Saturday, January 6, 2007

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie - Luis Bunuel (1972)

This is a strange film. Know that first and foremost. And I imagine that people like it for very different reasons. You may like the marvelous acting of the six bourgeois, who try for the entire film to have an uninterrupted dinner (as in the picture above when a cavalry unit preparing for maneuvers stops by for a meal). You may like the surrealist twists and turns, as much of the latter half of the film is made up of dreams and nightmares. You may like the vibrant use of color, which is subtly employed so as to show a manner of restraint (Bunuel seems to accentuate the color of a particular outline or object sporadically through the film). You may even like the socio-political statement that Bunuel is making, Marxist in tone at times, and always taking jabs at the upper class.

I can't say that I resonate with these reasons though. In fact, if it wasn't for two particular sequences in the film, I wouldn't have a personal reason to recommend the film. The two sequences I speak of are the Lieutenant's tale of his childhood and the Sergeant's dream, which start out as stories told by minor characters to the main character listeners, but become something much more as the viewer is transported into the story. In both instances, the sequences take the viewer completely outside of the world of the six bourgeois, both in terms of narrative and in terms of tone. Of course, the power of these sequences probably comes with the juxtaposition they make to the rest of the film, so I cannot claim to like the film just for these sequences. But let me try to explain a little further...

In the midst of Bunuel's biting satire, we are treated to these two sequences of somber beauty, drawing upon the memories and longings of the storyteller. In the Sergeant's dream for example, we find him walking down the street, his eyes downcast, the buildings along the way appearing as part of a set (the doors and windows have been painted on). A church bell tolls throughout the sequence, as well as the chattering of people we cannot see. He meets a man who "smells of earth," who after brief conversation, quickly disappears into an open doorway to "buy something." A conversation with another man, who helps the Sergeant realize that he is in the land of the dead. Outside, a girl of deathly white, the Sergeant's mother, who he did not know well when she was alive. Two incredible opposing images of the two talking, the mother unable to meet her son's gaze. She says, "I looked for you in this dark crowd, I've been looking since I arrived." A cut to her grave, hands draped over a crucifix, as the first shovels of dirt cover her plain dress. The Sergeant goes looking for the first man in the building in order to introduce the man to his mother. Inside, a stairway covered in cobwebs and dirt. The Sergeant calls for the man, but there is no answer. Outside, time has passed, and the Sergeant is alone. No mother, alone.

And then Bunuel takes us back to the world of the bourgeois and the moment passes as if it was nothing. But it is the reason I recommend this film to you. The fact that we are so detached from the rest of the film makes these sequences that much more powerful. The two sequences are transcendent moments, emotional blips in a film about social etiquette and superficiality. As I mentioned, the film has other dream sequences, mostly from the minds of the six bourgeois, but they do not compare to the two mentioned above. The six are wholly consumed by their insecurities and appearances. The Sergeant and Lieutenant long for that which is beyond themselves, and we long with them.

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