The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
The Light of Criticism
Is Luis Buuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie part of a fresh approach to narrative or a reflection of the conversational laziness often apparent in bourgeois life? Then again, can it not be the latter that allows for the former? That is, capturing bourgeois conversational distraction required a late modernist form, a narrative collapse rather like the discreet politeness of dinner party conversation that never builds but constantly dissipates into the next anecdote, the next opinion, the next comment on the quality of the meal in front of the diners. Here Buuel's ongoing interest in surrealism meets the ongoing ennui of bourgeois life and arrives at the narratively detached as Buuel allows his film to dissolve, digress and disintegrate.
Let's start with its dissolution. A little over an hour into the film the six leading characters (three couples) and a priest arrive at a colonel's house for dinner and find that they're actually on a stage instead, with an audience booing their inadequate performance as they disappear into the wings. Just afterwards one of the characters, Henri Senchal (Jean-Pierre Cassel) wakes up and realizes he's been dreaming after falling asleep on the couch. Then Senchal and his wife Alice (Stephane Audran) are asked to hurry to a party - everybody has been waiting for them. Once there another of the characters, Ambassador Raphael Accosta, played by Fernando Rey, gets into an argument with the colonel and shoots him dead, only for the third main male character, Franois (Paul Frankeur), to wake up and realize he has been dreaming that Henri was dreaming and that Raphael has been shot.
Here we have the surrealist dimension of the irrational, yet at the same time serving very much the expectations of bourgeois ritual. This is not the real as the surrealists might have defined it. It has little to do with shocking the bourgeoisie with barely assimilable images; it is if anything to find a correlative form for bourgeois anxiety and habit. The air of distraction the film practises resembles the air of distraction at a dinner party where the food and the conversation are so often an excuse for bolstering the social identity of the bourgeois over sustaining their body with good food and the mind with good conversation.
Yet of course this doesn't mean any food will do, nor that any conversation will suffice. No, it must be food and talk that signifies the bourgeois. When for example early in the film Raphael and Franois and his wife, Simone (Delphine Seyrig), and her sister Florence (Bulle Ogier) arrive at Henri and Alice's house for dinner, Alice tells them they're a day early, they have nothing prepared and they might be better going out for a meal. What matters here is not whether there would be food in the house, but what food; the appropriate meal for characters whose social identity is wrapped up in ritual. After all how can Alice serve them up a light supper when all the characters are dressed for dinner? These are characters that eat not so much what they might like - the film hints at no personal preference and Bunuel is far away from the singular food fascination apparent in a film like Rohmer's The Green Ray with its veggie heroine - but what their status demands. Just before Henri wakes up startled from his dream, he says to himself that "I don't know the lines". There is nothing more important for these characters it would seem than to know the appropriate thing to say at any given moment. It is like an inversion of Socrates' idea to know oneself. "Know thy status" would be closer to the mark.
What we have here then is Buuel as simultaneously surrealist and social critic, rather than the earlier, angry Buuel who, in Robert Phillip Kolker's opinion in The Altering Eye "despises bourgeois arrogance and self-centredness with such a passion that he would like to take the entire class by its collective neck, wring it until its eyes split, and make it see its own oppressive absurdities and presumptions." Here, though, it is not Lawrence's idea of how beastly the bourgeoisie is, but more how absurd they happen to be as their lives dissolve into ritual after ritual without ever allowing them to define who they are or what they might happen to want. At best it seems they can be amused. One evening when some soldiers happen to be doing manoeuvres near Alice and Henri's house, while Henri and co are about to have dinner, they are invited in, and one of the soldiers talks of a dream that he's had and, after he finishes, another of the soldiers suggests he tells another. Florence, says 'yes, yes' - less because she seems especially interested in the first; more that she wants to be distracted by a second. This is a social class where the characters fill their lives rather than live them.
Thus the dissolution isn't only a narrative play with form; the director uses the form to explore the way people's lives are without meaning as no one quite knows how to become individuated. If in other Buuel films individuation often comes through fetishism (as in The Diary of a Chambermaid or Mathieu's obsession with the two faces of Conchita in That Obscure Object of Desire) here there is a sort of ensemble fatuousness, as if each character is less the sum of their individual parts, than the sum total of bourgeois expectation.
This is amusingly explored when somebody tries to deviate from their role. A priest turns up at Henri and Alice's house while they are out and tells the housekeeper that he wants to work as Henri and Alice's gardener. He goes out into the gardener's shed and gets changed, and comes back dressed in gardening garb. Alice and Henri have by now arrived back home and when the maid lets him in he explains to the couple that he's a priest who wants to work as their gardener. Henri promptly throws him out, and the priest returns a couple of minutes later dressed once again in his garb as monsignor. The subservient couple apologize as their reflex reaction to authority kicks in. In Buuel's exploration people don't individuate; they play the role assigned to them. If they have enough power they can play within that role (as the priest does, as Raphael does trafficking drugs as the ambassador for the small republic of Miranda, and cheats with Simone) but this seems less for the purposes of becoming a self, than for maximising bourgeois selfishness. Julien Bertheau's priest for example becomes part of the bourgeois fold as he joins the others on their dinner expeditions, while Raphael adds to his sense of bourgeois comfort as a representative of a small foreign country living the good life in an advanced western one. (Has an actor ever more complacently worn a silk dressing gown than Rey? Here he wears it even when he has a shirt and tie underneath)
If the film offers us the failure of individuation and subsequently the dissolution of the self, then what about the film's sense of digression? Much of the dissolution of character comes from Buuel's interest in narrative digression. Imagine for example if Florence's character really did want to hear that second dream because it reflected something of her own preoccupations. We would have a move towards an ongoing self rather than the novelty junkie fixation for the next amusement. It is as though Buuel wanted to explore as many possible ways as he could to undermine the bourgeois without arriving at the bad faith of the radical that Buuel could hardly himself claim to be, evidenced in B. Ruby Rich's article on Buuel and his wife in Sight and Sound (Aug 95). But equally, Buuel seems far from the distracted bourgeois characters he presents here. In an article on Buuel by Mario Vargas Llosa published in Making Waves, the Peruvian novelist detailed the routine Buuel loved to keep and that travelling and making films upset. "He had his rhythm of life, a perfectly regulated system and if he kept to it, everything went perfectly: get up at six, prepare breakfast, have lunch at twelve on the dot, dinner at seven, in bed by nine, read a while, put out the lamp and sleep." Is this not closer to the individuating over the social ritual? Buuel doesn't want to undermine bourgeois life per se, but he does muse over the limitations when, as Kundera once said of French life, nothing remains of feeling but form, and in this instance a form without much purpose.
Let's take for example the moment when Raphael, Simone, Florence and Franois come for lunch at the Snchals. The Snchals are upstairs in the bedroom about to make love as the guests arrive, and when the maid knocks on the door they say she should tell them to go ahead and make themselves a drink. While Franois mixes the cocktails, Raphael subtly plays with the nape of Simone's neck. Meanwhile Henri and Alice take off into the garden for some hanky panky. After the dry martinis have been made, Raphael calls in the chauffer who has driven them to the Snchals and asks him to join them in the house for a drink too. The chauffeur promptly drinks the martini in one go and, after he leaves, Raphael and the others talk about the lack of refinement in the masses. There are many things here that could lead to a politicized narrative or to a farcical story, and central to Buuel's style is an air of indifference to the logic of inevitability. If Chekhov could say that if you bring a gun into a play in the first act it should be used in the third, Buuel's attitude is more to bring something into the first act so that he can forget about it by the second. We might recall the scene earlier in the film where Raphael looks out of the window and notices a young woman from Miranda on the pavement - she is part of a revolutionary movement out to get him. Might the film have played up the chauffeur's slight and the young woman's frustrations and moved towards a semi-farcical/semi political narrative? Or, more immediately, could the film not have made more of Henri and Alice making love in the garden, for it is shortly after this - while they are still in the garden and after their guests have left, fed up waiting - that the priest arrives? But Buuel is more interested in the humour of narrative interruptus than immaculate narrative conceptions, and he searches out less the evolution of narrative coherence, than the potentially crystallizing thought available in the digression. Perhaps this is what Octavio Paz in an article on Buuel in On Poets and Others means when he says "Buuel's stories are an exposure: they reveal human realities as if they were photographic plates, to the light of criticism." In forcing the viewer to pay attention not to the development of narrative, but the attention to detail, Buuel steadily accumulates a critique - the "light of criticism". Hence the digression may generate dissolution in the characters' lives, but it generates meaning in the viewers'.
To explain further, let us think of a number of details and the way Buuel's camera pinpoints them. What about the aforementioned moment when Raphael plays with Simone's neck and the camera pans from Franois to Raphael and Simone? If Buuel had cut between Franois and Raphael and Simone we would notice the gesture but by panning from the oblivious cuckold to Raphael and Simone we feel the weight of critique, the light of criticism. Another example would be the tracking shot cum establishing shot from outside the Miranda embassy. At first we might see it as a slightly unusual establishing shot - one that wouldn't need the low angled camera movement Buuel offers, but shortly afterwards, after the interior shots of Raphael, Henri and Franois discussing a drug deal, we might assume that it was less an establishing shot than a point of view. Outside, the aforementioned young woman is selling toy dogs while at the same time looking for an opportunity to kill Raphael. In each instance the choice of camera movement and angle implies a high degree of obliviousness on Franois' part in the first shot; the wasteful luxuriousness of the embassy in the second. Buuel doesn't seem to want us to follow the story, but to accumulate reasons why the discreet charm is not so charming. Thus whether it is the affair developing between Raphael and Simone that Franois may find out about, or the freedom fighter's determination to get Raphael, in each instance the resolution is less important than the viewer's awareness of the situation. If Buuel is here a subtle filmmaker, it doesn't lie in narrative sub-text; more in observational specifics. Little is made of the affair; just as little is made of the terrorist threat.
Of course certainly near the end of the film a group of terrorists burst into the Snchals' house while the group are finally settling down to dinner, but who this group belongs to is anybody's guess - it is hardly as if Raphael is the marked man; no matter if it does later turn out to be his own anxiety dream. No, Buuel is not so interested in cause and effect accumulation that indicates narrative; more in cause and effect observation that results in the sort of criticism Paz suggests. Obviously some critics will see Buuel's inattentiveness to the story as part of the director's casual approach to film form. An article by Julie Jones talks of Bunuel's reluctance to do more than one take (Cineaste, Vol. XXXiii, no3), and this can feed into comments like Pauline Kael's idea in Going Steady that there is "a mixture of calculation and carelessness in his ambiguity [that] can be maddening". But what if Buuel isn't especially interested in the very elements that most filmmakers preoccupy themselves with? Even Kael admits that "sometimes what makes an artist great and original is that in his lack of interest in (or lack of talent for) what other artists have been concerned with helps us see things differently..." Can this not be consistent with Paz's light of criticism: that what Bunuel illustrates is not the inattentiveness of the lazy filmmaker; but the attentiveness of a singular artist as he pinpoints details that other filmmakers would either ignore, or offer to us in a more predictable form?
Thus we may notice in much of Buuel's work there are shots that seem to indicate a sense of narrative boredom, but can equally be seen as a divergent curiosity. For example, in the scene where the others come round to Alice and Henri's for dinner, Alice explains that they have arrived on the wrong night - Henri is out at a business meal. Buuel could have filmed this misunderstanding in a shot/counter-shot manner, but what interests him more than the narrative implications involved in the misunderstanding is the petulant disappointment of Florence. As she hands over the flowers she brings for Alice we notice her accumulating disappointment as she first puts her hands in her cardigan jacket pockets, moves towards the camera and looks mildly irritated, and then in the next shot as Alice hands the flowers over to the maid grabs them back off her. All the time Franois and Raphael offer urbane comments, and suggest dinner alternatives, but it is in Florence that we see the lack of charm isn't so obscure. If we concentrate on the dialogue we notice the urbanity; if we look at Alice's body language we observe something else. By offering in this scene only two shots, Buuel captures an almost Renoiresque sense of the rules of the game. The narrative focus may be on the misunderstanding, and the polite understanding of most of the characters in relation to it, but the attentive will observe much more Florence's resentfulness. Is this apparent indifference to narrative not Buuel's own way of opening it up to a viewer's sense of perception? The discreet can often hide its antithesis as Bunuel searches out an element of behaviour that we might half ignore because the apparent thrust resides elsewhere. A viewer could propose the laziness of the thrust, or instead notice the acuteness of the observation.The films disintegrate, but that needn't be a problem since what replaces the collapse of narrative is the astutely critical eye.
At the beginning of the article we wondered whether the fractured narrative came out of bourgeois indifference, and yet the irony is that one might credit this indifference not to the characters but to Buuel. What we're proposing is that if one attends to characters that show indifference and boredom, lack focus and purpose, then is narrative indifference not inevitable? Does the filmmaker not need to attend to the peripheral to avoid implicating himself in the trivialities of lives barely worth our attention?
Yet in Buuel's work indifference is only one of the paths he has chosen to take; another has been its antithesis and that is obsession and, as we have mentioned, fetishization. Whether it is El and That Obscure Object of Desire, or The Criminal Life of Archibald de La Cruz and The Diary of a Chambermaid, Buuel has created characters for whom bourgeois indifference is barely the problem. But is this not so often the flipside of indifference; as the obsessive behaviour turns inside out the casual interest of the bourgeois for the obsessive interest of the conservative? In each case Buuel registers the disintegration of the bourgeois self, as though whether through indifference or obsession the self hasn't found healthy grounding. We are simply talking here of degrees of distraction. Freud proposes that in the obsessional type "it is distinguished by the predominance of the super-ego, which is separated from the ego under great tension. People of this type are dominated by fear of their conscience instead of fear of losing love. They exhibit, as it were, an internal instead of an external dependence." Freud adds that they "develop a high degree of self reliance; and, from the social standpoint, they are the true, pre-eminently conservative vehicles of civilization." (On Sexuality)
But are these 'pre-eminently conservative vehicles' not also ripe for not only the casualdistraction present in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, where fetishization is diluted in social ritual, but the radical distraction of obsession, an intense response to the world that is nevertheless still a distraction, but a distraction that leads to disintegration? If we compare for example the leading character Francesco in El with his love rival, Raoul, we notice that after Raoul loses Gloria to Francesco he devotes himself to working abroad and building a dam. Raoul certainly suffers - when someone asks him about having been away so long after Gloria, he says he wishes it had been forever - but he nevertheless knows how to recover emotionally: by devoting himself to practical work. In the case of both Francesco in El and Mathieu in That Obscure Object of Desire these aging bachelors seem to have kept themselves for their ideal woman, but it is their very self-reliance that leads them to unravel when they do finally fall in love. For Francesco his faith in God is augmented certainly by finding this woman of his dreams, but she quickly becomes the woman of his nightmares not because she is an unfaithful woman, but because Francesco expects of her the higher demands of an icon and not living flesh. That she has had lovers in the past he cannot countenance. Mathieu meanwhile is a man for whom decency, rationalism and well being dissolve as he cannot see that Conchita changes quite dramatically from one day to the next with Buuel bringing out her chic control on one occasion, and her earthy passion on another - the role is played by two actresses; one the svelte and French Carole Bouquet; the other the more robust Spaniard Angela Molina. Now in each instance Francesco and Mathieu are also and very importantly men of leisure: they are men for whom disintegration beckons not least because they have nothing else in their lives to focus upon; the women are a preoccupation as they themselves have no occupation.
So these are the flipside characters to those Buuel concentrates upon in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie, and yet, as we've stated, the problematic the director explores remains the same. This is the problem of individuation where self is fragile either through social conformity -as we find in The Discreet Charm... and exemplified in the scene quoted above where Henri doesn't know his lines - or through self-reliance that leads to obsession. If Buuel's films so often lend themselves to the comic, without themselves falling generically under the heading of comedy, it resides partly in this fragile self that cannot find coordinates justifying meaningful being. Meaning is often barely significant or fetishistically obsessive.
We should conclude though on a point we raised earlier and see how it allows Buuel to be as interested in the detail that fascinates in very different ways both the complacent, casually distracted bourgeois, and at the same time the radically obsessed man of leisure, but that Bunuel nevertheless offers at the healthy distance of the low key comedy that his work generates. In the early shots of El, Don Francesco is at church and as he watches the bare feet being washed of the young boys in the church in a religious ceremony, the director then shows Francesco looking at the shoes of the general congregation. With one he looks at the feet and then we watch as his eye and Buuel's camera travel up from the shoes to a pair of stockinged legs and then up to a woman's face as Buuel then offers shot/reaction-shots to show that this is for Don Francesco love at first sight. There is irony here, but much of it delayed. There is the play on the contrast between the innocent religious gesture of the washing of the feet, and the sexual connotations of the woman's shoes that cannot at the same time fail to bring to mind its regular presence in the film noir as a synecdoche of the femme fatale. Later we'll realise that while Don Francesco falls in love with what he believes is her saintliness; it will be the feeling that he has fallen for a dangerous woman that will preocccupy him.
Buuel offers it as both ironic contrast on the one hand; established trope on the other. We see bourgeois ritual and at the same time the birth of obsession. There is in Buuel's work a sense of indifference that is, in fact, so often the opposite. Paz believes "Buuel the poet descends to the very depths of man, to his most radical and unexpressed intimacy", but the question is how this intimacy is blocked frequently by indifference and obsession. It is as though the ruling passions or the ruling order lead to obsessive or casual distraction: that Buuelian man hasn't quite learned how to live, merely to desire or to obey, and this opening scene in El captures this problematic quite wonderfully, and the rest of the film illustrates it.
Another scene worth mentioning that captures the director's low key sense of comedy is the one in the caf in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie where the three female characters go to have a drink. It turns out the caf's out of everything, and by the time they get round to ordering Simone has to leave anyway. These are characters for whom afternoon tea - or coffee, or cognac or whatever other drink they were thinking of ordering - contains less a means of sustenance than a semiotic significance, and while this is obviously true of almost all liquids perhaps short of water (though bottled water certainly changes that), it usually remains sub-textually significant. As with the meals that are constantly interrupted, here the scene captures well the anxiety of a potential social assignation without immediate props, without objects to hand that can allow for unrevealing, insignificant yet socially solidifying situations. As Florence insists she hates the cello one of the musicians in the caf is playing, so she asks to swap places with Alice. As she does so Alice moves, slightly, the vase with a flower in it, and moments later it is Florence who plays with it as Alice says she likes the cello. This is, if you like, prop anxiety, where a non-event requires objects to comment upon as self-expression finds no outlet. This is a social class that doesn't so much know the price of everything and the value of nothing, as Oscar Wilde would say, but that needs to utilise consumables conversationally. They prop up a social discourse lacking self-expression. This seems exemplified of course by its antithesis: the young soldier sitting nearby who comes over and tells them of his tragic childhood - an absurd need to talk that has nothing to do with commenting on items to hand. Much of the comedy comes out of the contrast.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a fine example of a discreet charm that is based chiefly on commenting on the surface of the world, and Buuel leaves his characters stranded by never allowing the bourgeois props of eating and drinking to be utilisable as they would expect them to be. This isn't obviously the deprivation of necessities evident in for example in Haneke's The Time of the Wolf, but this is partly Buuel's own discreet charm - the way he utilises surrealism and absurdity to cast light on lives that lack much of a dimension beyond the social; beyond the rounds of drinks and meals and polite, fatuous conversation, and, if the lives do, they often spiral off into conservative obsession and control. Buuel's light of criticism lies not least in the idea that these are character as trapped in their own watered down subjectivities as the diners who can eat but can't escape the confines of the house in of course another marvellous Buuel film about eating and drinking, The Exterminating Angel. What finally seems to fascinate Buuel are the problems of entrapment in its many forms, and forms of which Buuel might not have escaped any easier than others no matter his consistent critique. "Obviously I like obsessions", he says in My Last Breath, "because they make it easier to deal with life." However, he says elsewhere in the book, that one of the things he hoped from surrealism was that it "would change the world, transform life itself." Buuel's work is an attempt at showing the pathetic robustness of the conservative mindset against the possibilities of change in various manifestations. Few filmmakers manage to affirm the contraries of the radical and the conservative towards the revolutionary more than Buuel, and perhaps creates in the viewer the same sense of ambivalent hope, while acknowledging the difficulties of transformation when the vacillating positions are dulled by conformity and mad obsession.
© Tony McKibbin