Friday, March 27, 2009

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

There’s an intriguing documentary on the Optimum Releasing ‘Luis Buñuel Collection’ box set edition of ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ which posits that the sequences of the main cast walking along an apparently endless road in the middle of nowhere is a metaphor for their collective death, and that the set pieces in between are indicative of an internal or emotional journey from denial to inevitable acceptance.

On one hand: yeah, maybe.

The devolution of the latter half of the film into a series of awakenings from increasingly bizarre situations of social embarrassment which turn out to be bad dreams does seem to bear out a reading of the film in which concrete reality does not exist and the bourgeoisie are subject to the breakdown (i.e. the death) of their own empty value systems – their ‘discreet charm’ masks infidelities, hypocrisies and vices sexual, alcoholic and narcotic*.

On the other hand: nah, maybe not.

Buñuel wasn’t just a surrealist, but a purist. His films are what they are. He wasn’t impressed with the critical necessity to foist meanings or interpretations on his imagery, and he always refused to ‘explain’ his work. There’s a wonderful story that he reacted with a mixture of horror and despair when an actor announced that they had finally understood their character’s psychology. Indeed, Buñuel gave little direction to his actors. His titles can’t always be taken at face value, either. ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ was assigned to the finished screenplay, pretty much randomly, after Buñuel and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière couldn’t agree on anything else.

His films are what they are. And what ‘TDCOTB’ is, is a black comedy about a group of friends who want to enjoy a meal together. They are frustrated by, variously, a misunderstanding over the date, a corpse laid to rest in the back room of a restaurant, an infantry battalion on manoeuvres, a political argument that ends in a shooting, a café that’s run out of refreshments, incarceration at the hands of an overzealous policemen on a night when the holding cells are haunted by the ghost of a brutal officer (a brilliant pastiche of the horror genre which Buñuel blithely deems “the night of the bloody sergeant”), and – in perhaps the only example in cinema of a play-within-a-dream-within-a-film – the revelation that the table they are seated at is laid with set dressings instead of salad dressings and they’re actually the ill-prepared and stagefright-struck cast in a theatrical production!

What ‘TDCOTB’ is, also, is funny as hell. The dead restaurateur scene, which plays like a ‘Monty Python’ sketch, sets the tone early on: the humour is po-faced, absurdist and steeped in the macabre. Buñuel nails his usual targets – politicians, the middle classes, the church – with unerring accuracy, subverts audience expectations (or confirms them if you’re an aficionado of the director) with playful panache, and delivers a supremely entertaining bit of cinema in the process.

And those enigmatic scenes of the main cast walking along an apparently endless road in the middle of nowhere? I like to think it’s about some elegantly dressed people walking along a road. It’s kind of like the hat blowing through the woods in ‘Miller’s Crossing’: it’s utterly memorable and cooler than cool … and it’s no more or less than a hat blowing through the woods.

*Fernando Rey’s character, a foreign ambassador, uses the diplomatic bag to smuggle drugs and worries that “the Marseilles gang” might be onto him – a beautifully sneaky nod to his iconic role in ‘The French Connection’ the previous year.

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