The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972/2000)


By Jonathan Beebe

A Momentary Riot

Several weeks ago, my roommate hung a poster of Salvador Dali’s 1944 painting, “One Second Before Awakening from a Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate,” on the wall near our computer. The painting shows a rifle—that extends out of the mouth of a tiger that is jumping out of the mouth of another tiger that is jumping out the mouth of a fish that has come out of a partially decomposed pomegranate—pointing at a nude woman sleeping near an expanse of water, over which a white elephant with extremely long legs is walking in the distance. One would guess that there is a lot to say about this image. However, when my roommate asked what I thought of the poster, I took a quick look at it and said, “That’s pretty neat.” Thinking back on that response, I now realize that I unintentionally articulated the state of surrealism more than fifty years after Dali created that painting. It’s “pretty neat.”

This attitudinal shift from engagement with surrealism towards amused indifference can also be seen through the reception of Luis Buñuel’s films over the course of his nearly fifty year career. It’s odd to think that his second film, L’age d’or, caused a riot at the theater in Paris where it screened for two weeks in 1930. After all, forty-two years later, Buñuel won a Best Foreign Film Academy Award for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. How did cinema’s most famous surrealist provocateur win an award from mainstream Hollywood?

The Criterion Collection’s recent DVD release of Discreet Charm—in celebration of Buñuel’s hundredth birthday last year—indirectly asks this same question. Along with the film, the two-disc set presents two documentaries: The Castaway on the Street of Providence, a 24-minute homage made in 1970 by Buñuel’s longtime friends, Arturo Ripstein and Rafael Castanedo, and Speaking of Buñuel (2000), a new 98-minute documentary, directed by Jose Luis Lopez-Linares and Javier Rioyo. Unlike most DVDs that provide supplementary material about the film itself, these documentaries never directly discuss Discreet Charm. Instead, they focus on the life of Buñuel as told through his own writings, his friends’ memories, and clips from his films. If they don’t investigate the actual film, however, they do ask us to consider it in the context of his entire career.

In Speaking of Buñuel—the more informative of the two documentaries—Buñuel says (through a disembodied narrator), “In the village where I was born on February 22, 1900, the Middle Ages continued until the World War… Life unfolded monotonously, ordered and directed by church bells… It seemed nothing would change, gestures and desires were passed on from generation to generation. Words of ‘progress’ barely passed in the distance like clouds.” Amid this monotony, what he found so appealing in the cinema “was the invasion of something totally new in our Medieval universe.” It is this novelty that also ultimately led Buñuel to surrealism.

In his study of cinema’s relationship with time, Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift, Leo Charney provides one definition of surrealism: “Surreal experience occurred in the moment of shocking, random juxtaposition in which one plane of reality rudely intersects another. This clash creates a new ‘reality’ from the unique combination of its two elements.” During the first decades of the twentieth century, artists and critics saw surrealism as a strategy for breaking down the monotonous order that Buñuel experienced in his youth. But, they also saw it as a way of building something new.

The director says of this movement, “For the first time, I’d found a morality that was coherent and strict, without a fault. Of course, that surrealist morality went against conventional morality, which we found abominable, because we rejected conventional values. Our morality had other criteria. It exalted passion, hoaxes, insults, malevolent laughter, the attraction of the abyss… Our morality was more demanding and dangerous, but also stronger, firmer and denser.” Such revolutionary fervor inspired Buñuel to create Un chien andalou with Dali, justly famous for its arresting image of a razor blade cutting the eyeball of an unflinching woman. In his next film, L’age d’or, Buñuel upped the ante by assaulting middle-class values with scenes such as a father shooting his son dead for stealing tobacco, which provoked the riot in that Parisian theater.

Forty-two years later, Buñuel accepted an Oscar for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, inciting applause rather than violence. It wasn’t that he softened his critique any. There is still plenty to find scandalous and shocking in this film. For one, Discreet Charm‘s bishop/gardener, Monsignor Dufour (Julien Bertheau), shoots a man dead after giving him last rites and absolving him of his sins—one being the murder of the monsignor’s own parents. Or, consider the fact that the three principal male characters smuggle drugs into and out of France using Don Rafael’s (Fernando Rey) position as a diplomat from the imagined Republic of Miranda. Buñuel never does pass moral judgement on this fact. He simply presents it and moves on from there. None of this shocked the 1972 Hollywood establishment enough to prevent it from bestowing the Academy Award on the film.

In Speaking of Buñuel, the director says he is “often asked what happened to surrealism.” He responds, “I don’t know how to answer. Surrealism triumphed superficially, but not essentially. Its urgent and unrealizable desire was to change life and the world. Regarding that essential desire, we only have to look around to see we’ve failed.” The unexpected juxtapositions used in surrealist art did succeed in creating moments that could stand out from the monotonous passage of time. For instance, in Discreet Charm, it is impossible to ignore the scenes when we see the protagonists walking along a country road, moments that have no clear reference to what precedes or follows them within the film’s narrative. One can’t help but feel slightly disoriented by the insertion of these sequences. However, what the surrealists did not take into account was the fact that they still needed to rely on the viewer to do something with these moments. Without that crucial step, momentary shock has no revelatory power.

Ironically, for a movement whose goal was to create a “new” reality, the old establishment quickly learned to use surrealist strategies for its own ends. All you need to do is watch the TV commercials during the Super Bowl each year to see what has happened to surrealism. (I think even Buñuel would have appreciated this year’s Running of the Squirrels—rather than bulls—in Pamplona, Spain to advertise a computer consulting company.) Some aspiring advertising consultant figured out that these clashes Buñuel portrayed so well could be used to shock us into buying products. The most vital goal of the TV commercial is to get a consumer to remember a brand. By using unanticipated juxtapositions, an advertisement is able to create momentary shock that differentiates itself from the somewhat passive and monotonous drone of typical TV. In turn, this catches the attention of the viewer so that he or she will remember the product. That is all that’s required of surrealist strategy today. The utopian vision Buñuel and his contemporaries aspired to is now beside the point. All that is necessary is to get us to remember a product in order to consume it. Maybe that’s why Buñuel received the Oscar. It was the industry’s way of thanking him for providing them with such a brilliant marketing strategy.

This legacy is at the root of my initial response to my roommate’s Dali print. When I said that it was “neat,” I was looking at the poster as a recent purchase rather than a provocative statement. However, after passing it for another ten days, I eventually did stop to take a closer look and, since then, I’ve continued to wonder what it was that Dali meant by provoking me into staring at his painting, evoking for me a moment between sleeping and waking. And that is where I would disagree with Buñuel’s declaration of surrealism’s failure. It is true that we have not reached the utopia he and his contemporaries imagined and hoped for. But, the essential desire to “change life and the world” is still there for you to see in Dali’s painting and Buñuel’s film. We just need to give them a moment to contemplate the moment they give to us.

Because we have become so accustomed to responding to the shocks provided by advertisers in a passive rather than active way, it is easy to watch The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and miss much of its revolutionary fervor. I suspect many in 1972 Hollywood saw the film as an amusing black comedy of manners rather than the scathing indictment of middle-class values that lie beneath the surface. This is why the two documentaries included in the film’s DVD release—which also includes the film’s theatrical trailer and Buñuel’s filmography—are important companion pieces. Rather than do the work for us (as do many DVDs that only include materials and commentaries about specific films), these documentaries ask us to see the film within the context of Buñuel’s intellectual and aesthetic goals. Without these tools, it would be easy to watch the film from a viewpoint that has been desensitized by television. Instead, the information we gain from the DVD places us within an imaginary Parisian theater of the 1930s in order to be shocked once again. And, hopefully by understanding the type of change Buñuel was after, we can allow these shocks to take hold in anything but a momentary way.

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