Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie


I have always believed, and have felt rather alone in believing, that, with the exception of his very last, the late, late films of Luis Buñuel - Belle de Jour (1967), The Milky Way (1969), Tristana (1970), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and The Phantom of Liberty (1974) - were pointless exercises in a dead aesthetic. The only thing that made any of them possible was that the man behind L'Age d'or, Los Olvidados, and Viridiana had made them. That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) was both a comeback for Buñuel and a valediction. After calling his last few films "my last film", Obscure Object finally lived up to the promise.

Two things prevented Buñuel from joining the ranks of some of his contemporaries, which, because he kept working for almost fifty years, would have to include not only Renoir, Clair, and Carné, but De Sica, Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni: the first was beyond his control - the itinerant nature of his on-again, off-again career, the second was what supplied his work with its greatest distinction - surrealism.

In some respects, Buñuel was a commercial director in Mexico. One has the feeling with films like Mexican Bus Ride (1952) and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) that he was determined to do whatever he could to triumph over the sometimes tawdry material. Too often he failed. Even with
Nazarin, which was clearly a cherished project for him, his intentions are sometimes hampered by the mildness with which he was forced to express them. This is not at all the case with Viridiana, which is fearlessly bold and, consequently, Buñuel's greatest achievement.

Surrealism has suffered from the same satiety of excess with which all the arts have had to contend. Buñuel never learned. When he attended the first screening of Un Chien Andalou with stones in his pocket to fend off attacks in the riot he expected would break out, the audience greeted the film with approval. And though his subsequent career had its ups and downs (the downs were mostly in Mexico), he was able to continue working.

Buñuel must have viewed his late refulgence in France as some kind of vindication. He evidently hated capitalist European society and delighted in puncturing its illusions. He also seemed fascinated with terrorists and their power as the ultimate disturbers of the peace. In the final moment of his last film, a terrorist bomb explodes, blowing everything up, including the film.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie got considerable attention in 1972, despite its taking obvious pride in being aggressively meaningless. Buñuel, who had been capable of being a disciplined artist when the spirit moved him, was reduced to telling feeble jokes about the rich and the religious. How does Buñuel expect us to react to seemingly genteel people with property and servants who smuggle cocaine? Or military officers smoking marijuana at dinner parties? Or bishops disguising themselves as gardeners? A bishop is asked to confess a dying gardener who turns out to be the murderer of his parents, confesses him, and on the way out picks up a handy shotgun and shoots him. Such jokes - even if you read them as "surrealistic" ones - are feeble and poorly timed. The fact that Buñuel's later films were so widely popular and celebrated was proof enough that his attempts to scandalize were failures.

In Discreet Charm, Buñuel's characters, three men and three women, do nothing but drift from one dinner party to another, making statements like, "Veal should only be carved while standing", or giving us the recipe for the best martini (the same one that Buñuel included in his autobiography, My Last Sigh). We repeatedly see them walking along a country road as if on an outing, while Edmond Richard's camera zooms and pans around them significantly. There are six dreams in the film, only two of which are announced as such. But the entire film could be nothing but a dream, with its free-associative structure and symbolism.

But now, nearly thirty years after Buñuel's death, simply watching the pleasure with which a genuine artist commanded resources he hadn't always enjoyed, even if his work had lost its reason foe being, is more absorbing than most of the latest films that stand on their own necks trying to be original. By the time he made Discreet Charm Buñuel had nothing left to prove, not even that he could make a film about having nothing left to prove.

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