The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

The emotional punch of satire depends on participation in the culture; Jon Stewart telling the Crossfire goons “you’re hurting us” was shocking and scathingly funny.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie, Bunuel skewers the social conventions of the postwar French elite; the genteel obsessions with food, the correct way to serve alcohol, polite table manners, formal dress for dining with friends at home. Behind the politeness there is adultery, drug-dealing, murder, and political oppression; and a dream life where fear, violence, torture and death break through the surface.
The humor and shock of Discrete Charm can be appreciated but not quite felt. At times, the satire needs to be deciphered like Moliere and Chaucer. The class satire in particular needs footnotes. A bishop is invited to dinner, though he has signed on as a gardener; military officers are part of the club; the driver and maid are the subject of condescension. I’m surely missing the nuances.
I rented Discreet Charm for remedial film reference. In the making-of-Tenenbaums DVD extra with Wes Anderson, the director called on Luis Bunuel for inspiration with some difficult scene.
From Bunuel, perhaps, Anderson inherits the intertwingling of the bizarre and ordinary. Perhaps Anderson is trying to borrow Bunuel’s matter-of-fact tone with the bizarre. Bunuel acheives deadpan, Anderson’s tone is sometimes just dead.
The heart of both films is psychological. Anderson’s therapeutic themes are angst, anomie, and emotional dishonesty. Bunuel is sincerely Freudian — ordinary life hides a vivid dreamworld of sex, violence, and death.
I appreciated Discreet Charm, and really enjoyed the 90-minute biography of the filmmaker on the Criterion DVD. The biography interviews Salvador Dali and other contemporaries of Bunuel’s avant-garde youth and actors who played in the various films over 50 years. There’s footage of Bunuel, Dali, Lorca and crew being young, hip and beautiful.
The repressive cause and high cost of avant garde rebellion is shown in pictures; the theater showing L’Age D’Or that was bombed by right-wing militants; a contemporary shot (I think) of the friends reacting to Lorca’s murder by Nationalist soldiers at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War; the church hierarchy giving a Nazi salute; friends who put Bunuel up at their house when he couldn’t get a job in the US because of the Hollywood blacklist.
Bunuel’s friends and colleagues tell fond stories of roguish humor and strict personal habits; the atheists’s attraction to religious ceremonies and priests. The bio is rather hagiographical, leaving out the dirty laundry about cruelty to his wife, drinking, the feud with Dali.
The bio gives context to Bunuel’s old-fashioned avant garde esthetic. These days, the idea of shock on film travels across a wide cultural gulf. When Janet Jackson bares a breast on TV, many are shocked, and just as many wonder what the fuss is about. In college film class, Bunuel’s work is standard text in college film class, and “transgressive” is a conventional compliment. The horrifying images of Bunuel’s early work are the subject of fond father-son conversation in blue-state America. Shocking images in grossout comedies and horror movies are mainstream commercial products.
If I had the time, it would be fascinating to look up the reactions to “Discreet Charm” in 1972. Did people see an old radical domesticated into satire? Were the scenes of marital nookie in the bushes and decorous adultery considered titillating? Were the bloodied ghosts considered chilling or tame? It was a popular movie at the time — what did people like about it then?

One thought on “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”

  1. Great post. I’ve been wanting to see Discrete Charm again, and your post reminds me why I want to see it!
    I liked your earlier post on the Royal Tenenbaums too. Did you see the Life Aquatic? (If so, what did you think?)
    I was hesitating seeing it because I’d heard it wasn’t that good, but I finally saw it and really liked it–like Wed Anderson’s previous films, it’s one I can imagine wanting to see again and again.

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