Of dreams and dinner parties: On The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie...
Luis Buñuel’s 1972 film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is recently restored and back in cinemas.
In a nutshell, it’s a film about dreams and dinner parties and is widely regarded a surreal masterpiece. There are other films that are more surreal – last year’s rerelease of Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad, for example, reminded us that its enigmatic meaning and varying interpretations will keep film scholars guessing forever. Other films, too, have offered sharper attacks on middle-class complacency. Denys Arcand’s 1986 satire The Decline of the American Empire (also revolving around that bourgeoise staple, the dinner party), or the work of Michael Haneke, (his ‘emotional glaciation’ trilogy especially) for example. Few, however, tread the line between what the film's screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière describes as the ‘extravagant and the banal’ with such careful precision and remain, 40 years on, so utterly watchable.
Buñuel was insistent that his first film, the plotless short Un Chien Andalou, made with Salvador Dalí in 1929 (and embedded in popular culture’s consciousness due to its infamous ‘slicing up eyeballs’ opening 'scene') eluded easy interpretation: ‘Nothing in the film symbolises anything’, he said. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, made some 40 years later has both a fairly concise plot – a group of friends attempt to have a dinner party but are constantly frustrated but various mishaps of an increasingly surreal nature – and, if you want it, a fairly organised possible interpretation.
The most tempting (and obvious) reading of the film’s various set pieces, is a psychoanalytic one, particularly given the heavy use of dream sequences. Psychoanalysis and cinema were born concurrently at the end of the 19th century, seemingly made for each other. Freud delayed the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams until 1900 in order that the text might usher in the modern era, and cinema, of course, was the medium of modernity. One famous sequence from The Discreet Charm… sees Paul Frankeur’s Monsieur Thévenot experience a dream within a dream, awaking to tell his wife “I dreamt that Henri Sénéchal dreamt that…” This sequence exhibits the displacement, censorship and wish fulfillment Freud saw as central to dream logic, especially since this particular dream within a dream culminates with the humiliation of the man who is having an affair with the dreamer’s wife.
As in dreams however, details often defy explanation: dead-ends and unsolved mysteries abound. Where, for example, are the central characters heading in the recurring (final) scene in which they walk down a country road? What is the significance of the high-class teahouse, which serves no tea or coffee, only water? And what of the young paratrooper’s train dream?
Mysteries aside though, the rerelease of any film offers the chance for both reevaluation and discovery for a new generation. It’s the latter that excited Carrière when I interviewed him last week: “that’s what we are working for”, he said of the film’s renewed place in the spotlight. “Something that lasts from one generation to the other. Buñuel would be so happy to see you, somebody your age  still interested in his films…” For those who find their interest in Buñuel piqued by this rerelease, there’s a vast and surreal back catalogue rife for investigation.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is back in cinemas 29th June, and on DVD/Blu-ray on July 16th. The film plays at the BFI Southbank as part of their Jean-Claude Carrière season.
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