My interests do not intersect very frequently with the work of the great Spanish (and Mexican) filmmaker Luis Buñuel. That his early short Un Chien Andalou (Andalusian Dog), made with Salvador Dali, remains one of his most famous films goes a long way in explaining why. Brutal, disturbing and more than a touch juvenile, Dog is the perfect expression of a talented enfant terrible, appealing most to those who view any work calculated pour épater la bourgeoisie as genius. Ironically, the one Buñuel film I find repeatedly enjoyable, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is not only relatively tame compared to his groundbreaking, Surrealist efforts. It is almost affectionate towards that very same middle-class.
Charm is one of the few Buñuel films to deal with the glossy surface of attenuated bourgeois social rituals that he usually treats as pathology. Made in the early 1970s, it seems to document a way of life which, if it ever existed, has long since faded into an anachronistic curiosity. We are so far removed from such formal practices that Buñuel’s parody of bourgeois hypocrisy itself seems a little quaint and senseless. (The closest contemporary equivalent would be the self-satisfied hipster.) The obsessions are so remote, so affected and, it must be said, so French, it’s as if Buñuel is making fun of a superannuated sophisticate’s wet dreams.
Which he practically is, since the structure of Charm is built around a series of dreams-within-dreams that build to surprising, humorous climaxes only to be revealed baldly as set-ups. At its craftiest, Charm feels a little like a Monty Python sketch with all the rough bits polished to a high sheen. The principles (above, Bulle Ogier, Delphine Seyrig, Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Stéphane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel) circle around one another in a series of delicately absurd situations in which no one ever loses his or her cool, no matter how ridiculous the action may be. Their “culture,” “sophistication” and artfully affectless responses to any disturbance arm the characters against all experience. Rituals have become their morality and to break the placid surface of their ultra-smooth lives is the one unforgivable lapse.
Buñuel directs with seemingly effortless fluidity, but as “discreetly” entertaining as his minuet for camera and actors is, one wonders how his admirers feel about this fairly tame dig at targets he usually eviscerated with acidulous glee. It hardly matters to me that a master of the cinema of cruelty amuses with this pleasant diversion, but for those who insist that the power of Buñuel’s work lies in his ceaseless antagonism toward authority, the film must be something of a disappointment. For an anarchist like Buñuel to produce something that can appeal to the very kind of person he is parodying must come as a rude shock to anyone who thinks subversion is the ultimate good. Then again, perhaps Buñuel was smarter than any of his supporters and recognized that they were now the ones who needed teasing.