31 October 2005

100 films: Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie

starring: Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig, and Bulle Ogier
written by: Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière
directed by: Luis Buñuel
PG, 102 min, 1972, France

Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, or the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, is one of last great films from legendary surrealist director Luis Buñuel. It is, quite simply, a film about rich people eating, only they never eat. They gather numerous times, have drinks and pleasant conversation, and occasionally even get to sit down at an actual table, but there is always something to prevent them from partaking in a meal. Either the host is having sex in the garden with his wife, or the military has come by for maneuvers, or the whole thing is just a dream, or they just happen to be actors in a play, but it's always something. The essence of the film is that of unfinished business.

As they're getting ready to not eat, the characters discuss a range of issue, but stick largely to the political and economic realm. Rafael (Fernando Rey) is the Ambassador of a fictional Latin American country, and there's a number of questions that revolve around what appear to be the sensitive issues in that part of the world circa 1972. Generally speaking, such topics appear to be distasteful to him, but being the good diplomat, he presses on. What's strange is that virtually none of the discussions are anything else, save for a tutorial on how to mix a dry martini. When the Bourgeoisie talk amongst themselves, it's largely in a dignified sense; it takes the introduction of commoners (usually military men) to tell tales of their childhood or odd dreams they've had recently. Is Buñuel trying to tell us something about the class system? Probably, but to be honest, I'm not sure what that is. There's an excess of traffic noise throughout the film, either cars driving by where they wouldn't normally be heard, or planes overhead completely muffling a conversation beyond our ability to hear. So perhaps Buñuel is trying to make the connection between the conversation of the wealthy and a sort of white noise that's persistently empty of any real content. It's also interesting to note that sex is given the same treatment as eating. There are a couple of occasions where characters are about to have sex, but something always happens to prevent it, such as her husband droping by unexpectedly for a visit.

In nearly everything you'll ever read about Buñuel there's a mention of the time he spent with Salvador Dali, and with it the classification of Buñuel as a surrealist, which instantly brings to mind weird sequences, as if somehow the film is going to revolve around a melting clocks theme. Certainly the films are a bit confusing and occasionally just odd (at one point cockroaches fall out of a piano), but Buñuel's a more literal filmmaker than some are willing to give him credit for. Of course, there's still those moments that perplex us, but for the most part we know what's going on. Here, he's having a bit of fun with us, I think. It becomes apparent pretty early on that the group isn't going to be allowed to eat an actual meal, so we start looking for things that could interrupt them. In an early scene it's been established that the men have been using the diplomatic immunity of Rafael to smuggle cocaine into the country and that he has some sort of terrorist group after him, so the characters have the underlying fear that the next interruption could be their downfall. Even when it appears the law has caught up with them, they are quickly released and Buñuel's game continues. To keep us on our toes, he throws a couple of dream sequences at us, including the always popular dream-within-a-dream, and the clever reveal that the dinner invitation is not a dinner at all, as the wall is removed and they find themselves on stage, mortified as their lines are whispered to them from just off-stage. I hesitate to use the phrase "Kafka-esque", but we're certainly in that territory.

As we near the end, one of the characters casually mentions how starving he is, and Rafael tears into a midnight snack with gusto. And why wouldn't he? The poor man hasn't been able to eat a thing since the film started.

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