The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise: Preposterous and True

2009 July 16
by Zachary McCune
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Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is political film with the motivations of surrealistic art, substituting the expected with the inappropriate and satirically undermining the realist fidelity of the film’s narrative to confront his bourgeoisie protagonists with nightmares of their own creation. Theirs are the crisises of the mundane: a mis-scheduled dinner date, a dead man at a restaurant, and a frightful moment where their private, intimate life is a made into a cruel spectacle on a stage. Like the revered British tradition of the aristocracy, these bourgeoisie protagonists attempt to keep a “stiff upper lip” throughout the assault on their lifestyle, but cannot grasp a secret meaning in it all. For these reason, one of the film’s recurring refrains is “what is the meaning of this?” as if the lack of tea at a lunch club has something of a hidden significance. Which is both preposterous and true, the combination of which constitues the film’s eponymous “charm.”

First World Vs. Third World

In terms of political satire, Bunuel seems to be preoccupied in the film by contrasting the first world of France with the third world of “Miranda”- the fictional republic whose ambassador, Rafael, we find among the film’s protagonists. Rafael is a something of a pointed stereotype of Latin American diplomats. First, he is extremely well-spoken and well-mannered; there is virtually no distinction between him and his French comrades. To this degree, the ambassador immediately betrays his class status, surely suggesting that he is a bourgeoisie member of his own country, given access to learning french and the bylaws of good society. He is Latin American privilege personified, and in this regard he most certainly Bunuel’s (who spent long periods of time in Mexico) punching bag.

Never once do we see the ambassador attempting anything on behalf of the Mirandan people. Instead, he is implicitated in a drug ring with his two French male protagonists. The drug, emphasizing the first world-third world divide again, is cocaine. We might ask what the drug represents for the film? Is it a social sign, an export of ineffable Latin American “exotic” which is taken by France’s bourgeoisie as a sort of drug? Probably. More to the point, this drug dealing is one of the least unexpected or ridiculous components of the film (in contrast to the surrealistic absurdities that haunt our protagonists) surely suggesting how implicated we as spectators are in maintaining the first world-third world divide that the film stakes out for us. No one cries foul when Rafael is tormented by the confrontation of negative Miranda stereotypes at the Colonel’s ball (”I hear Miranda has the highest homicide rate per capita in the world”). To the contrary, one finds themselves suppressing a laugh at these moments as the veil of propereity protecting the ambassador from such suggested “facts” and “honesty” is transgressed. The ridiculous element of this interplay is that in the bourgeoisie circles Bunuel moves us through, such confrontation seems improper and indeed it is. Rafael, though representing the third-world, is actually shown to be more “first-world” than French society itself. But this reversal cannot stand for long. Insulted by the Colonel, Rafael’s “hot Latin passion” is awoken and he kills the colonel- an action that would represent a veritable coup in his native land.

The Student Revolutionaries

Rafael is also haunted by revolutionaries. Embodied by a single attractive woman, the revolutionaries are a parody of student unrest. Like Nada (particularly Buenaventura Diaz) Bunuel’s revolutionary is an romantic figure, given an air of charged eroticism by her devotion to kill the ambassador. But the ambassador regularly outwits the revolutionary, proving the threat of insurrection in Latin America by students as a somewhat empty threat. Perhaps it would do well to read this student revolutionary in light of the 68 Mexico City riots, whose zeal could not ovecome the government’s power or ruthlessness, a spectacle that Bunuel must have noticed.

France: The Country Estate

The Senechal family estate is perhaps the film’s most frequent setting. Here absurdity of all types occurs, as the Senechal’s sneak out of their home to make love while their guests wait (and then suspect a coming raid) or are approached by the local Catholic bishop who wishes to be their gardener. During one dinner, the home is literally invaded by French troops working on manuevers in the area, and at the end of the film, the protagonists are assassinated by Hollywoodized thugs (whose significance seems very opaque). Taken as a whole, the Senechal estate seems represent something of France itself, a microcosm of the Nation’s own identity and activity. Where the home might be expected to be outside of such routine invasions and symbolic repurposings, it is instead perpetually invaded and made the setting of absurd National activities. The only thing the home cannot successfully do is that which it perpetually attempts: host a nice, quiet dinner party.

It is this microcosmic status of the home that suggests the intimacy that the bourgeoise have with the nation and its activities. Far from being able to escape such incursions from the Nation, the villa is the one place where no one can find solace of any kind. Alternatively, the villa may be considered as a sign of the cinema in France itself: the sexual oddysey represents the popularity of romances, the invasion of the army suggests the military films so popular in post-war France, and the murderous thugs at the end of the film represent base Hollywood invading the tranquility of the French film industry with their needless violence. The episdoic events of the home might also represent particular French films, as the Bishop might allude to “Diary of Country Priest.”


A.O. Scott on “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”-

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