THE WHOLE HISTORY OF MY LIFE
THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE
But I need to be really honest: it was Stephane Audran's stocking. Listen, there's no way to write about erotically charged imagery without coming across badly. Your options are either "clinical" or "perverted" and both make you seem more than a little creepy. Sex and imagery that emits an intense sexual power are both things that are by their very nature personal, too personal, so the a writer's impulse is to class things up a bit with romanticized language or to keep a detached tone... but the fact is that some things are just really fucking hot. And Bu˝uel in particular really wants to indulge his own fetishes and put things up on screen that he finds really fucking hot. He's got a shoe and stocking fetish. He likes boobs (or "breasts" or "Fergie's lovely lady lumps") as well. In the scene in which Audran and Cassel sneak out of their bedroom window and get down into the dirt, Audran lifts her dress to reveal a garter belt and stocking. This is the image, the moment, that stuck with me more than anything in the film. And it stuck with me for the reasons Bu˝uel clearly wanted it to: maybe no filmmaker has been more adept at deploying sexual energy in his films: Audran's stocking, Catherine Deneuve's naked back splattered with mud in Belle de Jour, Fernando Rey tearing open Silvia Pinal's shirt in Viridiana, the murdered nurse's legs in The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, the coquette's whole body in her first appearance in Mexican Bus Ride, Jeanne Moreau trying on leather boots in Diary of a Chambermaid, Pinal as a schoolgirl in Simon of the Desert - Bu˝uel's use of sexual imagery is explosive and, really, one of the essential elements of his work. He's one of the few filmmakers who understands that sexuality in art has its most natural, powerful expression in the photographic image; nowhere is that more so the case than with Bu˝uel's fetishistic tableau. When you see it, it happens to you, you feel it, it's a million times more powerful than explaining or otehrwise mediating it. But there's no way to write about how when I was 15 years old I saw Stephane Audran's stocking (and it just ruined me) without coming across like a bit of a creep. But Audran and Cassel in the grass * was the essential image of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie as far as I was concerned. When I first arrived at film school, one of my professors went around the room and asked everyone to tell the class about the most memorable image from our favorite film.
I went first and he caught me off guard: "What's your favorite film?"
"If I had to pick one? Probably Bu˝uel's 1972 surrealist materpiece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie."
"And what's the most memorable image from that film?"
"The, uh... um... the uh, them walking down the road."
I stammered out something about what's probably the film's most iconic scene, the group of fancy-pants walking down a rural back-road, their heels clicking on the pavement as they stroll in silence. It's not one of the film's most exciting moments, and probably the scene most open to stupid metaphoric readings, but Bu˝uel cuts back to it repeatedly, so it's unforgettable in an extremely unexciting way. I was, of course, too embarrassed to say, "Stephane Audran's stocking right before Jean-Pierre Cassel tries to fuck her in the dirt." But that's actually one of Bu˝uel's real strengths: his films are accessible and intelligible because they play to base humanity. At very least, even with an attenuated and cryptic film like Simon of the Desert, you will get to see Silvia Pinal naked. While I didn't necessarily understand the film on a conscious level the first time I saw it, I certainly "got it" in the way that I think would have been the best case scenario in Bu˝uel's opinion: he turned me into the little boy in the opening scene of The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz.
For a long time, not just in that class, I had a hard time articulating just what I thought about the film. This is because I didn't actually know what I thought about the film. In fact, I can vividly remember seeing it at Film Forum during its 2000 re-release after I had seen it a dozen times on video and feeling like I finally understood the movie... and thinking maybe it wasn't a movie I even liked at all. My general understanding, which matched-up with the general critical assessment of the film, was that Bu˝uel was calling out upper-class characters for a series of obvious and easy hypocrisies: Rey talks about how "civilization can never be brought to the masses" while Cassel and Audran fuck in the bushes, Paul Frankeur complains that he "detest[s] drug addicts" while smuggling cocaine and hanging out with his alcoholic sister-in-law, a Bishop offers his parents' murderer absolution and then guns him dead. I thought Bu˝uel was avoiding an explicitly political critique in that he was criticizing the characters for shallowness and vapidity (in addition to hypocrisy) rather than for their politics: when a solider approaches the women at a restaurant and tells them of how he murdered his father, they are more concerned with the waiter telling them the restaurant is out of coffee and wine than his grisly tale. Audran and Cassel toss the Bishop out of their house when he first approaches them in gardener's garb, but kiss his rings when he returns in official regalia. It just didn't sit right with me: his critique seemed easy and shallow, a strangely apolitical satire of folks whom I was supposed to condemn for being bores? And here's the real problem was Stephane Audran's stocking. Did he really expect me to criticize Cassel for not being able to resist Audran's advances. How would I been able to control myself in that moment when she gets down on all fours, waves her ass in the air and moans at his slightest touch? Did Bu˝uel really expect me to get on a high horse about that?! The other obvious option is that he wants an audience to say, "Don't pretend you are better than us, man: just admit you fuck in the bushes and smuggle cocaine and don't be all snotty about it. Morality is a sham, buddy!" But, for some reason, I doubted that Bu˝uel had a Scarface poster on his bedroom wall.
The other problem, now that I thought I understood the critique, was that I really didn't hate these characters as much as I felt like I was supposed to. By making it a comedy, Bu˝uel had clouded the issue in that it's always difficult to hate the protagonists in any comedy, even if they're the worst people in the world. It's a much-observed fact that the heroes of many a romantic comedy would be locked up as psychotic stalkers in real life - in Discreet Charm, the film is much too fun for me to be able to seethe with rage about any of these folks. Bu˝uel has always had a sense of humor that is tricky to describe; it's definitely a dry, dark sense of humor: he builds his deadpan comedy subjects like violence, poverty, rape, insanity, infidelity and physical deformity. He rarely goes for big, broad jokes and it's easy to imagine his sense of humor passing by many people undetected, even though it runs through (and at times dominates) all but a handful of his films. Because of the dryness combined with his lack of righteous passion in stoking clear moral outrage, it could be said his humor is detached or clinical, but he has a strange enthusiasm and affection for his characters - while he doesn't go out of his way to show you their "good qualities" or even feel the need to suggest they have any, but his wry comedic tone somehow also feels sympathetic. Or, as Carlos Fuentes put it: "And you cannot altogether hate the stupid, avaricious people in Discreet Charm; their dreams are funny; they are endowed with a reluctantly charming dimension." If I didn't know any better, if every review of the film hadn't told me that this was a vicious unforgiving satire of stupid, avaricious jerks, I might think that Bu˝uel maybe doesn't want me to hate them. But after seeing it in a theater in 2000, walked away feeling very dissatisfied with the film: could Bu˝uel's aim simply be scoring cheap shots over hypocrisy and caricatured insensitivity? I felt like I understood the film, but the pieces somehow didn't fit together. Could a cinematic machine with parts which were so elegantly assembled really be put together in service of a purpose so glib and facile?
Whatever problems I began to have with The Discreet of the Bourgeoisie, the film also keyed off my long-standing interest in the Spanish Civil War in specific and modern Spanish history and art in general. As I started to read more about Bu˝uel and see more of his films, I realized that the Spanish Civil War was the central event in his life, even if he spoke of it with typical wry understatement. Before Bu˝uel spurred me on, I didn't really know much about the war, though, just that Franco was bad, he was a Fascist, that he was aligned with Hitler and Mussolini during WWII. The unquestioned political narrative of WWII that everyone my age grew up with was this: the Axis powers were true evil, the Allies went to war with the explicit goal of defeating true evil in evil's hometown on their own damn turf. This narrative provided a framework for U.S. international behavior up to this day: there are forces of true evil, the U.S. must go to where evil lives and defeat it. In WWII, that meant the U.S. was saving Belgians and Englishmen and the French and the Jews. Now it means going to Vietnam, now it means taking out Noriega, now it means blowing up swaths of Colombia, now it means heading into Kuwait. That's the framework presented to me in high school. What shocked me when I started to read about the Spanish Civil War was that Francisco Franco won. He got away with it. Here was a guy who was a hardcore political ally of Hitler, a known Fascist, murderer and torturer, an anti-democratic tyrant and he ruled Spain until 1975. Three years after Discreet Charm had been made. Why had the forces of good who had willingly hunted down evil wherever it lived been willing to let this monster reign in peace? In a Western European country no less? And the answer was even more unsatisfying: he had refused to let Hitler move troops through Spain during WWII. Hitler provided bombers to Franco to crush his Republican and Communist opposition, but that doesn't count enough for the Allies for Franco to be on the side of true evil. Franco held the same blood-thirsty philosophies on government and human rights as Hitler and Mussolini, acted even more cruelly to his own people than Mussolini did to his, but because he decided to only offer troop support on the Eastern front during WWII, he was somehow exempt from comeuppance? Listen, you can accuse me of being naive and having a simplistic view of the world but I was 16 years old.
Reading about the Spanish Civil War really did help me to understand Bu˝uel and his films. Like Vicky & Cristina, Taylor Nichols and Hiroshi Teshigahara I even traveled to Barcelona and went nuts for it. I wish I had made it up to Bu˝uel's hometown or at least gone to hear the drums of Calanda, but I at least went to the home country, which is more than I ever did for Fassbinder or Kurosawa. Bu˝uel was in his 30's when the war broke out - he left Spain for the U.S. shortly after it began and never solidly returned. In his autobiography, My Last Sigh, Bu˝uel describes his experiences with the war and Franco with a typical detached amusement: it's a low-key book and he generally presents horrifying anecdotes as though they are merely interesting or even funny. He barely mentions the politically-tinged assassination of his good friend, the poet Garcia Lorca, in 1936. He casually mentions driving around with a mattress tied to the top of his car because snipers would take random shots at any car on the streets. But still, the war clearly dictated the trajectory of Bu˝uel's life and career. And, if I can speculate, it influenced his world-view and philosophies very much. In My Last Sigh, Bu˝uel writes about the villainous activity of the anarchists and Fascists alike. He expresses no enthusiasm for the moderate, ineffectual Republicans and mentions a brief flirtation with and rejection of Communism. In the Spanish Civil War, there is no convincing case you can make that any side was really "the good guy." My own opinion is that liberal Republicans like Indalecio Prieto were probably the most noble figures involved, but I can imagine that if I lived during the Spanish Civil War that I would have detested Prieto for the same reasons I detested Bill Clinton: an ineffectual centrism that is unable or unwilling to combat the forces of real awfulness. But, perhaps even worse, far left figures like Dolores "La Pasionaria" Ibarruri just come across to me as faintly deluded and ridiculous. The Fascists carried entire families off in to the night never to return while the Communists and Anarchists lined up priests up against the church walls for execution and Prieto stood on his balcony, smoking cigarettes while snipers from both sides fired at him.
The political circumstance of Bu˝uel's life undoubtedly bled over into his work. He disengaged his formerly close collaborators like Andre Breton and Paul Eluard as they embraced more hard-edged political views - his break with childhood friend Salvador Dali even seemed cemented by Dali's passionate embrace of consumerist capitalism. By the time Bu˝uel found himself in exile in a violence, poverty and corruption-wracked Mexico, he shared the same sanguine political skepticism that characterizes so many expatriate artists like Witold Gombrowicz, Milan Kundera, Roman Polanski and Herman Broch, men looking at the horrible political situations of their homeland from the outside in. He was not a Solzhenitsyn, a political trophy trotted around the world as pawn in geopolitical strategy, the useful artist decrying his former homeland to audiences for whom such demonization was politically expedient; just as he was not like Eluard or Eisenstein, the true believer who never wavers in his convictions even as he is crushed and annihilated by those forces which he is determined to venerate. Additionally, Bu˝uel had a strange relationship to Mexico's callow culture of violence; often featuring the underclass of the country in his films in a such a way that wavered between non-judgmental and lurid and repulsed. That's the strange fact of Bu˝uel: he's attracted to violence, but is clearly a gentle man who detests it. His tales of violence during the early days of the war are tinged with his ever-present sense of humor: even when he's recounting risking death by admonishing armed anarchists for raiding a restaurant's wine cellar, his tone is basically, "And let me tell you another funny story." The injustice and violence of the world does not spur Bu˝uel to righteous indignation, but another world-weary sigh. In the context of Spain in the mid-20th Century, it's hard to fault him for a certain bloodlessness. I don't see a clear way in which the story of the Spanish Civil War could have turned out good; only "less bad." The view from Mexico wasn't any more hopeful; he found himself in a country where a flimsy veneer of democracy did little to conceal the prevalent violence and injustice. It would be tempting to describe Bu˝uel as politically disengaged, but that's not really the case either. His subjects are so deeply politicized that there's no getting around the fact that he's thinking about in politics when he makes his films. You don't use the word "bourgeoisie" in the title of your movie by accident.
* This scene also plays a trick on the audience that Bu˝uel clearly enjoyed because he repeated it several times throughout his career: he has Cassel and Audran settle down in plain view and come right to the edge of consummation... before Cassel stands up and takes Audran out of view into the bushes for all the gettin' it on.
(continued on page 3)
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