28 June 2012

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie DVD Review


Cruelty is fun to watch.

X Factor. Eurovision. TOWIE. Britain’s Got Talent. Come Dine With Me. Take Me Out. All are popular shows built around one of two expectations. Firstly, that people really enjoy mocking idiots (even if said idiocy is completely staged), and, secondly, that people get a kick from watching other people bitch. These shows expect people to both enjoy being mean, and vicariously relish the meanness of others.

Well, going by the popularity of these programmes, it seems that that expectation holds up. Considered objectively, this is a fairly unpleasant state of affairs. Indeed, on occasion I feel I should have a problem with it. But then I remember how much I adore both taking the piss out of people and bitching in general: I can recall many conversations that would be the poorer without them. And being mean about people is not just fun. On occasion it even has value. Case in point: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

This film by writer/director Luis Bunuel is truly venomous, though at first it hides it well. Watching Discreet Charm is an experience akin to having a waking dream. Within the film the lines between reality, fiction and imaginings are blurred and shifting, giving all scenes the weight of reality and a lulling dreamy haze. It is paced like a dream too, flowing inexorably yet smooth as silk, unbroken by the constant shifts from location to location, and from reality to fantasy. This style makes for a gentle rather than angry film. But once you peek beneath the surface, the central antipathy of Discreet Charm shines clear as day.

Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a film about slagging off the upper middle classes. And it does so maliciously, gleefully and repeatedly.

The characters of DCB exemplify the film’s hidden venom. On the face of it they don’t seem particularly bad people: a close-knit group of wealthy friends, chatty and companionable. Sure, they dabble in illegal drug trafficking, but drug abuse carries about as much negative stigma on the big screen as killing zombies. On the whole they seem perfectly pleasant.

That is, until they reveal themselves as a band of horrifically snobby hypocrites and poseurs. Thevenot (Paul Frankeur) invites a chauffeur for a drink, just so the group can mock the way he drinks a dry martini. Though they may deal drugs, they declare a hatred for drug addicts and look down their noses at a cavalry commander’s use of marijuana. Don Rafael Acosta (Fernando Rey) claims to have liberal sympathies, in the same breath as stating no amount of education could elevate the lower classes. When the working Bishop, Monseigneur Dufour (Julien Bertheau), appears before Henri and Alice Senechal (Jean-Pierre Cassel & Stephane Audran) in the clothes of a gardener, they refuse to believe he is who he claims to be and roughly eject him from the house. He has to change back into his formal regalia before they show him respect.

Meanwhile, the refined appearance and behaviour of these characters is shown to be merely skin deep. Bunuel looks beneath their crisp, fashionable clothing and boasted culinary knowledge, and brings to light sensual gluttons. These bourgeois pursue physical pleasure compulsively. The Senechals’ inability to restrain their lust causes to the collapse of their dinner party. Acosta, in a room filled with gun-toting revolutionaries desperate to slaughter him, cannot help himself from breaking out of hiding: he just has to finish his lamb chop.

But it is not just the characters that are bedevilled by Bunuel’s nastiness. The whole structure of the film is a statement about how aimless the lives of these people are. The scale of the bourgeoisie’s devotion to physical pleasure is demonstrated by the film’s ‘plot’ concerning their constantly frustrated attempts to have dinner. The goal of their onscreen lives is to eat. The meaninglessness of their lives is further emphasised by a recurring visual metaphor. The bourgeois are walking down a country road, their gait swift and purposeful. Yet there is nothing on the horizon, and nothing but empty fields stretching all around them. The bourgeois, despite appearances, are heading precisely nowhere.

All this makes The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie a comprehensive mockery of the 20th century’s upper classes. It has no interest in balanced assessment, and is ruthless in its attack. It is a cold-bloodedly cruel film. But just because it is cruel, does not mean that its cruelty is gratuitous. The attack is justified because it is an attack on pretentions. Bunuel’s bourgeoisie are thoroughly disrespected, because they expect respect without first earning it. This film attacks that sense of superiority: its barbs aim to tear apart this façade of higher civility. In doing so it aims to keep this new nobility down to earth. In the midst of their social and economic triumph, Discreet Charm is the slave whispering in the bourgeousie’s collective ear:

“Remember: you are arseholes”

Adam Brodie

UK Re-release Date: 29th June 2012 (Cinema) 16th July 2012 (DVD)
Directed by:Luis Buñuel
Cast: Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig, Jean-Pierre Cassel
Buy/Pre-Order: Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie On DVD or on Blu-ray

Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie - 40th Anniversary Reissue Published via LongTail.tv

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