EVEN AT THE AGE of 72, Luis Bunuel does not make movies, surrealistic or not, that are intelligible to all. The difficulty with Bunuel's new film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, is that it is possible to enjoy it without being certain how to react to it. The first audience one night recently left the movie bemused and unconvinced. A couple admired it, saying "That's wild," then wondered, "What's he doing?" The next audience that evening never stopped laughing. One might well ask, as does one confused character when caught in an uncomfortable situation midway through the movie, "Is this a joke?" And to that, Bunuel would have answered yes.
At stake in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie are the attenuated meals that six characters (Fernando Ray, Bulle Ogier, Raul Frankeur, Delphine Segrig, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Stephane Audran) never finish. A misunderstanding--guests arriving a day in advance for a dinner party--is the movie's premise and from it follow seven meals, each real or fantasy, all of which are interrupted by events, again either actual or imagined. The causes for the disruptions are as absurd as they are unexplained--the hosts making love while their guests wait, a funeral, a French military battalion, imprisonment for drug trafficking, and, on occasion, murder. All these scenes of action an inaction, which are not marked as dream or actuality, are strung together by the metaphor of all six bourgeois marching determinedly along a country road in the middle of nowhere.
We can gather that the three men, including Raphael, Ambassador to France from the Republic of Miranda, make a profit on the sly by smuggling cocaine across French customs in the diplomatic pouch. Raphael is also engaged in illicit though indifferent, lovemaking with his friend Francois's blond wife. Supposed terrorists pursue Raphael, who disposes of them as callously as he does the affairs of his state. Later all three couples are released from imprisonment on a drug trafficking charge by a discreet phone call from the French secretary, whom Raphael quickly invites to visit his country in return for the favor.
LIKE THE INCOMPLETE MEALS which contain the action, a series of dreams act as additionally interlocking frames for the plot. The dreams are irrational, perverse, anarchic, and profane. A cavalry lieutenant interrupts the three women at their tea (though the restaurant, out of tea and coffee, serves only water), asking, "Did you have an unhappy childhood?" After recounting his own childhood when he poisoned his father, he abruptly excuses himself from the table. The film's fantasies are not only random and incidental like that of the cavalry officer's, but also structure our perceptions of the characters by revealing their common anxieties. Francois dreams they were invited to a dinner party which turned out to be part of a stageplay. The six diners beat a hasty retreat leaving Henri before the theater lights agonizing that he has forgotten his lines.
No sort of conduct eludes Bunuel's austere sense of outrage. An atheist who once remarked "I do not believe, thank God," Bunuel in his film mocks his own disgust at the corrupt and rigid structure of the Catholic Church. Though the sins of the clergy in this movie are venial and not carnal, they are still exposed. A bishop, on his way to give a dying man absolution, meets a peasant woman who whispers, "Father, I want to tell you something. I don't like Jesus Christ...Ever since I was a little child, I have hated him." Aghast, the bishop asks, "What? Such a kind, gentle God? How is this possible?" After the bishop administers the last sacraments to a man, who, it happens, killed his father and mother, saying to the sinner, "God in his kindness forgives the most hardened criminals," he then murders him.
The police, who were "trying to win the love of the people" are also targets Bunuel's cruel humor. So is the Ambassador from Miranda, a country which resembles the Spain of Franco which Bunuel fought against and still bitterly opposes. In a dream sequence, antagonized by guests at a dinner party given by a French colonel, the Ambassador kills his host who has jeered, "I didn't know that chivalry still existed in your semi-savage country." If these are jokes, they are sadistic and blasphemous ones.
BUNEUL HAS LITTLE PITY for his protagonists. He demonstrates their greed, lechery, and dishonesty while seemingly delighting in their violent and humiliating fantasies. Passionately convinced that "we have not made the best of all possible worlds," Bunuel once said he wanted to "show with a cold white eye what they have done here on earth in the name of God."
However, the effect of his irony can be to distance his audience from his meaning. As a moralist, Buneul's values prove elusive. Though the audience may know that Bunuel has said, "I am not interested in society. I like people but not human society," the ambiguity as to how one is supposed to feel about the characters seems almost intentional. One can almost judge Bunuel to be unconcerned that his audience understand what he is saying.
But Bunuel has changed since he collaborated with Salvador Dali in 1929 to make the surrealistic film "Le Chien Andalou," whose release one stunned critic called "a date in the history of the cinema, a date marked with blood." His latest movie is kinder, less harrowing than past works. Though Bunuel is shrewdly anti-sentimental in stripping his bourgeoisle of its sanctuaries, it may even by permissible not to feel enraged by his six sturdy representatives of the middle class.
The film is meant to entertain, to divert without rhetoric or didacticism, and it does so in parts with something close to lightheartedness. Watch for the scene in which Francois gives a demonstration lecture on the art of mixing dry martinis, at one point remarking that the ice must be very firm and very cold, about 32 degrees, and notice how discreet Bunuel himself is about the charm of his bourgeoisie.