Backlog #4: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

Perhaps the classic Bunuel picture, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie follows a group of friends and family as they attempt to dine out, but encounter a series of frustrations, some coincidental, other more illogical and increasingly surreal.

All the time, the group react to all of these unexpected events with annoyance, but they keep their calm demeanour, as if these trials shall not cause them to lose face. The film expands and strange, enigmatic dream sequences appear. These (I remember the one of the solider encountering the ghost of his dead mother in particular) are beautifully shot in an amazingly striking and profound manner; they contrast with the film’s reality of upper middle class folk going about their entitled and privileged ways.

These characters are accustomed to their lives running like clockwork, with their activities and social relations being acted out in an accepted (accustomed) manner – most typically by the dinner party or afternoon tea. Bunuel (as in all of the films that I have previously discussed) challenges this, in a manner that is much more subtle than one would assume. (I) would assume (perhaps from taking my surrealist cues from Monty Python’s Flying Circus) that this society would be attacked from a manically crazy perspective, which would make it seem ridiculous. With Bunuel, most notably The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, this perspective of attack is utilised (in the main) with the dreams, which suggest that the characters anxieties and fears are internalised, that they are conditioned to serenely cope with whatever life comes up with; that underneath the surface everyone has a personal fear or worse a horror to live with.

Bunuel’s films never internalise this, beyond the words and actions of the characters. They all seem to be smooth on the surface, having little in plot and themes. Underneath is where the action is – the scenario and the acting (impassive and expressive at the same time) support where Bunuel wants to cover and set up for attack.

This primary point (surface and depth) is a reason why Bunuel is a great artist. His films, as I mentioned before, do not look like great works a la Citizen Kane; instead they look like ordinary contemporary domestic pictures (this probably means that they shock less in 2015 than was the case in 1972). Watching these films, it is perhaps the contradictions they embody, portray and attack that make them such admirable works.

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