Tag Archives: Fernando Rey

273. THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972)

“…a writer or painter cannot change the world. But they can keep an essential margin of nonconformity alive… The final sense of my films is this: to repeat, over and over again, in case anyone forgets it or believes to the contrary, that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.”–Luis Buñuel, 1973

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , , , Bulle Ogier, Stéphane Audran, , Julien Bertheau

PLOT: Two well-to-do couples arrive at the home of a third for dinner, but find there has been a misunderstanding on the date, and their hostess has not prepared a meal. The sextet tries to reschedule dinner over and over, but meets with increasingly absurd obstacles: dead restaurateurs, a platoon of soldiers who intrude on the evening, police officers who burst in and arrest the entire party before the first course. Complicating the scenario further is a bishop who imposes himself on their party, flashback ghost stories told by minor characters, a subplot about an ambassador smuggling cocaine and being hunted by a female terrorist assassin, and scenes that turn out to be dreams.

Still from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • Buñuel had announced that he would retire after Tristana (1971), but was inspired to make this movie by a story his producer Serge Silberman told him about having dinner guests show up unexpectedly due to a calendar mix-up.
  • Co-written by Surrealist screenwriting specialist , who became Buñuel’s most significant collaborator (surpassing even ). He assisted with writing duties on the director’s great 1967-1977 French renaissance period.
  • Among other honors, Discreet Charm won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (an indifferent Buñuel did not bother to show up to accept the award) and is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
  • Stephen Sondheim has a musical based on both The Exterminating Angel and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in the works.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Shots of the six bourgeois friends, walking down an isolated country road, inserted at random between scenes. Their stride is purposeful, their destination… nowhere.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dinner theater; bishop with a shotgun; electrified piano cockroach torture

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Buñuel’s exercise in bourgeois frustration begins simply, with a canceled dinner appointment, but quickly spirals out of control with a cocaine smuggling subplot, a foxy female terrorist, a vengeful bishop, and dreams inside of dreams. They never do get to that dinner party, although Fernando Rey does get to sneak in a slice of lamb and a midnight snack.


Original trailer for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

COMMENTS: Luis Buñuel is cinema’s poet of frustration, of eternal Continue reading 273. THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972)

BUNUEL’S VIRIDIANA (1961)

Viridiana (1961) has quite a reputation among film critics and historians, often being listed as one of ‘s best efforts. It is certainly among the most heterodox offerings in his considerable canon.

Viridiana marked Buñuel‘s return to his native Spain after a twenty-five year absence. With the fascist Franco still in power, Buñuel was severely criticized and accused of making his bed with the enemy, but the filmmaker’s critics should have known better. Buñuel had an ulterior motive, with a predictably incendiary opus tucked securely in his Surrealist vest pocket.

Upon receiving Buñuel’s original script, which ended with the protagonist nun engaging in ménage a trois with her cousin and his mistress, the government promptly rejected the story. Undaunted, Buñuel rewrote it, with all the implications gloriously intact through the trio joining in a card game inside the cousin’s bedroom. Having outwitted the censors, Bunuel congratulated himself over an even more immoral ending.

Despite Viridiana having won the , the Spanish government was furious for having been so easily duped by the insurgent Surrealist, and banned him from the country until after Franco’s death. Predictably, the Vatican followed suit and condemned both filmmaker and film as blasphemous. Fortunately, attempts to burn all existing copies proved futile. It had to be a hell of a compliment to Buñuel, who soaked in his resounding success of provoking the status quo. Years later, when a pope removed a ban from one of Buñuel’s films, the filmmaker was reported to have lamented: “What has my life and this world come to when even a pope accepts me?”

As one may expect of Buñuel, Viridiana is a far more labyrinthine composition than its shock publicity would indicate. Rooted within an anti-clerical, anti-pious battering ram is a film so intrinsically religious that its heterodox classification was inevitable.

An incandescent  embodies the title character with such singularly stoic personality that her Buñuel  followup as the Devil in Simon of the Desert (1965) seems perfectly apt in hindsight.

Viridiana is content in her cloister, about to make her wedding vows to Christ, when Mother Superior orders her charge to visit uncle Don Jaime (). He is Viridiana’s only living relative and, more importantly, a financial backer of the convent. Viridiana is the quintessence of objectified perfection, a forbidden Eve’s apple in a black habit. Viridiana is so thoroughly reduced to potential receptacle that she never entirely convinces as a novice, which was clearly Buñuel’s motive. In typical Buñuel fashion, it is the ecclesiastical curator who throws the innocent out of a self-styled paradise into a fetishistic, reptilian den.

Dom Jaime could be seen as a prodigal’s uncle, lording over the remnant of his estate with the wayward niece returning from her explorations of a pious, alternative culture, as opposed to one of debauchery. The returning pariah is not treated to a celebration with fatted calf, prepared by the loyal servant maid. Rather, the servant aids and abets her master in drugging Viridiana in a pathetic effort to transform the virgin into a centerfold for “Necrophilia Illustrated.”

Disgusted with her uncle’s incestuous advances, Viridiana flees the homestead yet again, only to be stopped by the news that Dom Jaime has hung himself and left her half of his estate, which she will share with her cousin.

Viridiana’s interpretation of St. Paul’s dictum: “the greatest of these is charity” proves delightfully absurd when taking in the uneducated derelicts of the world. Buñuel shows the underclass as having sensibilities of cruelty and avarice equal to, if not surpassing, the affluent elite. “Sin” is not the sole property of a single social status. Both rich uncle and penniless leper like the feel of a garter on their thighs while squeezing into heels.  Uncle and son seek to soil  the unspoiled flesh. Viridiana’s self-humbling only squeaks with charitable intent. She is a counterpart to Buñuel‘s earlier, hopelessly naive Padre Nazario from Nazarin (1959).

Still from Viridiana (1961)The film contains two infamous scenes. The first is a cruelly symbolic one, involving two dogs and their carts. Bunuel choreographs the vignette like a rabid string duet, doused in venomous futility.  It is a canine stations of the cross with Simon of Cyrene alleviating the dolorous passion of one mutt, only  to be oblivious to the sight and sound of a second dog’s death march.

The second vignette is less restrained; a setting of da Vinci’s pedestaled “Last Supper,” brutally mocked and violated in a   photo session.

Of course, it all ends with a cinematic assimilation of  theological trinity, filtered through Bunuel’s compulsively subdued filter. Viridiana herself is rendered something akin to the Ever-Virgin’s ripped holy card, scattered and stained with the lay wasted epithet: “I don’t want to be touched.”

What is so holy about that?

LIST CANDIDATE: THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , , , Bulle Ogier, Stéphane Audran,

PLOT: Six friends attempt to have dinner together, but repeatedly fail for increasingly bizarre reasons.

Still from Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A plot so simple it’s barely a plot at all starts out small and, through masterly use of the running gag, steadily builds throughout the film, getting more and more absurd until the apocalyptic finale. And if that’s not enough, there are numerous dream-sequences, sometimes nested inside one another, and not always clearly distinguishable from reality. Also, undead policemen!

COMMENTS: Leaving aside Un Chien Andalou, which will forever be in a class of its own, Discreet Charm might just be Buñuel’s masterpiece. The Academy Awards Committee certainly thought so when they gave it the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1973. No close-ups of razor-slashed eyeballs this time; this is a nice, gentle, middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser. Except that that description would be as misleading as taking the title literally. It’s true that there are no pianos full of dead donkeys, but we do get an electrified piano used as an instrument of torture, from which cockroaches stream as the convulsions of the screaming victim create impromptu musique concréte-–an act for which the policeman responsible is first murdered by outraged student radicals (offscreen), and then condemned to return as a gory apparition (onscreen) every Bloody Sergeant’s Day (June 14th, if you’re thinking of throwing a party). There’s definitely something unusual going on here!

So unusual that “whose subconscious are we in now?” is a very pertinent question, 38 years before it was asked in Inception. One particularly bizarre scene turns out to be only a dream, and the action picks up where it left off. But then it turns out that this too is a dream, and the character who dreamed the first dream is not only still dreaming, but dreaming that he’s somebody else! Confused yet? The visibly nervous professional movie critic in the useless featurette on the Region 2 DVD clearly was. He correctly points out that this is a dream within a dream. Not so tricky, since the film explicitly says so. What he seems to have missed is that the dream-within-a-dream is probably a continuation of the previous scene, in which implausible events take place, and characters who don’t appear in the rest of the movie behave very oddly. One of them entertains the assembled company by recounting a dream about his dead mother, which we see. So what he have here is almost certainly a dream within a dream within a dream…

Then again, other incredibly strange things occur which aren’t dreams at all. Or are they? There isn’t any sure way to decide which parts of this film are “real”, and ultimately it doesn’t matter: it’s fiction, so none of it’s real. Still, there’s obviously some strange kind of logic holding it all together, even if we aren’t told what it is. This is why, like , Luis Buñuel belongs on the A-list of weird film-makers. Throwing the rules out of the window is enough to make a movie “weird” in the sense of weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, but to reach the next level, you need to replace what you threw out with something else. Buñuel understood this perfectly, and plays with it all the way through the film. A very distinctive object features in what turns out to be a dream, yet reappears in the scene that follows: a subtle clue that we’re still in the dream (there’s absolutely no way  wasn’t taking notes here). But another dream seems to be genuinely prophetic. And so on: a tangled web indeed!

Almost every joke follows the pattern of the main plot by starting off quite tamely, but turning out to have at least one more layer. The initial appearance of a saintly bishop results in his mild humiliation and all-round embarrassment, due to a silly and quickly resolved misunderstanding that wouldn’t be out of place in a Seventies sitcom. But just when you think Buñuel’s attitude to the church has mellowed with age, it turns out that the unsuspecting monsignor is being set up for a punchline which, when we finally get to it, is as dark as they come.

This film is not weird in the sense that watching it is an endurance test. This is mainstream weirdness with excellent production values. But don’t let that fool you: every single thing that happens here is as off-kilter as the attitudes of the main characters, who honestly believe that the lower classes are subhuman because they don’t know the correct way to drink a dry martini. Discreet Charm may or may not make the List, but it’s definitely on mine.

“Buñuel seems to have finally done away with plot and dedicated himself to filmmaking on the level of pure personal fantasy… We are all so accustomed to following the narrative threads in a movie that we want to make a movie make ‘sense,’ even if it doesn’t. But the greatest directors can carry us along breathlessly on the wings of their own imaginations, so that we don’t ask questions; we simply have an experience.”–Roger Ebert, Great Movies

CAPSULE: THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Carole Bouquet, Angela Molina

PLOT: A rich French businessman courts a beautiful young Spanish woman over the years, but although she sometimes professes to love him, she continually refuses to consummate the relationship.

Still from That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Obscure Object is one of Buñuel’s best, but not one of his weirdest. If you merged the two actresses who inexplicably share the role of Conchita into one, you could almost mistake this parody of obsessive bourgeois eroticism for a normal comedy—almost.

COMMENTS: The “gimmick” of two actresses playing the object of desire is the high-concept highlight of That Obscure Object of Desire, but make no mistake: the casting was not a desperation move to salvage some sort of novelty value out of a dull script. Buñuel’s final film is one of his most tightly controlled and plotted movies, the work of a 77-year old master intent on putting the final punctuation on a distinguished career. The story is simple: prosperous, respectable, middle-aged Mathieu meets 18-year old serving girl Conchita and attempts, and fails, to seduce her. She leaves his service, but as the years go on he continues to encounter her, whether by chance or by design, and gradually he works his way closer and closer to her heart—but although she declares her love for him, she never surrenders her virtue. Buñuel and his totally committed trio of actors push the dramatic scenario further than you would think possible: the erotic tension builds and builds until surely, you think, something has to break. Either Conchita will give in or Mathieu will tire of being teased and rid himself of her forever. And yet, after each frustrating encounter, the bourgeois businessman comes back for more, and Conchita is willing to continue the dance. There are moments when rape seems inevitable, but that solution would wreck the game, so they push right to the brink before pulling back and resetting.

It’s not all unbearable erotic tension: Obscure Object is, at heart, a droll and absurd comedy, full of sophisticated, off-kilter jokes; even if you don’t always get them, you feel smarter for chuckling at them. Some gags are obvious: there’s a variation on the old “waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!’ joke—this time, it’s in a martini. One night, Mathieu lures Conchita to his bedroom; Angelia Molina asks “can I change?” and goes into the bathroom to put on her nightgown; she emerges as Carole Bouquet. At other times the humor is more oblique and surreal, and we’re not sure what to make of it. Mathieu tells his story to traveling companions on a train; one is a dwarf, and a professor of psychology—but he only gives private lessons. A Spanish fortune teller carries a pig wrapped in a blanket like a baby. The movie is set in a Europe where terrorist bombings are a background fact of life; one of the revolutionary groups is named “the Revolutionary Army of Baby Jesus.”

This being a Buñuel film, there’s a constant subtle mockery of the unexamined values of the middle class. Mathieu casually tells the strangers in his train compartment how he essentially tries to purchase Conchita off her cash-strapped mother, and how he beats and humiliates the girl after he’s been sexually frustrated. Rather than being scandalized by the shameful confession, everyone takes his side, nods understandingly and comforts the respectable victim. Obscure Object is Buñuel’s attack on what he sees as the capitalist system of romance: men, the class with the capital, protect and provide for women, and in return they receive love and sex. This arrangement, based on inequality, can never satisfy either sex: men will remain emotionally frustrated because women only give in to them out of hardship, and the disenfranchised women use the only weapon at their disposal—their erotic power—to revenge themselves upon men. Just as the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie never get to eat, Mathieu never gets to… you know.

As for why two women play Conchita, it’s one of those deliberate Surrealist accidents that suggest interpretations that remain obscure. Do Bouquet and Molina represent two sides of the same woman, a divided personality, female duplicity? I lean to the reading that there are two women because Mathieu, the bourgeois man, can’t understand the “object” of his own desire; he no more notices that his love changes before his very eyes than he sees that the society around him is crumbling into anarchy.

According to co-writer and longtime Buñuel collaborator , the idea to cast two women in the role of Conchita occurred in an early draft of the script, but was discarded. When production began on the movie Buñuel was unhappy with the woman chosen to play Conchita (Last Tango in Paris’ Maria Schneider) and came close to abandoning the project before resurrecting the idea of using dual actresses in the role.

The Criterion Collection lost the rights to Studio Canal’s Buñuel collection, and therefore the 2013 Blu-ray of That Obscure Object of Desire was released by Lions Gate (buy). It has different special features than the Criterion DVD, including interviews with both Bouquet and Molina.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Buñuel creates a vision of a world as logical as a theorem, as mysterious as a dream, and as funny as a vaudeville gag.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)