The Charm of Ignorance
Four wealthy friends arrive at the luxurious home of their acquaintances, M. and Mme. Senechal (Jean-Pierre Cassel and Stephane Audran), expecting an exquisite dinner. In good humor, they knock on the door only to find they’ve shown up on the wrong night. Their hostess, Alice Senechal, is unprepared, her husband Henri is not yet home, and dinner is not cooked. Sheepishly, they must make do and find a meal elsewhere. Alice and friends, the Ambassador Raphael Acosta (Fernando Rey), Mme. Simone Thevenot (Delphine Seyrig), M. Francois Thevenot (Paul Frankeur), and Florence (Bulle Ogier), make their way to a favorite restaurant, only to find it’s under new management. What’s more, they soon discover, the former owner’s corpse lies waiting for removal in the back room.
This darkly comedic sequence is characteristic of the many chance encounters these characters stumble into as they try and fail repeatedly to enjoy an opulent dining experience in Luis Buñuel’s 1972 masterpiece, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The recently re-released film is a hilarious satire of upper class values, pointing out the subtle absurdities that constitute bourgeois presumptions and behaviors. Although made thirty years ago, the film rings as true today as it did then, in large part because it relocates much of its drama from conventional, linear reality into the symbolic world of subconscious imagery.
Just as Raphael, Simone, Francois, Alice, Henri, and Florence expect a dinner to arrive at a set time and place, only to have their expectations ruined, the film ruins viewers’ expectations of chronological sequence by including nightmarish scenes of brutality, often conveyed through middle class authority figures (a military lieutenant describes the tragic death of his mother when he was a child) or unnerving surrealism (after finally sitting down to dinner, Raphael suddenly notices that he and his friends are on a stage, with scripted lines to recite and forget in front of an displeased audience). Interspersed throughout the film’s causal chronology, dream sequences and recollections dig beneath the upper class’ glossy surface and good conscience to expose an underlayer of immorality, ruthlessness, and death.
Buñuel undercuts his affluent subjects by comically depicting their condescending attitude towards the working class (as when Francois mocks his driver for quickly downing a “fine” martini, instead of pretentiously sipping at it) and senseless over-concern with appearances: at one point, Alice opts not to go out, claiming she is not “dressed” while wearing a gown that would break the banks of most people. In another amusing scene, when Bishop Dufour, a “working priest,” applies to work as Henri’s gardener, Henri rejects him out of hand because he’s dressed in lay clothing. When the Bishop returns moments later in full ceremonial garb, Henri welcomes him inside. To the bourgeois, a costume’s utility is wholly supplanted by its social value as a marker for class standing. This figurative loss of direction is made literal in repeated shots of the six protagonists walking aimlessly and silently along a road leading nowhere. Thus, he presents the bourgeoisie’s dependence on arbitrary propriety as myopic and irrational.
The film also unveils the hidden hypocrisy of capitalist pleasures by revealing that Ambassador Acosta and Francois are secretly smuggling cocaine from the ambassador’s host country of Miranda, a terrorist group of which is plotting to kill him. Buñuel here demonstrates that the conventional morality of bourgeois society is based on deceit, corruption, and the insincere logistics of a “might makes right” cultural system. The wealthy are not ethically superior to the activities they condemn (for instance, they frown on the U.S. troops in Vietnam smoking marijuana); in fact, the violent outcome of their own corrupt behavior prompts guerrilla revolutionaries to follow Ambassador Acosta throughout the film.
Obviously, Buñuel comes down hard on the bourgeoisie in this movie. However, unlike his early, aggressive social tracts like L’Age D’Or (1930), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie takes a comedic, though disturbing, approach to its subject. Winner of 1972’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie has lost none of its relevance or power, and is well worth seeing again on the big screen, if only to remind ourselves how good it is not to be unscrupulously comfortable.