Film Fete: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
by Vincent Canby
As in a dream things go fearfully wrong for the characters in Luis Buñuel’s brilliant (and brilliantly titled) new comedy, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but the Ambassador of Miranda and his Parisian friends, the Sénéchals and the Thevenots, and Mrs. Thevenot’s sister, Florence, always manage to cope gracefully. On second thought, Florence is not quite as consistent as the others.
One martini and Florence is inclined to throw up—looking beautiful one minute and like a dead goose the next, her head dangling out the Ambassador’s Cadillac window.
For the most part, however, the Ambassador, the Sénéchals, the Thevenots and Florence survive a series of magnificently bewildering circumstances, employing the kind of elegance, self-interest, delicacy, intelligence, rudeness and short attention spans that Buñuel apparently finds to be the power, the curse and the appeal of the European upper middle class.
The world of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is one of absolutely everything interrupted.
For some peculiar reason, every time the friends sit down to dine, odd things happen. An Army arrives or, just as the food is being served, a curtain goes up and the friends find themselves on a stage playing to an audience. “I don’t know my lines,” M. Sénéchal (Jean-Pierre Cassel) says with wild-eyed, middle-of-the-night fright.
When Mme. Thevenot (Delphine Seyrig) is at the flat of the Ambassador (Fernando Rey) for an afternoon tryst, her husband (Paul Frankeur) stops by—and you haven’t seen such a flurry of garter belts and little white gloves in 40 years of moviegoing. Things get so bad that fate even conspires to interrupt (though not permanently) the very profitable heroin smuggling operation that the Ambassador conducts with the help of M. Sénéchal and M. Thevenot.
One must, I suppose, talk about “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” rather gravely. It is, after all, Buñuel’s 28th feature since L’Age D’Or in 1929 but, except for The Exterminating Angel and Belle de Jour, he has never since employed the special freedom of Surrealism for such astonishing and lucid results.
Several years ago, Buñuel said of The Exterminating Angel that “its images, like the images in a dream, do not reflect reality, but create it.” A lot of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is made up of dreams—at times, of dreams within dreams, at other times, dreams that one person has dreamed that another dreamed. Sometimes they are just the dreams of a passer-by. You’ve never seen so many wish fulfillments. However, much of it is not a dream, and all of it is real — the unique creation of a director who, at 72, has never been more fully in control of his talents, as a filmmaker, a moralist, social critic and humorist.
One must talk about these things; yet they tend to flatten the special exhilaration that The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie inspires when you see it. That exhilaration has to do with the awareness that you’re watching a genius at work through any number of indications, some almost minuscule.
Take, for example, the sort of small to-do that ensues when Mme. Sénéchal (Stéphane Audran) and Mme. Thevenot, with Florence (Bulle Ogier), go for afternoon tea at a fancy Paris hotel. Florence asks to change her seat. She can’t stand looking at the cellist. “I hate cellos,” she pouts. “Most orchestras have dropped them.” Like others in her class, Florence is a woman in the thrall of cockeyed fashion.
Or take the character of the clergyman (Julien Bertheau). “You’ve heard of the worker priests?” he asks the astonished Mme. Sénéchal as he applies for the job of gardener. “Well, I’m a worker bishop.”
In addition to being extraordinarily funny and perfectly acted, The Discreet Charm moves with the breathtaking speed and self-assurance that only a man of Buñuel’s experience can achieve without resorting to awkward ellipsis. It was shown last night at the New York Film Festival and opens Sunday, Oct. 22 at the Little Carnegie. As I have not said in several years: Don’t miss it.
The New York Times, October 14, 1972
* * *
by Vincent Canby
Luis Buñuel’s brilliant new comedy, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie), is so free in form and yet so lucid and wise that it could give the Surrealists a whole new lease on life. It also reminds us that Surrealism need not be a bleeding-watch bore, a method of ciphering messages with the Freudian equivalent of the Little Orphan Annie Secret Code Ring. That is, the sort of art in which tunnels, cantaloupes, clocks, baby buggies, bell towers, shoes, you-name-it, are never allowed to be what they seem. They exist only as material for rigid interpretation, for immediate transformation to some higher meaning—if you’ve been fortunate enough to learn the cocktail-party language of the twentieth-century cabalists.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a direct descendant of Buñuel’s L ‘Aged‘Or (made with Salvador Dali in 1930) and The Exterminating Angel (1962), and much more distantly related to his Belle de Jour (1968), which in spite of its fantastic structure is essentially a narrative film.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is not. It’s a collection of mostly funny but sometimes somber thoughts on the French upper middle class by Buñuel the Spanish moralist, humorist and social critic who, forty-two years ago. made a point in L’Age d’Or by having the guests at a chic dinner party appear unconcerned when a kitchenmaid accidentally goes up in flames. The passage of time has not eroded Buñuel’s talent or his humor. It has simply given them a high sheen. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie he doesn’t have to incinerate kitchenmaids to express himself. He does it much more genteelly.
Ines, the Senechals’ maid, is serving the soup. When Mine. Thevenot asks Ines how things are with her fiance, Ines, who doesn’t look a day over thirty-five, admits that they’ve broken off. She explains that her fiance has gone into the army for two years and didn’t want her to wait, saying that she was already too old “How old are you?” Mme. Thevenot asks. “Fifty-two, Madame,” Ines answers. “Oh, well,” Mine. Thevenot says with a rather rude shrug, “I understand.” It’s as if Ines had foul breath, terminal cancer, or something else equally unpleasant. Among other things, the film is about gargantuan confusions in values forever unrecognized.
The form of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is important, but I hope a description of it will not put anyone off. Dreams in movies are, by and large, fakes. They tend to be either simpleminded introductions to psychoanalysis or narrative cheats, the trapdoors that screenwriters use to get out of comers they’ve witlessly written themselves into.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is actually one long dream in which the dreamer, Don Raphael (Fernando Rey), the urbane ambassador to Paris from the Latin-American country of Miranda (which has the highest homicide rate in the world), dreams his own dreams as well as the dreams dreamed by others, by his Parisian friends and even by people casually met by those friends. To the extent that dreams are, as Freud has taught us, wish fulfillments, and to the extent that they are usually encased in sleep (the little death, as someone has called it), the film’s meaning is its structure of dreams and dreams interrupted. Periodically during the film, Buñuel cuts abruptly to a recurring sequence that becomes the visual equivalent of a musical theme (admittedly a terrible analogy, since in The Discreet Charm, as in so many other of his films, Buñuel uses no musical score whatsoever).
We see the Ambassador and his friends, M. and Mme. Sénéchal (Jean-Pierre Cassel and Stéphane Audran), M. and Mme. Thevenot (Paul Frankeur and Delphine Seyrig) and Mme. Thevenot’s sister Florence (Bulle Ogier), each dressed as if going to an afternoon diplomatic reception, walking down a deserted highway that crosses a field of magnificent yellow flowers. They walk not gaily but with good-humored purpose, as if, for reasons they are too polite to fret about (a flat tire, or simply a need to get on with life), they have to make the best of an unfortunate situation.
This structure is also integral to the film for a much simpler reason. It allows Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carriere, his collaborator on the screenplay (as well as on those for Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de Jour and The Milky Way), to improvise freely, to deal in narrative material for as long as it suits their purposes and then to move on, unhampered by the sort of logic that would be demanded by, say, Tristana.
What narrative there is in The Discreet Charm has mostly to do with the efforts of the Ambassador, the Sénéchals and the Thevenots to dine together, which might be simple enough in real life but which in the perverse world of the film is a practical impossibility. Dates get mixed up; M. and Mme. Sénéchal are suddenly seized by an amorous fit (in one of the film’s most hilarious sequences); the friends find themselves dining on a stage in front of a live audience, acting in a play whose lines they don’t know. No matter what happens, however, they manage to cope, and usually with grace, even when they are all arrested with the Ambassador for being accomplices in his very profitable heroin-smuggling operation. Only occasionally do they falter.
Florence, for example, loves martinis but gets immediately drunk and throws up when she drinks even one. It’s typical of the superb élan of these people that no one becomes irritated when Florence gets crocked. They treat it as a standing joke that has to be cleaned up after. The good bishop (Julien Bertheau), who hires on as the Sénéchals’ gardener at union rates (he explains he’s a worker-bishop), is momentarily undone when he is called to the bedside of a dying man who, it turns out, murdered the bishop’s mother and father years ago. The bishop gives the man absolution and then shoots him.
For the most part, though, these members of the bourgeoisie face everything with a ready smile, with a belief in good manners (to one another if not to commoners) that is their religion and their strength, and with a total preoccupation with self, which they rather sweetly recognize and accept in one another. When Mmc. Sénéchal, Mme. Thevenot and Florence are in a hotel having tea one afternoon, they are approached by a sad-faced lieutenant who asks them if they have had unhappy childhoods. Both Mmes. Sénéchal and Thevenot reply that their childhoods were blissful. Florence says hers was terrible, that she was subject to various complexes, including the Euclid, whereupon the lieutenant asks if he may tell the women about his tragic childhood. Being polite, they urge him please do.
The lieutenant’s story, like so many other tales within the film, is one of death. On another occasion, a sergeant tells the Ambassador and his friends a terrifying dream about being dead. It is one of the loveliest and eeriest sequences in any Buñuel film. “I was taking a stroll at dusk down a very busy street,” he begins, yet we see a street at night and it’s deserted, only the soundtrack is alive with muted voices. As sleep surrounds these dreams, death surrounds the existence of the bourgeoisie, which, I think, is about all the interpretation that a film this fine need be subject to.
To interpret it further would be to destroy the special exhilaration that comes with seeing it, to make heavy a comedy of particularly high order, and to attempt to make reasonable a kind of nonsense that is important for its own sake. I immediately think of Florence droning earnestly on as she reads the Ambassador’s horoscope (“Your sensibility is in harmony with your humanitarian conscience . . or of a pot-smoking French colonel’s very pious defense of the United States Air Force in Vietnam when he’s told that at least once a week it bombs its own men because the pilots are drug addicts. “If they bomb their troops,” the colonel says in the manner military men affect when talking to civilians, “they must have their reasons.”
Some years ago, Buñuel said: “It was Surrealism which showed me that life had a moral direction which men cannot but follow. … It was also a great step forward into the marvelous and the poetic.” The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is his furthest step yet into that strange land where, one suspects, the sunshine of the sunniest day may really be a kind of heat lightning. In a fraction of a second, it will be night again.
The New York Times, October 29, 1972