Tag Archives: Jean-Pierre Cassel

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)

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

38. MALPERTUIS (1972)

AKA The Legend of Doom House; Malpertuis: The Legend of Doom House

“For sure, one of the weirdest films you’ll ever see, a cult film above and beyond anything else; a film for those initiated into midnight screenings.  Where else do such dreams take place?”—Ernest Mathjis, DVD liner notes for the Barrel Entertainment edition of Malpertuis

twoandahalfstar

DIRECTED BY: Harry Kümel

FEATURING: Mathieu Carrière, Susan Hampshire, , Michel Bouquet,

PLOT:   When his ship sets anchor in a Flemish town, Jan, a sailor, goes looking for his childhood home, only to find that it burned down years ago.  Seeing a fleeing woman he believes to be his sister, he chases her into a brothel where he is knocked unconscious in a brawl.  He awakens in Malpertuis, a massive estate ruled by his Uncle Cassavius (Orson Welles) from his sickbed.  Cassavius reads his will to his very strange extended family, and its provisions set them at deadly odds with one another.

Still from Malpertuis (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • Malpertuis was an adpation of the only novel written by the Belgian fantasist Jean Ray, who was famous for his macabre short stories (and is sometimes compared to Edgar Allen Poe or H.P. Lovecraft). The novel was complex, composed of four separate narratives told by four characters, and therefore presented a challenge to adapt.
  • Kümel’s previous film was the dreamlike, erotic vampire tale Daughters of Darkness [Les lèvres rouges] (1971).  Hired to make a sexy commercial horror movie, Kümel delivered a memorably bizarre film that pleased exploitation audiences looking for blood and breasts, but was also a crossover hit in the arthouse circuit.  The success of Daughters convinced United Artists to back the Malpertuis project, which was the film Kümel personally wanted to make.  UA’s financial backing enabled Kümel to hire Orson Welles for the key role of Cassavius.
  • Orson Welles was hired for three days of shooting.  An irascible, elderly eccentric by this time in his career, Welles asked for his fee to be delivered in cash in a suitcase.  Welles was drunk and rude on the set, interfering with Kümel’s attempts to direct and, in one case, repeatedly ruining one of Michel Bouquet’s takes until the director agreed to give Welles a closeup he had requested.  At the end of Welles’ three-day contract, the project was well behind schedule due to the legendary actor’s drunkenness, extended lunch breaks and general peevishness.  Apologizing for his behavior, Welles volunteered to work for a fourth day free, and performed all his remaining scenes perfectly in a single morning, putting the production back on schedule.
  • Malpertuis was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1972, but United Artists did not like Kümel’s two-hour cut and submitted a dubbed, re-edited 100 minute  version of the film rather than the director’s preferred version.  The film was not popular with the jury, then bombed in both the United States and Europe when UA released its preferred version (misleadingly marketed as a horror pic) as The Legend of Doom House. Not only did the film tank, but Kümel’s promising young career was cut short.  Disgusted with studio interference, he began directing in television and teaching, and has directed only a few unremarkable feature films (including some arty softcore pornography) in the last twenty-eight years.
  • The director’s cut of the film was unavailable on video for many years, and was not seen until the film was re-released in 2002.  This cut was not available on home video until 2005, and not available on Region 1 until 2007.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The weary face of the legendary Orson Welles, grumpy and gray but still regal, as he reclines in tuxedo-like pajamas against scarlet bedsheets.  The bed-ridden Welles embodies the decaying secret center of the wickedness of Malpertuis.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even before we get to the psychedelic-era Chinese puzzle-box of


Original French trailer for Malpertuis

an ending(s), Malpertuis has created a disorienting sense of oddness.  Both the film and the titular estate are labyrinthine mazes filled with enchanting and mysteriously decorated rooms, with little explanation of how these dazzling individual pieces fit together into the grand layout.

COMMENTS: “It’s pretty, but it’s a bit difficult to understand… Somehow, it makes me Continue reading 38. MALPERTUIS (1972)