by Pauline Kael
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a cosmic vaudeville show —an Old Master’s mischief. Now seventy-two, Luis Buñuel is no longer savage about the hypocrisy and the inanity of the privileged classes. They don’t change, and since they have become a persistent bad joke to him, he has grown almost fond of their follies—the way one can grow fond of the snarls and the silliness of vicious pets. He looks at them now’, and they’re such perfectly amoral little beasts they amuse him: he enjoys their skin-deep proprieties, their faith in appearances, their sublime confidence. At the same time, this Spanish exile-expatriate may have come to a point in life when the hell he has gone through to make movies is receding into the past, like an old obscene story; he is so relaxed about his medium now- that he enjoys pinching its nose, pulling its tail. He has become a majestic light prankster —not a bad way for a man full of disgust and pity to age. The movie is slight, but it has a special enchantment: it’s a development—more like an emanation—of Buñuel’s movies which couldn’t have been expected but which seems right; that is, the best thing that could have happened. Buñuel’s cruelty and mockery were often startlingly funny, but they w-ere also sadistic; that was the power of his work and part of what made his films scandalous. He was diabolically anti-bourgeois, and he wasn’t just anticlerical—he was hilariously, murderously anticlerical. Here his old rages have become buoyant jokes. (Might Swift without his disease have ended up like this?) The movie comes close to serenity’, and it’s a deep pleasure to see that the unregenerate anarchist-atheist has found his own path to grace. Buñuel has never given in, never embraced the enemy, and maybe that’s why the tone of this spontaneous chamber music is so happy.
In The Exterminating Angel, which was about guests who came to a dinner and couldn’t leave, the jest grew heavy and allegorical. We were stuck there waiting to leave, too. He has turned that situation upside down here. A group of six friends—three men and three women—have trouble getting together for dinner, but they ’re not trapped: the series of interrupted dinners spans an indefinite period while food, that ritual center of bourgeois well-being, keeps eluding them. And Buñuel has left himself free: this is his most frivolously witty movie, and it’s open in time and place. It’s a divertimento on themes from his past movies—the incidental pleasures of twists and dream logic for their own sake. It’s all for fun—the fun of observing how elegantly these civilized monsters disport themselves in preposterous situations. This offhand, trickster approach to the medium is very like that of the comedy Assassins et Voleurs (called Lovers and Thieves here), which Sacha Guitry w-rote and directed, also at the age of seventy-two. That film, too, looked unbelievably easy, the technique imperceptible. It’s as if they both just sat on a sunny balcony with a bottle of good wine and waved a hand to direct the company. (Actually, Guitry worked from a wheelchair.) But there’s a different atmosphere in the Buñuel film—there’s a strong sense of timelessness, stronger than in his genial but antiquarian and rather innocuous The Milky Way, in which the characters travel through many eras. Here it is achieved in modern clothes and modern settings; one is simply aware of having lost a sense of time, and that this timelessness, which is tonic, is somehow linked to Buñuel’s ironic detachment. The characters hit the road of life here, too; w’e don’t know w’here they’re heading, but they’re such energetic travelers they seem to be going to a picnic. Their heads are stuffed with cliches, and they’re indifferent to anything except their own self-interest, but they wfere there when Buñuel began making movies, and they’ll survive him. Why not be playful, when all your rage and cruelty have hardly dented their armor?
The three men—Fernando Rey, as the bachelor Ambassador to France from Miranda (in South America), and his respectable married friends Jean- Pierre Cassel and Paul Frankeur—are secret business associates w ith a thriving trade in dope, brought in via diplomatic pouch. (Fernando Rey also played the suave gentleman with the silver-handled umbrella who sold the cache of heroin in The French Connection—the man who got away). His friends’ wives are Stephane Audran and Delphine Seyrig (with whom he is dallying); the sixth member of the group is Delphine Seyrig’s sister, played by Bulle Ogier. The other principals are representatives of the Church (Julien Bertheau as a bishop) and of the Army (Claude Pieplu), and Michel Piccoli does a small turn as a government minister There is not, however, as much acting as this list of eminent names may suggest. Bertheau plays with supreme finesse, but most of the others don’t really act characters; they represent something more like “humors.” Buñuel works fast; he obviously prefers casual performances (and even the awkward performances he gets from the minor players) to sentimentality. He uses the actors matter-of-factly to make his points, and this unemotional approach results in such a clean, thin-textured style that the merest anecdote begins to resemble a fable. In comedy, underdirected acting often dampens the jokes; here it becomes part of the exhilarating ease of the film, and of its simplicity. The principals —especially Stephane Audran—embody their roles with professional awareness: they have that discreet charm, and they do nicely judged turns in a polished drawing-room style, as if they were doing charades at a party.
American novelists sometimes parody the processes of artistic creation too early in their own lives, when their parody means little to us except a demonstration of cleverness, but when Buñuel parodies the methods by which a movie director can lead you into story structures, and into dreams, and dreams within dreams, and tales of the supernatural, the joke is how easy it is. Or, rather, how easy it has become for him. The charm of the film is that the old magician can show off his skills and make fun of them at the same time. He can say, “Look, there’s nothing to it. Just take the rabbit out of the hat.” (The first shot in the movie looks like a black cat’s face, yellow eyes glowing, but turns out to be a car coming toward us with its headlights on.) There is nothing else in the movie—just the surprises, and the pleasures of his dexterity as he springs them. You have no idea what’s coming from minute to minute; he keeps leading you down garden paths that disappear. (Only once, I found his dream logic faulty: when the bishop gives a dying man—the murderer of the bishop’s parents—absolution and then shoots him, the idea is perhaps too cutely paradoxical to go with the ugliness of the act. The gunshot—definite and resonant, like nothing else in the film— violates the light, unpremeditated style.) The movie proceeds by interruptions: just as you have been gulled into getting interested in a situation he pulls the rug out from under you and goes on to something else. And, in the same way that he parodies bourgeois instincts and manners in the day-to-day episodes, he parodies bourgeois fears and superstitions in the supernatural- fantasy episodes. He hokes up these scary death jokes with fancy lighting and cutting that he disdains in the rest of the movie, demonstrating how easy it is to draw an audience into childish ghost stories, which demonstrates how- primitive audience responses are. He says, “If you want cheap mysteries, this is how simple it is.” Then each time the interruption comes one can almost hear the director laughing. The old anarchist has planted his bombs under bourgeois moviemaking.
Published in The New Yorker, November 11, 1972