Luis Buñuel Raymond Durgnat

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Raymond Durgnat

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The spectator who prefers easy butts can easily dismiss … [the] commensalist nostalgias [of the dinner guests in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie] as simply some insectdance, or a deluded and delusive ritual of solidarity, or an essentially egoistic need for reassurance of social acceptability. Yet dinner parties are a residual—and a potentially meaningful—form of potlatch. And, even if it's hopeless, it's only human to attempt to recapture a tribal fraternity by such psychological surrogates as the gang, the clique, the set. Part of the irony is that real needs are denied, and the quest is switched from solidarity to food—seven guests in search of a Host….

The characters certainly eat between meals they miss; and Buñuel has selected only those meals whose bill of fare—or circumstances, or relationships with dream, love, or business—illustrates how a round of dinner parties can do as little to preserve their participants from the emptiness which society has sowed within their hearts as communing with nature could do to redeem the Victorian middle class from its materialism. Nonchalance where concern should be has long been a mainspring of Buñuel's method; certainly, here, passages of dialogue evoke Ionesco, the theater of the absurd, and a livelier, less stylized Marienbad….

The affinities of Buñuel and Swift are worth a passing thought. Both are theologians manqués, both concerned with the thin line between madness and sanity. As Buñuel's The Milky Way is to A Tale of a Tub, Discreet Charm is to "Genteel and Ingeniose Conversation." Both are tragicomedies of mediocrity, and it's intriguing to imagine what might happen if the hitch-hikers of Buñuel's theological satire were to encounter the hosts and guests of its profane successor….

The interplay of ambiguities and incongruities, of trivialities and dreams, permits the film its uniquely allusive style…. Thus the film ironizes over the paradoxes of a peacetime army (and conscription) continuing twenty-eight years after the "last" war. And it also gratifies our Marxist (tendance Groucho) anarchism with images of military chaos for which some sort of mythic correlative exists in M∗A∗S∗H.

The hilarious idiocy of everyday chitchat is surely not overplayed, but merely deprived of its ballast (or roughage) of sense. (p. 52)

The Sénéchals … represent the bourgeoisie at its most youthful, flexible and engaging. But they take everything for granted, including a lighthearted skepticism, and remain rigidly within its limitations….

The Thévenots … are a few years older. Less capricious, more dignified, companionable rather than passionate, they are what the Sénéchals will become. They may seem the most colorless and stable of the group; in fact, they are the champions of the conversational volte-face, of inconspicuous disorder, of confusion of appetite….

In status, in style, in age, in cunning and in self-assurance, the Ambassador … marks the apex of the little group. He is the least confused and the most violent. (In Buñuel, the two characteristics often go together.) His apparent mixture of paranoia and megalomania fits reality surprisingly well. His friends think he's mad when he levels his rifle at a street vendor's furry toy. But he was right: its seller was spying on him. His mental deviousness appears in largely triumphant forms. (p. 53)

The Bishop's filial revenge climaxes a trio of episodes centering on the theme of dead parents. All originate from traditionally monosexual groups (the clergy, the army)—as if, in this debilitated world, the transcendence of the natural order is abandoned, by marital complacency, to conclaves of deprivation and reaction from which, alas, it can't break free. On the one hand, the Surrealist must seek liberation from the pious emotions conventionally associated with the (bourgeois) family and the (Christian) afterlife; the two converge in the idea of God the father, the sacrificed Son, and the Virgin Mother. But, on the...

(The entire section is 1,734 words.)