Tuesday, May 2, 2017

1972 Winner, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Director:  Luis Buñuel

Distributed by:  20th Century Fox

Released:  September 1972

Country:  France

If you’re one of those people who thinks a good painting is one that looks like a photograph, then you probably are not a fan of surrealism.  Surrealism is the kind of art that leaves you wondering what the hell it is you are looking at, supposedly appealing to your subconscious and affecting you on a level other than what you see and hear at the surface.  The work of Salvador Dali, with his melting clocks and swans that reflect elephants, is great example of the art form.

It should come as no surprise that Dali was an early collaborator with Luis Buñuel, the director of 1972’s Best Foreign Film, the surrealistic The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.  Roger Ebert called their first film together, the 15-minute silent Un Chien Andalou (1928), the most famous short film ever made, and boy, it’s a doozy.  It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and is considered a masterpiece.  It’s worth giving the 15-minute film a look here.  The first minute or so is not for the squeamish

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, one of Buñuel’s last films, isn’t quite as nonsensical or
Going out for dinner
bizarre as Un Chien Andalou (which means “A dog from Andalusia,” but does not have the whiff of a dog, either one from Andalusia or from anywhere else), but elements of surrealism are all over this movie.  Set in France, the film is essentially about six people--Rafael, a diplomat from a fictional Central American country, who is also a drug trafficker; his friends the
Thévenots, a married couple of some importance; Mrs. Thévenot's alcoholic sister, Florence; and the Sénéchals, Alice and Henri—as they try to have dinner together, repeatedly interrupted or otherwise thwarted from having their meal together.

Un Chien Andalou
The first time they all go to their friend Alice’s house for dinner, but Alice informs them they were supposed to come the next day.  They all go out to a nice restaurant instead, but find that the owner is dead and laid out in the main dining room.  Another time they show up to Alice’s house, but cannot find the Sénéchals, as she and her husband suddenly had an urge to go have sex in the garden just outside.  (Noteworthy is that Alice is played by Stéphane Audran, who plays the title role in Best Foreign Film Babette’s Feast a decade and half later).   Returning to the house with hay all over themselves, they find their friends have taken off.  They will try it again another time.

Comedy is a part of this, but this is mostly social commentary.  The ambassador (played by Fernando Rey, the French connection in 1971’s The French Connection) and the others are all petty hypocrites, only interested in their own pleasures and looking down at those beneath them in social standing.  But because this is a surrealist film, often times one has no idea if what is shown actually happened or was someone’s dream.  We also don’t know if people are real or are ghosts, or if violence that occurs actually happens. 
Fernando Rey as Rafael
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a head-scratcher and likely would take several screenings to understand it.  Nonetheless, there are great sequences that keep you engaged, even you aren’t quite sure what they mean.  The cast is also excellent, especially Rey, who is at once dignified and morally suspect, the perfect persona for the point Bunuel was making about the bourgeoisie.  I think.

The title:  En français:  Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie.  The term “discreet charm” is used sarcastically, to indicate how beneath the surface, these people lack true dignity and grace.

The Culture:  Nothing particularly instructive about French culture, other than dinner parties seem to be a big thing.

Dali's The Persistence of Memory
Agenda danger:  The movie is pretty upfront about its point:  It is those in charge or well-off who are being put under the microscope here.

Best Picture that year:  The Godfather

Rating:  Buñuel is considered one of the great film makers of the 20th century.  What makes him impressive, I think, is that he went against conventions and made films about things that interested him, popularity be damned.  That said, I can’t say that I like the confusion that happens after watching from a film like this.  A second viewing may be just what I need, but for now, I will just say that if you feel, as I do, that a little weirdness is welcome in the arts, as long as it’s not weirdness for its own sake, this film will entertain you and make you think a little.  About what, I have no idea.

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