Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie by Luis Bunuel

As I fight off a particularly tenacious cold, I've been swilling orange juice and robitussin and enjoying some older films I'd been meaning to get around to watching. This morning, I watched Luis Bunuel's surreal comedy "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" and, much to my surprise, it completely won me over. I have to admit that this is my first exposure to Bunuel's work (which says a lot about the limited scope of my film history classes as an undergrad), and it was completely unlike what I'd expected. Bunuel is a founding father of surrealist cinema, and I had braced myself for some sort of Roy Andersson-like experience (I've rented "Songs from the Second Floor" three times and have yet to make it through the aimless thing). What I experienced instead was a really joyful film that seemed principally concerned with making the main characters feel like asses (as opposed to the viewers). Consisting mainly of dream sequences and seated dinners during which the characters (three philandering, no-good politicos and their wives) inevitably become involved in some kind of ridiculous skirmish before the food is ever served, there's not much plot to speak of. The viewer's situation is a lovely parallel to that of the characters; none of us are being served anything substantial to consume, but we're all here at the table so we had better find some way to enjoy ourselves.

My favorite moment in the film takes place during one of the dream sequences, when the six main characters descend upon an army lieutenant's home to have dinner (which, of course, is never served). They wander in the open door, take their seats at the table, and wonder aloud where the leuitenant is. One of the lieutenant's walls dispappears, revealing a large, jeering theatre audience. Off-stage, a director shouts lines to the dinner party, who stare at the audience and mumble to themselves in confusion. The moment is hilarious. I have to disagree with reviewers who maintain that the film has no meaning or intention beyond being ridiculous. There were more than a few moments in the film where the situations were simultaneously funny and poignant. I imagine that all of us have found ourselves at some uncomfortable dinner event, wondering what to say, feeling suddenly put upon to perform. We're not supposed to sympathize with these awful characters: they fuck one another's spouses, deal cocaine out of their embassy offices, and treat "common" people like dirt. But in those little moments when we do have sympathy for them, I believe we're forgiving them. Like the title implies "The Discreet Charm of..." puts the viewer in a high enough place to look down at the upturned noses of its characters. And if we just find the characters awful, that's one thing. But if we find them awful and, well, kind of cute in their awfulness, maybe we're all forgiven for our shortcomings.

A notable quirk of the production is that there is no soundtrack at all, no non-diegetic sound. The backdrop is largely the French countryside and an urban French setting, so it's obviously easy on the eyes. Highly recommended to those who don't need a beginning, middle, and end. Definitely don't watch this with Syd Field.


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