Vanity Fare

With The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, director Luis Buñuel served the have-lots their just deserts

"There is no better tranquilizer than a dry martini," observes a pedantic middle-aged gentleman of upper-middle-class means. "I read it in a women's magazine." He then mixes himself a strong one, and goes on to swill several more throughout Luis Buñuel's fabulously dry comedy The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (a new print of which starts Friday at Oak Street for a two-week run). Given its title, it's hardly surprising that the 1972 film would satirize that class--and its attendant politicians, clergy, and policing forces. What's startling is that the winner of the Oscar that year for Best Foreign Language Film does its mocking with such a playful, absurdist spirit. I found myself finally feeling a little compassion for Buñuel's blissfully acquisitive characters, with their fantastic nightmares of hunger and punishment. Compassion arising from a sense of recognition, perhaps.

Not that I have anything overtly in common with Buñuel's cast of fools: The women (Stephane Audran, Bulle Ogier, Delphine Seyrig) are all idle beauties, dressed impeccably for festivities where their servants do the work; the men (Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Jean-Pierre Cassel) wear the anonymous suits of the professional class yet make money importing cocaine. This sophisticated group--the ambassador from a small South American country, his drug-business partners, their wives, and a sister-in-law--get together for a series of elegant meals. The conversation is unfortunate, unless you agree that "no system can help the masses to acquire refinement." And that political protesters should be "swatted" as you would "a room full of flies."

Lucky for us, this crew never gets to rattle on too long--their meal plans are always thwarted. At first, the date is miscommunicated. Then a restaurant has nothing in stock. Then the army arrives, led by a pot-huffing colonel. As the botched dinner scenarios become more bizarre, the film shows that some of them, if not all, are actually the characters' dreams. In his younger days, Buñuel collaborated with Salvador Dali on the surreal 1928 dream collage "Un chien andalou"; the nightmares of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie are strange and comic, yes, but not unfamiliar. In one, the dinner party revelers discover they are performing for a jeering audience, and--oh, no!--they've forgotten their lines. In another, dark intruders slaughter everyone. The paranoid horrors of the have-lots.

The predominant theme of all the grubbus interruptus is interruption, of course. No one is allowed to eat a full meal, let alone get past the soup. The characters keep preparing their pricey outfits, décor, and victuals in the expectation of being fed--and they are not fed. A discomfiting if vague emptiness grows until one character drolly dreams of choosing certain death--and a pink slice of roasted lamb--over continued hunger. Buñuel is nothing if not metaphorical. I was raised in the United States of Capitalism; I understand that grasping feeling, believing the consumption of that one fetishized thing will erase all my yearning--and knowing, too, that it will not. As for death, there's lots of it running around here. Underlings trot out their eerie dreams for the entertainment of the diners--who are hilariously uncomprehending. Ghosts with ghastly wounds haunt the halls.

I've been thinking about how you might depict the costs of capitalist prosperity--those human and environmental tolls that are invisible around a Wayzata estate or an I-494 office building, or even a small frame house in northeast Minneapolis. How do you expose the hidden cost of middle-class life--in pollution, material consumption, worker exploitation--that middle-class people refuse to think has anything to do with them? Buñuel accomplishes the deed with hungry dinner guests and bloody ghosts.

Eventually, the viewer has to ask: Which ones are dead? There's a numbness, which Buñuel and his worthy actors cheerfully capture, that comes of obsessing over your own appetite and denying the pain it causes. The director returns often, without explanation, to a scene of his characters striding purposefully down a sunny country road, incongruous in fine duds and high heels. There's a whole, live world there, alongside the road, and they're thinking about dinner. In their usual environment, political dissent is a mute young woman with an unloaded gun. Communication of any importance is made unintelligible by airplane or street noise--and the characters barely notice. Theirs is a rarefied, vacuum-packed, dead world.

I read an interview with Gwyneth Paltrow in that Bible of the would-be rich and famous, Vanity Fair. (I'm no exception.) The actress said that her success had been predestined. Comfort always is, to those granted it. As for the rest... It seems to me that The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie has more punch today, in this decade of "our" content, than it did when it was made. For one thing, Seventies styles are back in fashion--and these clothes are stunning! For another, in '72 the flag of leftist political opposition, if tattered, was still in the air; now, 30 years later, those voices are damned--"Anarchists! Criminals! Confused!"--before they're raised. Today, everybody--rich and poor, Russian and Chinese--goes to the mall (that vacuum-packed, dead world). And our nightmares, widely available onscreen and on disc, are unsatisfied and mean.

 

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie starts Friday at Oak Street Cinema; (612) 331-3134.

 
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