The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

Directed by Luis Buñuel

Written by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carriére

Starring Fernando Rey, Paul Frenkeur, Delphine Seyrig, Stéphane Audran, Bulle Ogier and Jean-Pierre Cassel

Cinematography by Edmond Richard

Discreet Charm opens with what is perhaps the only shot in the film that could be construed as a POV angle: blurred lights through the windshield of a car at night. A series of such shots are repeatedly and rhythmically cut together, instructing the viewer that repetition and the metaphor of the endless road will both be major motifs. It isn’t until a while later that the camera tilts down through trees, revealing the car from a more contextualized vantage point. The sequence reveals the visual motif of blurred vision; most transitions between scenes are achieved by defocusing the lens and then refocusing on a new shot, although dream sequences are jarringly cut with reality without the use of transitions. The lieutenant is the only character whose dreams are clearly framed as such; the other characters are subject to a confusing maze of dreams within other dreams in which reality seems irretrievable.

Buñuel uses some of the longest shots in this film I can remember seeing, directing his camera so that it periodically reframes the actors within a scene even if they remain motionless. During a conversation in which a priest visits a couple in search of a gardening job, the camera eventually places all three actors in the frame without any cutting, but this stasis only occurs once the camera has cycled around the various actors, who simply sit upright. In a few other scenes, the camera tracks away from the conversation to focus on inanimate domestic objects of middle-class luxury while the characters speak, as if to reduce the them to the comforts they consume.

When a group of women discuss a lieutenant watching them from another table, Buñuel avoids revealing the object of their gaze, choosing to delay our ability to observe the observer. He finally cuts to the lieutenant with a rapidly approaching tracking shot towards his face, the motion of which undercuts an identification with the womens’ gaze. Finally, the scene is reframed so that we see the lieutenant and the women in the same scene; in fact, the two tables are quite nearby.

The lack of montage suggests a certain theatrical quality to Buñuel’s style, despite his brilliant use of camera motion. This theatricality is mirrored by a dream scene in which a dinner scene suddenly appears on stage, with the dreamer at the dining room table panicking that he’s forgotten his lines. In fact, the only really absurd aspect of the film is its sense of ritualistic performance centered around the social construct of the dinner party and highlighted by the fact that dinner itself never arrives; eating is beside the point. The fact that the characters are superficial seems to have less to do with the rules of the absurdist universe than a genuine lack of empathy on Buñuel’s part. The bourgeoisie as depicted here have no real conflicts, desires, or ambitions that deserve any attention. Perhaps they are dehumanized in order to show how they have dehumanized themselves through consumption.

The only character who at times rises above his stereotype is the priest, who also provides the film’s funniest moments. The priest is also a gardener, but in order to be recognized as one or the other he must change his clothing. The other characters in the film are entirely incapable of reconciling his two roles into one human being, and so treat him as two separate people depending on whether he is in overalls or clerical garb.  When he hears the confession of a gardener who happens to have killed his own parents years ago, his sincerity about his duty to the dying man makes his subsequent decision to shoot him feel almost visceral and raw in comparison to the rest of the film’s tone. It is notable that such a vulgar, hypocritical, and despicable act makes him the most likable character here. What the viewer craves in a film like this isn’t a “hero” so much as a character who feels passionately enough to see himself as one.

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~ by Daniel N. Goldberg on June 6, 2011.

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