The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, by Luís Buñuel

Germana Monte-Mór (Reviews Journal)
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By Arnaldo Sampaio de Moraes Godoy*

The view of a Spaniard, who lived in Mexico, and who thought about European culture in the context of other standards

Luís Buñuel tells us in his memoirs that Serge Silberman, with whom he made many films, had invited some people to dinner, forgetting, however, to tell his wife, also forgetting that that night he would have dinner in another place, due to a commitment[I]. Silberman's wife was surprised by the guests, she was in a peignoir, ready to go to sleep.

This passage, commonplace, is the starting point for “The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie”, which Buñuel shot in 1972. “The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie” is a radical film. We can watch it several times, and we always have the feeling that we are not watching the same copy. It took the Oscar for best foreign film in 1973. There is a legend, fostered by Buñuel, that surrounds this award with an aura of mystery. Asked if he had expectations of taking the prize, Buñuel would have replied that he had bribed some members of the jury and that, therefore, he would certainly be chosen. This statement aroused much confusion and gossip. In the end, awarded in fact, Buñuel recorded that the North Americans were people of their word... In “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” Buñuel follows what François Truffaut called the “principle of Scottish shower”, that is, an “alternation of notations favorable and unfavorable, positive and negative, logical and unreasonable”, which applies “both the situation and the characters.”[ii]. Bewildering.

The film reminds us of a dream, with anguish and disagreements, even if punctuated by a disturbing irony. There are six people who get together for a common meal, which for various (unexpected) reasons does not go as expected. Ultimately, the unity represented by the meal they intended to have can indicate a parody of the last supper. The common thread is the meal always postponed for an unexpected reason, and most of the time meaningless. A series of mismatches also shows us that “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” could be classified as a comedy of errors. A Buñuel film does not submit to classifications, even if we insist on identifying it as a “surrealist” film. It is “a story of a bourgeois dinner continually interrupted by all kinds of invasions of external reality, an x-ray of the bourgeoisie in its intimacy”[iii]

A diplomat from an imaginary South American republic (Miranda), played by Fernando Rey, is at the center of the plot. This is Don Rafael Acosta, a symbol of hypocrisy, because he was a nationalist, denying all the criticism that was made of Miranda, with a lot of class. He showed himself as a moralist, criticizing drug use, even though he dealt cocaine with the friends who accompanied him. He feared the police. Don Rafael symbolizes the corrupt South American who nestled in French high society, as (or more) corrupt than the eccentric character. The “cavaignac”, the “robe-de-chambre” and the mannerisms underline this discreet and essentially bourgeois charm.

“The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie” is a critique of social conventions. One has the impression that Buñuel transits with his strange look in an environment full of codes, protocols, conventions and repetitions. The protagonists seem absent from the real world. The conventions that Buñuel censors form a wall that separates reality from the extravagant world experienced by the characters.

The army commander, who smoked marijuana and was in another world, well symbolizes this distinction between reality and imagination. This strange colonel, played by Claude Piéplu (who died in 2006) is one of the most fascinating figures in the film. He interrupts an attempt to have dinner, with all his troops, because he had agreed with the owner of the house (and host of the dinner, Henri, played by Jean-Pierre Cassel)[iv] that would stay close. They prepare more food for the small troop. When they begin to relax, an orderly interrupts the meeting with a message for the colonel. He must leave. However, before he leaves, he complies with the orderly's request who tells everyone some dreams he had. The colonel leaves. He invites everyone to dine at his house in due course.

“The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie” is also a criticism of the Catholic Church. The bishop (played by Julien Bertheau) is hilarious. He wants to please Miranda's ambassador and to demonstrate his knowledge of this imaginary republic he recalls that the Church had an important mission in Bogotá. The ambassador explains that Bogotá is in Colombia, not Miranda. The bishop apologizes, but claims to have heard many praises for Miranda, country of the pampas. The ambassador observes that the pampas are Argentinean, there are no pampas in Miranda. The bishop then remarks that he had recently read a book about Latin America and that he was impressed by the pyramids that were in Miranda. The ambassador explains that the pyramids are in Guatemala. The bishop, without being disconcerted, asks if the ambassador is sure that there are no pyramids in Miranda. The geography he knew didn't reach Miranda. Admittedly, Miranda didn't grasp geography.

The bishop offers to work as a gardener in the house of one of Miranda's friends, Henri, who once ran away from the house to make love to his wife in the garden. The bishop argued that several priests defended workers and therefore there was no prohibition for a bishop to become a manual worker. It was the zenith of liberation theology and the Church engaged in social struggles, which made that bishop, in his very peculiar way, a champion of the class struggle. The bishop carried childhood traumas, and his relationship with gardeners and gardens and gardeners stems from these traumas. Called to give extreme unction to a dying gardener, the bishop encounters his past. This character is worth the movie. On the surface, it's marginal to the core narrative, it feels like a deviation from the plot. However, somehow, it is central to the problems posed by Buñuel.

The plot is tasty. It begins on a rainy night, two men and two women arrive at the house where they imagined that dinner was waiting for them. They noticed that the fireplace was not lit. The owner of the house was not to be found, and his wife, as noted above, was going to sleep. They decide to have dinner at a nearby restaurant. The wife accompanies them, dressed as she would go to bed. Strangely, the restaurant had its doors closed. Were received. A maitre d' serves them. They hear a cry. The owner of the restaurant had passed away and in a side room he was being veiled. Macabre. Even though the maitre d' promised they would have a delicious meal, they left the place. It wasn't this time that they got the rejection they planned. They would have lunch the following Saturday. One can see in this scene the influence that Buñuel had on Almodóvar.

Miranda's ambassador is followed by terrorists, which was commonplace in the political environment of the time. Of course, a matter of optics and perspective. Terrorists are called terrorists precisely by those they fight. The ambassador does not believe that the population could be educated and well fed and well treated. However, he swore, he was not a reactionary... With a revolver he defended himself from a beautiful terrorist who was chasing him.

Friends gather for an afternoon snack. They are in a very elegant location. Order some tea. The waiter returns a long time later apologizing, there is no more tea. Then they order coffee. The waiter returns a long time later apologizing, there is no more coffee. As? Then ask for water. The waiter hesitates to take the order. A soldier who was at a neighboring table approaches and asks to tell a dream he had. We know from Buñuel that the dream narrated was a dream that the director himself had dreamed. Buñuel recognized that nobody is interested in other people's dreams. However, he questioned how we can tell our lives without talking about our subterranean existence, which is also processed in our dreams.[v]. She dreamed of a cousin, Rafael Saura, and reveals that some of these dreams were interpolated in this film.[vi]. There's probably also a lot of Buñuel's childhood dream rescue; after all, “the deeper one goes into the analysis of a dream, the more often one comes to the trail of childhood experiences which played a role among the sources of the dream's latent content”[vii].

The next scene is anthological. The original group is at the colonel's house, who had invited them to dinner. There is a small museum. Among the objects, a hat that Napoleon would have used in the battle of Wagran. They joke, remembering that there are many similar hats in France. As they begin their meal, a curtain opens and they discover that they are in a theatre, on stage, performing. Anguished, they don't know what to say, they don't know the plot, even if a “point” blows what they should say. Buñuel tells us that he had similar dreams with recurrence. The spectator is lost, and no longer knows what a dream or reality or film or personal experience is.

In his memoirs Buñuel explains this theater scene[viii]. He tells us that he dreamed that he had to play, on stage, in a few minutes, a role that he didn't even know the first word he had to pronounce. That dream was sometimes long and complicated. He was anxious, flustered, scared with his impatience and with the boos he received from the audience. He then looks for the stagehand, the theater director. They say the curtain will rise and you have to turn around. There is no more time to waste.

Afterwards, the ambassador and his friends are arrested. A policeman obsessed with law enforcement coordinates the movement. At the prison, the policemen mention that the day is for celebration. The "day of the bloody sergeant" is celebrated. It is about a violent policeman, who tortured young people, which is revealed with a torture scene, which takes place next to a piano, from which cockroaches come out. An all-powerful minister intervenes. At the moment he orders the release of the ambassador and his friends, there is the noise of several planes. The spectator is unaware of what reasons he invoked. In addition, the so-called “bloody sergeant” is an assistant to the incorruptible policeman, who was forced to release Don Rafael and his friends.

“The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie” is a film that unfolds in the form of overlapping dreams. The spectator compares them with his own dreams, so we can add a new version to the two languages ​​that Sigmund Freud pointed out. There is the dream and the material on which the dream is based, a relationship that is most often incomprehensible. When we come across the dreams of others, we add our dream experiences. In this effort we can admit that there may be a common dream language, distinct from verbal language. It is the theme of the archetype in oneiric symbolism, primordial and spontaneous images to which Carl Gustav Jung referred.

“The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie” is also a period film. It faces the issues of that time, like the drug trade, guerrillas, political corruption, which in some way are problems that transcend time and that mark our days. It is the view of a Spaniard, who lived in Mexico, and who thought of European culture in the context of other standards. What was familiar to him became strange. Perhaps because, for Buñuel, all the strangeness of the world was substantially (and not just dreamily) familiar to him.[ix].

* Arnaldo Sampaio de Moraes Godoy is a professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of São Paulo-USP.

Data sheet: Directed by Luis Buñuel. Photography by Edmond Richard. Screenplay by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière. With Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Stéphane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel. France, 1972. 1 h 42 m. French.

Grades :

[I] BUÑUEL, Luis, My last breath, São Paulo: Cosac Naify 2009, p. 343. Translation by André Telles.

[ii] TRUFFAUT, Francois, The movies of my life, Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1989, pp. 287-288. Translation by Vera Adami.

[iii] ASCHER, Nestor, Luis Bunuel, in Folha counts without years of cinema, Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1995, p. 73.

[iv] In time, Jean-Pierre Cassel is the father of Vincent Cassel, who starred in “Black Swan” as well as some films in Brazil. Vincent Cassel speaks elegant Portuguese.

[v] BUÑUEL, Luis, My last breath, cit., p. 137.

[vi] BUÑUEL, Luis, My last breath, cit., loc. cit.

[vii] FREUD, Sigmund, dream interpretation, Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1996, p. 227. Translated under the general direction of Jayme Salomão.

[viii] BUÑUEL, Luis, My last breath, cit., p. 136.

[ix] I dedicate this short essay to Alessandra Cardoso, economist and enthusiast of Freudian texts and Buñuel's tapes.

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