20.9.15

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

The germ from which the film developed was Buñuel's interest in repetition as an aid to memory – his frequent writing partner Jean-Claude Carrière links this to the fact that a member of Buñuel's family suffered from dementia. This morphed into the idea of having dinner party plans be constantly upset by surreal and ridiculous intrusions. The title was thought up after the script was finished, with the aim to give a new perspective on the film.

This background reveals that the final version of Discreet Charm is rather removed from where Buñuel started. Appropriate, perhaps, given his surrealist credentials. His motives may not have been more sophisticated than to provoke some gentle (but never judgmental) laughter at the expense of the French upper crust. Some of the scenarios are quite funny, but there's something else going on here.

First the dreams: of detectives, mafiosi, terrorists, deathbeds and ghosts. The power of the army, the police, and the political class are always lurking under the surface of these polite dinners. Fernando Ray is an ambassador of a made-up Latin American banana republic, and he's always paranoid that his corruption will be exposed. At one point the group sit down to dinner only to have a curtain lift and reveal them all to a theatre audience, who start jeering when they can't recite their lines. Soldiers and policemen keep reciting dreams of torture and murder as ladies sit down to eat, cutting through the small talk with tales of horror and loss. In all these scenarios, the pressure to remain charming and discreet is a source of deep seated anxiety.

And then there's the framing device. The opening credits sequence is composed of shots looking out of a car as it drives through the night – only occasionally are features of the road and streets illuminated by the headlights. The characters have chauffeured cars driving them around throughout the film, it's one of the signs of their privilege. The ending sequence (which also appears twice during the film) is of the six characters walking down a stretch of road in the middle of nowhere and in bright daylight. Perhaps this is a levelling measure. Rather than locked away from the world and meandering in the darkness of their own closed society, Buñuel finally allows his troupe a breath of fresh air, and a dose of real experience.

It can be read in lots of ways. Perhaps it was also arrived at by accident.

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