THE WHOLE HISTORY OF MY LIFE
THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE
As I grew older and returned to Discreet Charm - its surface pleasures of story and character and comedy and Stephane Audran's stocking are undeniable - I realized that the main characters are deliberately drained of political coherency. Their political affiliations are entirely ambiguous: Rey's character (a drug-running ambassador to a fictional South America country) says he "would be a socialist if they believed in God," clearly takes pride in the fact that his country is a developed democracy, claims to be "against pollution and the bomb... and for free love." You cannot clearly label him a Fascist, Communist or Totalitarian and, as their is ample evidence of his corruption, hypocrisy and satisfied membership in an elite class (who declares "civilization cannot never be fully brought to the masses,") you cannot fully commit to the idea that he a simply an open-minded Catholic with liberal leanings. The other characters voice few political opinions one way or the other - Audran and Cassel briefly balk at paying Union wages to their new gardener, but concede without a word of resistance. The group has connections to "the minister" but the minister's exact status and political affiliations are never stated. Our heroes are antagonized by terrorist groups with no clear agenda ("what do they want?" "who knows with terrorists?"), crime families and over-zealous police who gleefully trample their rights (and do worse to some prisoners): the would-be diners are on both sides of the law and neither. Most pointedly, Bu˝uel blurs out all instances of political reasoning: first, when the student revolutionary finally speaks her mind to Rey, a bus passes outside and drowns out her words. Next, the minister calls the police and demands they release our heroes from prison: his words are twice drowned out by a plane passing overhead. Finally, when the police officer explains the situation to his compatriot, their words are covered by the loud clacking of type-writers in the police station. You could even throw in when the peasant woman attempts to explain to the Bishop why she hates Jesus Christ, but doesn't get to actually tell him. Anytime a character moves to explicitly elucidate the political notions behind their behavior, we are pointedly prevented from hearing them.
I also noticed that if Bu˝uel really wanted us to find these character completely dismissible, if we wanted us to snort down our noses at these stupid, avaricious jerks without charm, he had a funny way of showing it: he inserted some of his most well-known opinions into their mouths. Frankeur's character spends a scene taking us through his recipe for a dry martini. This recipe happens to be Bu˝uel's own: his love for a daily martini was so important to him that he devoted an entire chapter of My Last Sigh to discussing it and then provided his fussy concept for the proper preparation of the libation. Bulle Ogier's character at one point mocks political hand gestures, starting with the silly vaginal symbol for the International Women's Movement. She then sarcastically derides the gestures for "Fascism, Communism, Victory and the father of the Holy Spirit." In several interviews, Bu˝uel himself stated that one of the reasons he felt he could never join a political party is that he would be expected gesticulate in its honor while wearing a silly uniform. Ogier's character directly insults the symbols of political parties all along the spectrum and uses Bu˝uel's own concept to do so. Additionally, the student revolutionary starts her oratory with "Mao Tse-Tung..." before the sound of the bus drowns her out - after the bus passes, Rey retorts, "If Mao said that, then he misread Freud." Mao and Freud are two intellectual figures that Bu˝uel held in contempt: Freud's pathetic understanding of the human mind and Mao's equally idiotic, conformist politics. So, Bu˝uel inserts his own opinions into the mouths of the supposed villains (the targets of our derision) and puts flat idiocies into the mouth of their political opponent. It might also be important at this point to consider that Bu˝uel grew up in an Aristocratic household, the wealthiest family in a region of dire poverty, and that he never rejected a life of comfortable leisure - quite the opposite: a dry martini every day was one his life's crucial pleasures. Characters that cannot be pinned down as totalitarians or democrats, villains that espouse Bu˝uel's own ideas, a social class as a target for critique but a social class in which Bu˝uel comfortably lived his own life. Bu˝uel is clearly making his characters politically ambiguous, ensuring that the audience cannot side with any character based on political affiliation - he does not want us to be able to say, "That character is a liberal democrat and so am I, therefore I like him" nor "That man is an unrepentant Falangist, therefore I hate him." But he is trying not to depoliticize his material, the whole film is about political class - he just wants to make the characters' political identities ambiguous.
Why would he do that? Aren't we supposed to be mocking them for their stupidity and greed, their obvious hypocrisy?
I can remember watching the film several years ago and thinking, "If this is a criticism of these folks behavior, what exactly would Bu˝uel have liked for them to have done differently?" I said it in annoyance at the time, but I really think Bu˝uel wants the audience to ask themselves that question. If you look at the film, the characters are never involved easy "good" and "bad" dichotomies that fall neatly within political lines. Think again of Audran and Cassel out in the bushes: yes, they're hypocrites for affecting sophistication and civilization and Rey's character hammers the point home with his on the nose quote. But if as an audience we are to condemn them, what would we have preferred they done differently? Demanding they not have sex in the bushes is hypocritical on my part: I want to have sex with Audran* in the bushes. Or do we demand Rey to lose his illusions of sophistication and civilization? But I too like a nice dry martini, a beautiful home, elegant clothes; I like civilization and sophistication - and that's without mentioning the implication in those words of eschewing violence, poverty, disease and all of the world's awfulness that any reasonable human being wants to hold at bay. If we demand they don't have sex in the bushes, then we demand that they fit the mold of the inhuman caricature on which the critique of their simple hypocrisy is founded. Our derisive dismissal of their avarice and stupidity puts them between two losing propositions: hypocrisy or become the caricature of exactly why we feel the superiority to dismiss them, embrace the role of the villain and embody repressive societal forces, become the symbol of aristocracy, catholicism and militarism. We try them for the crime of being bourgeoisie and then re-try them for the crime of failing at being bourgeoisie.
But imagine, if say, Rey's character decided to kidnap a student who was simply handing out political pamphlets, then it would be easy to say "Don't do that, Fernando Rey! Bad, Fernando Rey, bad! You should have let that character continue to hand out pamphlets!" Instead, Rey gets the drop on a student terrorist who is there to murder him. What is he supposed to do? He channels his sexual frustration into sexual advances, but when she's not interested he lets his associates take her away in an unmarked car. The film is set up to give you an easy target for scorn in Rey's character, but upon reflection it's not clear what he actually should have done differently. Not touch her legs? Sure, but let's not accuse him of rape. And think of this: history hasn't exactly been kind to confused, violent terrorist groups like Baader-Meinhof and the Red Bridge gangs on which she is clearly modeled.** Is it so bad he alerted authorities to her presence? Suppose everything he says is true: he believes in democracy, he would be socialist if he didn't believe in God, he genuinely wants to do what's best for his struggling country. And now imagine the worst of her: a confused, murderous, politically idiotic kid intent on sowing violence - she's a near-total blank, her only characteristic is "defiance."*** Rey's only options are hypocrisy or embracing the caricature: as an audience, we get to sneer at him in either case. That Rey wavers uncertainly between the two choices in the scene only reinforces that those are his only options.
The most powerful of these lose/lose situation is the bishop who gives death-bed absolution to his parents' murderer. The bishop calmly states that the lord will forgive him and assures him of his eternal peace. As the priest is leaving, he spots a loaded shotgun and stops in his tracks. He takes the shotgun and shoots the dying man in the face. The obvious hypocrisy: a man offering absolution and eternal forgiveness, a man whose duty it is to uphold these Catholic ideals, that man commits a grisly murder. His violence driven by the basest of impulses: anger and retribution. But what does the audience want him to do? Walk out and let the man be forgiven? That would mean the bishop is living up to the caricature of Catholicism: bottomless, inhuman forgiveness. But aren't we critiquing the ruling class who enforce catholic doctrine on unwashed masses, those ridiculous, destructive regulations on humanity from which we should be freeing our minds? So, what exactly, are we sneering at? What exactly is it that we are dismissing? What it is that we are supposed to hate about the characters? Is it that they have these phony bourgeoisie ideals or that they consistently fail to live up to them? What gives us the right? The target of the critique is not the group of would-be diners, but the audience of the film. No wonder I missed it as a kid: not many filmmakers challenge their audience so directly and with withering dexterity. I think, ultimately, Bu˝uel is not trying to tell us about political viewpoints, but about the nature of power itself. An audience in the position of easy judgment is no different than Fernando Rey's with easy judgment that "civilization will never be brought to the masses." One of Power's strange attributes is right to dismiss and deride. I think of Ogier's character's odd assertion that she detests the cello (Bu˝uel provides a close-up of a cellist's fingers that in the context actually ends up coming across as borderline pornographic): only those in a position of privilege feel entitled to make judgments like detesting a cello. Only an audience staring at a satire feels the privilege to judge characters for their inability to live up to ideals that we don't even want them to have.
The thorniest issue in the film is that Cassel, Frankeur and Rey are involved in drug-running. They use Rey's diplomatic pouch to smuggle cocaine in from Miranda and they have some nebulous dealing with "the Marseilles gang." This is the one thing that can be viewed as actively corrupt. Certainly, I personally have no problem with drugs and Bu˝uel's audience in the 70's probably contained more than a few folks who enjoyed marijuana if not cocaine. The idea that Frankeur detests drug addicts but smuggles cocaine seems like one of the film's "simple hypocrisies," but again I think Bu˝uel sets up the audience for a fall: are you suggesting that drugs should be outlawed all together or simply that he should be ok with drug addicts? Hypocrite or caricature. But there's almost no context in which drug-running can be viewed as anything other than corrupt and destructive, unlike harmless activities like drinking martinis and demanding to see the owner of a restaurant. In fact, the characters in the film are almost never cruel or petty: the closest I can think of is when they call in the chauffeur for a drink and then ridicule his lack of refinement when he leaves. But at the end of the day, he got a fancy drink and they didn't humiliate him to his face. It's shitty behavior, but not exactly a devastating demolition of an entire social class. They also make fun of Napoleon's hat. For the drug-running, you must concoct more fanciful scenarios to view it with neutrality: maybe Rey is funneling profits to a noble cause or maybe nobody is getting hurt in the production or maybe he's just circumventing an unjust law. They certainly get their comeuppance for it - not only when they end up in jail briefly. At any rate, it's a slightly tougher sell, but Bu˝uel gives you the room to make it: any negativity about their drug-running must be the result of projection as well. All we know about its circumstances is that he's abusing his diplomatic power to do it and that the minister does not think he needs to be stopped: in fact, the minister demands that he be allowed to continue on. Like every other "condemnable" activity in the film, their drug-running is divorced of context and again twists the audience into feeling disingenuous moral superiority.
On the whole, I think what Bu˝uel is getting at is a strange little irony, one that almost borders on a mystery: how the powerful can so easily be rendered powerless. Of course, later in life, Bu˝uel's favorite theme was the illusion of control and it's twin, the phantom of liberty: the upper-class characters in Discreet Charm find themselves in situations where they have no power - the plot revolves around their inability to even do something so simple as get dinner. In scenes like the restaurant without coffee or tea or milk or liquor, they are victims of a simple (and very weird) happenstance which no amount of money or power could cure. At other times, by inviting the military unit on maneuvers or giving the Bishop the gardener's job with union wages, they are prisoners to the very decorum that supposedly gives them their power. Even when their power allows them to barge into the provincial cafe, the funereal in the backroom would kill anyone' appetite, rich or poor. Furthermore, they are slaves to Audran's stocking, needing to sneak out into the bushes or carry on covert affairs. They cannot transcend their appetites. They are alcoholics forced to watch the cello they detest, slaves to illicit substances and unable to demand the music stop playing. Even their thoughts are not their own, they are carried away into dreams and reveries which amplify their anxieties and force them into strange worlds. The police can lock them up without so much as an explanation and leave them to the mercy of a ghostly torturer. They are equally at the mercy of the minister and the Marseilles gang, depending the former's authority for freedom and ending up (in a dream) violently gunned down by the latter. They are forced to choose between playing the hypocrite or the villain for an audience that will condemn them in either case. I don't think Bu˝uel wants us to feel sorry for these folks, but rather is articulating an ironic political skepticism, one that seems genuinely astounded by the mystery of how even the most privileged, powerful, affluent and influential could have so little control over their own lives, desires, political situations and minds.
I'll finish by talking about my favorite scene in the film and one more Bu˝uelian irony, one that as I grow older has caused me the most trouble and confusion in my own life. The scene has three pieces: Delphine Seyrig meets Fernando Rey in his apartment for a tryst. She demands he turn off the lights because she's "not cured yet" and doesn't want to expose her body to him. Next, her husband arrives and interrupts them - he's there to drop off a dinner invitation. She casually emerges from the bedroom and explains that she, too, had decided to stop at Rey's with the invitation. Rey convinces Frankeur to let Seyrig stay behind because he wants to show her "the sursiks." In the next bit, Rey attempts to again bed Seyrig and she asks, "But what are the sursiks?" "I don't know and I don't give a damn." Fearing her husband will figure things out, she leaves, despite having neither had sex nor seen the sursiks. It's my favorite scene in the film not just because it's so well done, but because Rey's devilish determination is so funny and adorable. He here is, a man trying desperately to sleep with his best friend's wife, and you can't help but find him completely irresistible in his efforts. The sursiks line is just such a clever bit and you can't help but admire Rey for it, it makes his amorousness more charming by association. I would say no other place in the film is any character as lovable as Rey is in that scene, he's never more delightful than when engaging in cunning deception towards morally reprehensible ends. That Bu˝uel has made his film a comedy is no accident: comedians from Charlie Chaplin to Russell Brand have made careers out of playing the lovable cad, the guy who you want to get away with being a terrible guy. That's the irony, not just for Rey, but for people in general: so often human beings are at their most charming, funny and delightful at their most despicable. It turns out Taylor Nichols was wrong in Metropolitan: the title of The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie isn't sarcastic. But it is a mystery.
It occurs to me that this is a film about that sticks with me for the reasons that it reflects me in very real way. I am sorry to report that I am very good at being a jerk. I am at my funniest and most charming when being extremely negative. I have a talent for saying vicious and inconsiderate things - in fact, one of my struggles with this site is that I'm far better at spewing venom than writing thoughtful praise. In term of the film's other major theme: if I was born with more privilege than most human beings in the history of existence, that does nothing to alleviate my feelings of powerlessness and total inability to control the swirling mass of reality enveloping me. I like to make the joke that no one ever considers themselves rich because every middle-class person in America (who is richer than 90% of the people on the planet) knows a wealthy doctor or lawyer and every lawyer or doctor is friendly with a millionaire and every millionaire works with a billionaire - everyone sees up and is all too aware of their disadvantages in life: "I'm not privileged, those people are privileged." I'm hesitant to label Bu˝uel's film a satire because I think he's not trying to pop anyone's bubble, but rather to describe and decipher this strange fact. He's always attempting to capture the phantom of liberty; freedom (moral, psychological, political) is one of his greatest obsessions and power is freedom's most crucial facet. I'd like to say that The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie has helped me to understand myself, but unfortunately I think the best I can say is that it has helped me understand how hard it is to understand myself. It's a film that has challenged and contradicted me every step of the way and it has always turned out to have the last word: I wonder if some day I will reach a point where I feel I have moved beyond Discreet Charm. I am happy to think that such a thing isn't possible.
* Incidentally, she was Claude Chabrol's ex-wife. Good work Chabrol.
** Or since she is from a country theoretically located in South America, the actions of rebel groups like Peru's Shining Path and Colombia's FARC were as horrifyingly awful as anything done by brutal dictators like Chile's Pinochet or Argentina's Peron.
*** I suppose you could also give her the description of "sadly ineffectual" for the pathetic failure of her plan as well as her ridiculously transparent little front as a wind-up dog street vendor. Certainly, it would take a large amount of wishful projection to ascribe her any heroic qualities.
- christopher funderburg
november 1, 2010
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