a joint in the parlor. Another time they’re arrested for some nameless crime and another gunned down by mobsters without pretense.
I’d hardly call these moments spoilers because Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is full of non-sequiturs. Anything is capable of happening at any moment. Sometimes all of dinner is a stage, and the guests merely players. Other times Vietnam seamlessly fits into the context of the scenario’s commentary (“If they bomb their own troops there must be a reason”).
In a sense, Providence is replaced by the rhythms of chance and the bizarre, laying the groundwork for the director’s implicit worldview. But of course, it stretches much further than that imprinted onto the themes and the very fabric of the characters.
The hypocrisy of the social elites is always being closely tied with religion. Bishops are to be made light of and Bunuel’s conception of their rituals can best be summarized by one telling image of a crucifix, cradled in the arms, getting dirt unceremoniously dumped on top of it. Or for that matter, the same priest gives absolution to the man who killed his parents only to think better of it.
But not for a moment would we mistake any of these abrupt outbursts for true drama; each individual instance is only a trifle, a way for Bunuel to follow his flights of fancy like he always does, trampling everything around him with wry exhilaration.
Whatever madcap visions you can imagine in their drawing-room, they basically wind up coming into being. Although Bunuel doesn’t have the same carnivalesque showmanship of Federico Fellini or the technical and spectacular panache of a Hitchcock, he nevertheless invariably keeps their company.
For better or for worse, his films and the visions they employ stay with you. What’s more, his conception of the world is quite transparent. Fellini was mirrored in the director in 8½. There are shades of the “Master of Suspense” in Scottie from Vertigo, and just about every man in a Bunuel picture bears his mark and, at the very least, his philosophy of total irreverence.
What’s striking is how volatile and relevant he feels in the modern age. I for one always find it perplexing to come at his work because not only does his filmography undermine the tenets of classical narrative convention, he also does much to play his audience as well.
“The Folies Bergere” was mesmerizing as we began to understand we are part of the piece. A Bunuel film is similar because you are brought into it as well and yet one could argue he goes a step further by making his audience the butt of the joke.
All your personal hangups and hypocrisies — social, political, religious, romantic — whatever they may be, will be ousted and laid bare. His players are easy targets as representations of the trivial social elite. But then we were tricked into spending all this time with them that ultimately went nowhere. So let me ask you, what does that make us? Be forewarned Bunuel might just get to you too.