The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972
And the wind shall say “Here were decent godless people;
Their only monument the asphalt road And a thousand lost golf balls”.
This is the most amusing film I have ever seen and also the most cynical.It has no semblance of a plot.A group of affluent men and women, immaculately dressed, go about life trying to attend lunches and dinner parties that somehow go terribly wrong.All their attempts to have a meal together are interrupted by some bizarre event or another.They once walk into a restaurant and sit down to order, just to discover that the proprietor has died and his body is kept in the adjoining room, awaiting the arrival of the undertaker.They leave despite the entreaties of the head waiter who promises them a first class meal.In another startling scene they sit down to eat and the director Luis Bunuel literally yanks the curtain away to reveal that they are actually sitting on a theatre stage, and there is a sizeable audience waiting to watch them eat.The diners are appalled and make a nervous exit one after the other.
One of them is an ambassador of an imaginary country called Republic of Miranda, a stand in for the Latin American banana republics. He uses his diplomatic pouch to smuggle cocaine.The others two men in the group are his partners in crime. In one scene a group of men barge in on a dinner party armed with tommy guns. All are gunned down except the diplomat who hides under the table.He could have escaped but his gluttony gets the better of him and he reaches out from under the table to grab a piece of meat and is exposed and killed.
In one scene a couple is trying to make love while their guests wait downstairs.The wife wants to continue but the husband thinks she is too noisy. They climb out of the balcony for a romp in the barn and when they return their guests have fled fearing a police raid.
Bunuel was famously atheist and his films gently mock religion without alienating the audience. Here he introduces a Bishop who works part time as a gardener and also attends dinner parties of the rich. Bunuel gives the Bishops character a real job maybe because he cannot comprehend what a Bishops job description is. Recently on a visit to Cuba, Pope Benedict was asked nonchalantly by Fidel Castro-”So what do you really do?”
Maybe Castro has been watching Bunuel.
In another scene a young man is being tortured by being placed on the piano strings with electric current running through them.When the current is turned on the body twitches producing an eerie music.Several cockroaches tumble out and fall on the piano keys. Bunuel loved insects to the point of fetishizing about them and cockroaches were his favorite. During the cold war when a nuclear warfare was a real possibility, the reported ability of cockroaches to survive nuclear bombs could have played a part in their casting in this film. The Bible says the meek shall inherit the earth.To Bunuel cockroaches seemed more likely and perhaps more worthy.
The characters are shown between scenes walking on a long forlorn road looking slightly disoriented.This perhaps is the proverbial road to nowhere, Bunuel’s sly way of telling us how easy it is to get lost in the pursuit of the good life.
La Dolce Vita or “the sweet life” is an expression that has entered the popular vocabulary and there are thousands of restaurants and cafes by that name, peddling dubious Tiramisu.Everyone has their own fuzzy idea about the sweet and comfortable life they want to lead, full of beautiful people and good food, splendid homes and important sounding designations(CXXXO’s!).We don’t want to work but don’t want to let go of the illusion of work either.Words like bourgeoisie and proletariat are out of fashion but the stereotypes they refer to are present everywhere.The world had never been a richer place nor a more unequal one.On Facebook we are allowed to digitally poke our friends, in the ribs I presume, although fair discretion must still be exercised when poking lady friends. This film is Bunuel’s way of poking us.It was made at a time of contradictions, the world economy was booming and that money was being used to wage a futile war in Vietnam. That a film as unconventional as this won the best foreign film Oscar in 1973 and was a box office success is a measure of the resonance it had with its audience. And post 12.12. 2012, when the world has still not come to an end, futile wars are still being waged and religion continues to bitterly divide people, the power of this film has only increased exponentially.
The ideal life according to Bunuel consisted of waking 2 hours and sleeping and dreaming for the rest 22 hours provided he could remember the dreams.This film uses dreams and dreams within dreams.When we fall into the trap of believing something bizarre, the character wakes up from his dream while still other bizarre events do take place. And the dreams of the various characters overlap deliciously. Bunuel manages to blur the line between dreams and reality and places us in the realm of his own brand of surrealism.He is of course the original surrealist along with Dali with whom he made the iconic short film Un Chien Andalou(1929), which was a montage of jaw dropping surrealist shots.The most famous of them being the image of a human eye being sliced into two by a razor.Here he stitches together scenes which have a slight continuity in terms of characters but the film is free from the contrivances of plot.
The films Criterion Collection DVD contains a quirky documentary made by Bunuels friends. It includes footage of him mixing cocktails for his guests intercut with his friends talking about the time spent in his company. In the absence of this documentary its easy to imagine Bunuel as an artist who has risen above worldly comforts and uses film to mock the bourgeoisie lifestyle. In this documentary he is doing exactly what he mocks – mixing cocktails and enjoying the company of his friends.But then he is wise enough to realize that life is meaningless just sipping cocktails.And so he made films, and made them his own despite not being given full creative freedom by some of his producers.The genius of Bunuel is not to attack human nature and its follies but to embrace it, winking at the camera in the process.He does not float above his characters, he just minds his place behind the camera.