Raymond Durgnat

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1734

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….

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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 other hand, all "primitive" people believe in ghosts, especially those of their ancestors; and the Surrealist may well wish to retain the freedom to "hallucinate" the afterlife of the dead, or some transcendence of separation in time. Similarly, however universal or local the Oedipus complex may be felt to be, the Surrealist will wish to defend both the existence and the legitimacy of incestuous emotions against the taboos under which they labor. Certainly the Oedipal triangle offers a handy schema for the complex weave of desire, taboo, and death. And the three dreams in Discreet Charm offer three solutions—or dissolutions—of its Gordian knot.

I. The Bishop who is desexualized always speaks of his parents as a pair. His choice of job, and the outrageous speed with which he adopts a gardener's robes (or at least apron), suggest a childhood identification with an idealized servant. The Bishop's murderous yet glib reaction to disillusionment suggests an only-too-effective sublimation of his own rivalry with his father. Here, a murder by poisoning provokes a murder by shooting.

II. The Lieutenant's dream shows a far less complete, far more tortuous, pattern of repressions. As a child, he was instructed by his mother's ghost to poison her husband, who, in a duel, has just killed her lover (another lieutenant and the boy's real father). The situation contrasts two conceptions of the family: the husband's (bourgeois-feudal, based on appearances and honor) and the mother's (extralegal, based on love and biology). This real family avenges itself but cannot reconstitute itself. And the Lieutenant with the sad, romantic eyes is left, helplessly, dependent on three bourgeois women who don't know what to say to him because the current dissolution of codes makes comment almost impossible. His dream leads nowhere. Here, a killing by shooting provokes a murder by poisoning.

III. In his dream the Sergeant meets a lost love (who once repulsed him, but now seeks him), and two old friends. In his attachment to his equals and his peers, in a street which is like an indefinite space, the dream comes closest to that image of tentative camaraderie which crowns Buñuel's Cela s'appelle l'Aurore. The atmosphere is that of limbo; at any moment we expect the dreamer to be told that his girl, his friends, and he himself are dead. Instead, he leaves her to search for his friends…. When the Sergeant returns from a labyrinth of shops-like-a-church (the ecclesiastico-capitalist complex), he is alone, and he is calling, not for his girlfriend, but for his mother, as if a confused repression were underway….

[In] this dream, any father-figure is present in the much less authoritarian guise of "mates." But, coming and going in this maze, they haven't the solidarity of "comrades," and they provoke him to a futile detour. In this dream, all hostility is softened, although the girl's calm confirmation of her earlier indifference may evoke the indifference of the young mother to her son in Los Olvidados. Is the Sergeant's absence of reproach exemplary? Or is it a hint of a certain weakness? The equal and opposite excess, on impotent fury with the beloved, leads only to an alternative impasse, the love-hate hallucination of Wuthering Heights.

Although the dream can thus be moralized, roughly in terms of the ethic of Cela s'appelle l'Aurore, one can't dismiss the more troubling overtones in the evasion of fraternal abrasiveness, of potential rivalries for one woman. While this evasion is of a piece with the dreamer's rank, it also avoids a real crux, just as Surrealist moralizing tended to be romantic rather than realistic, and although it raised the issues it didn't adequately discuss the inevitable conflicts involving l'amour fou, revolutionary solidarity, and jealousy vs. fraternity. The Sergeant's rank suggests a lower-class origin. His dream comes nearest to being a non-hierarchical. Perhaps that's why, of the "parental" dreamers, the Sergeant is the least clearly distinguished from his surroundings, and from the mass of soldiers who are his false friends. (p. 55)

[Sequences] of rapid, subtle, dizzying dissonances and incongruities—in effect, twists—give the film that hilarious onirism which is also close to the uncertainties and ambivalences of real or feigned attitudes in informal, off-the-cuff, oral culture. The themes of food and drugs modulate into that of poisonings, and the film's subtitles might be "You are what you eat" and "You dream what you aren't."

The threats of violence intimated by the military and then the police are consummated with the appearance of the gangsters. Their leader's dyed hair evokes a certain type of muscular homosexual, or maybe the gangsters of bad French films. The abstraction of these "scorpions" suggests that they stand in for a universal tendency in human nature generally, as well as for something particular to the Ambassador (in whose dream they appear). Maybe they're his "Mr. Hyde": the repressed roots of his violence, and of the narcissism suggested in his dandy style. Their ultra-vulgarity makes them the Ambassador's antithesis, his nightmare alter ego; and it's just because they're vulgar and brutal that they succeed where the intelligent, dedicated guerillas failed. (pp. 57-8)

[In the film] the theme-images are far from being merely personal fetishes. Everything suggests that Buñuel, in one way or another, has an exceptionally easy access to (and knows the importance of) hypnogogic mental strata which most of us are too busy, materialistic, or incautious to investigate. Far from taking them to an analyst for "cure", he is particularly attentive to their closeness with "rational" conversation, conscious thought, and perception of social reality. Where we systematically choose the socially relevant remark and forget the others Buñuel's films also follow up the alternatives which (understandably) we don't speak of, but (suicidally) forget—thus progressively obliterating a full reality that might help us replace the living death of hypocrisy by a patient, tolerant, ferocious lucidity….

The general line of Discreet Charm wouldn't be incompatible with a story in which international connections involving heroin were replaced by international connections involving oil. If the Ambassador (the film's one anachronistic character) is also its most lucid character, its most duplicitous, its most ferocious, and a foreigner, it's because he's the closest to the "gangster-generals" who, at the right moment, might decide to dispense with diplomacy. Diplomat and gangster are Jekyll-and-Hyde, yin and yang, A.C. and D.C. of a world whose liberalization is, as usual, indefinitely postponed. (p. 59)

Raymond Durgnat, "'The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie'," in Film Comment (copyright © 1975 by The Film Society of London Center; all rights reserved), Vol. II, No. 3, May-June, 1975, pp. 52-9.

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