Monday, October 25, 2010

Criterion Recollection: a Close Reading

Note: We, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? are proud to present Criterion Recollection, an analysis of the popular Criterion Collection of historic and unique achievements in film. Your guide is Mark Brendle, a former media critic for and a short-fiction writer. Brendle lives in the Pacific Northwest in a small post-recycled yurt adjacent to America's largest family-owned retail video and book store, Art Trough. When not writing or staring purposefully at culture, Brendle works as a fair-trade coffee beanist. You can follow him on Twitter.

In Bourgeois Hell—Between Discreet and Discrete: Spine #102: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

Luis Buñuel’s satire of modern capitalist life, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, operates on several levels. It is satiric social commentary but also a picaresque farce and an absurd comedy of errors. These levels bind together around the core of the bourgeois consumer-capitalist lifestyle, exploring both desire and the bourgeois subject's inability to satiate it at any meaningful level. For him, desire is always just missed — postponed, interrupted, or otherwise barred — but always with the promise of future satiety. This manipulation of desire acts as the engine maintaining the semi-perpetual state of late capitalism.

This Tantalus-like arrangement is fitting, for Buñuel sees bourgeois existence as a kind of hell, similar to Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, except instead of being other people, Buñuel’s hell is the gaze of other people. The concept of the gaze, of being observed, suggests the key word of film’s title, "Discreet." Discretion serves at least a two-fold purpose for Buñuel’s hapless protagonists: it removes their acting upon their desires from the gaze of the observer and allows them to take their place within the prescribed symbolic order. This double-life represents the cornerstone of consumer-capitalist existence: compartmentalization. The film could just as easily be named The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Because the looming fears and momentous events of bourgeois existence are often so quotidian and discrete from others' experience, it seems only too fitting to look at this film with an intense focus. The following is a thorough, scene-by-scene analysis of the film and how it exposes the truths of bourgeois existence.

The film's protagonists, to use the word loosely, are six upper-class bourgeoisie, three men and three women. One of the men, Rafael, serves as an ambassador to Miranda; the others are French businessmen. The two businessmen, Francois Thevenot and Henri Senechal, are married to two of the women, Simone and Alice, respectively. Simone’s sister Florence completes the sextet. However, characterization is not so important. These six people represent an entire class and as such are vague, symbolic and nearly interchangeable. Only the ambassador's specific role gives him any differentiation, and as will be shown later, this differentiation plagues him throughout the film.

The film opens with a dinner party. At least that's what the characters who show up to the house expect. But as it turns out, the party was scheduled for the following night. Immediately Buñuel sets up the characters desire, foils it, then promises its fulfillment in the near future: there will be a dinner party "tomorrow."

The expectant partygoers journey to a nearby restaurant, hoping at least to have dinner (to consume), if not a dinner party. Again their efforts are foiled, because the owner of the restaurant has died, and his corpse is laid out in the dining area. Before we learn of this corpse, the characters speak to each other about their specific tastes in food. The irony here, of course, is that while they all have strong, narrow opinions on the subject of food, they cannot procure it to save their lives.

They all suffer from that most bourgeois of diseases, ennui, and their boredom, their world-weariness, manifests itself as distaste with the "common" world around them. When they finally do see the owner's corpse, their shock and disgust is in reaction to the display of the body, not to death itself. Inherently incapable of empathy, they are more concerned with proper appearances than they are with the actuality of life and death. This discretion, in their minds, separates the upper class from the lower classes. Though all people die, the lower classes are not educated or intelligent enough to "properly handle" the body of the deceased, and its very presence causes them to flee in terror. The lower classes have not yet learned to repress those ugly truths of the real that pop up time and time again and interfere with the much more important symbolic order — dinner at a restaurant, for instance.

Buñuel handles this with masterful subtlety, playing the whole thing straight, letting the natural absurdity of the situation provide the comic foil for the serious social commentary. One can imagine a more slapstick approach to this situation, where the body of the deceased inadvertently ends up on the table in front of the dinner guests, but Buñuel’s point is that this is not metaphor; it is reality. These characters simply cannot stand reality (the Lacanian real) intruding on their social event. Compartmentalization separates psychic components with very thin walls. Any intrusion by an unexpected blot can tear a hole in them and cause the compartmentalizing subject trauma. Bourgeois hell is the constant invasion of the symbolic/social space by absurd reality, and their feeble attempts to defend against it constitute the bulk of their energetic output.

In the next scene, the three men gather in the ambassador's office. The ambassador carefully locks the door behind them. Their closed-door deals are momentarily interrupted by the appearance of a terrorist outside the embassy. This terrorist is, of course, a beautiful woman. It's no mistake that these aging, bourgeois men find an attractive, young woman an object of terror: it is a cruel reminder of the ultimate impotencies of advancing age. However, even viewing her through the conventional lens of terrorism, the ambassador exudes a sense of paranoia, as the girl presents little threat. But when he is asked about the police, he says he wishes not to involve them. This is because he and his partners are criminals. He has smuggled cocaine in his diplomatic pouch. This contradictory attitude is possible only through compartmentalization: they look down on criminals and see criminality as a desperate grasp by the lower classes, while they willfully and gleefully participate in criminal activities. Discretion allows them to rationalize this glaring double-standard. The bourgeoisie commit their crimes with "class."

But it is not their actions that must be discreet; it is their enjoyment. Enjoyment exceeding what is socially acceptable becomes obscene under others' gaze. Buñuel's protagonists will go to any length to assure that their enjoyment is covert. Here Buñuel appears to embrace the Lacanian hypothesis that the superego — the internal censor and moral compass — is not the preventer of enjoyment but rather its guarantor. Only by traversing a prohibition can one truly begin to enjoy.

In the next scene, the Senechals enter the heat of passion. But, as one expects, it is soon interrupted by the arrival of the other bourgeoisie. Coitus interruptus is the primordial example of desire/enjoyment postponed. However, instead of putting off sex or going ahead with it, the couple decides to secretly flee their own house, far away from the supposed prying eyes of others, to carry out their sexual release in seclusion. Again, only the direct observation of sexual activity transforms it into something unacceptable.

Meanwhile, the others talk about alcohol and its proper preparation and imbibing. The bourgeoisie have a very specific way to create their drinks; to do it any other way is "crude" or "vulgar." This specificity, all "taste" relating to objects of consumption — like the judgment of a man based on his car — is a means of identification within the symbolic/social structure. This is Marx's fetishization of commodity: it is ultimately the replacement of the relationship between people with the relationship between things.

The ambassador calls his driver in for an experiment. They offer him a drink and watch as he drinks it. As expected, he downs the drink in a single gulp. They excuse him and the other bourgeois man remarks, "See? That is exactly the way not to drink a martini." Excess under observation becomes obscene. It isn't that the bourgeoisie wouldn't enjoy gulping a martini; instead they refrain out of consideration for those who would have to observe their enjoyment. The ambassador then states that "no system can give the masses social graces." Discretion is the sole privilege of the bourgeoisie.

Immediately after this discussion, the characters become paranoid, fearing that the Senechals are gone because they expect a police raid. They shift compartments from "social elite" to "criminal" and now must take evasive action. They hurry to their car and speed away. Constantly being pursued by enemies, real or imagined, is another fact of life in bourgeois hell. Fear is often the impetus for bourgeois action — fear which multiplies itself from the ingrained belief that one will be punished for any enjoyment one has received in secret. Discretion has its consequences.

Buñuel now introduces the character of the bishop. At first, the bishop seems to be an advocate and friend to the poor underclasses. He, too, is compartmentalized, so extremely that he dons two different sets of clothes depending on which personality he wishes to wear. As bishop, he sports his vestments, but as gardener, a role he takes up with fervor, he wears simple clothes. The Senechals return to their house, sneak back inside, to find their guests gone and a strange gardener on their property. Henri Senechal throws him out roughly. Only when the bishop puts on his official garments do the Senechals recognize his class and apologize. The bourgeoisie judge solely by the symbolic. After a brief and awkward interview in which he reveals that his parents were poisoned, the Senechals agree to take him on as their gardener.

Next we have the first scene of the bourgeoisie walking down a long road in the middle of a field; it's so abrupt and out of place that it can only be read as symbolic. These scenes, peppered throughout the rest of the movie, give the distinct impression that the characters are indeed in hell. There is something cyclic to their aimless walk, though it is in a straight line, that implies that they will never get where they are going. This is the course of their desire as well. Desire in general is unattainable at a certain level. Desire desires to continue desiring. However, consumer-capitalism provokes a very special form of desire, and it is this type that Buñuel explores. Bourgeois desire seeks itself without the jouissance that typically accompanies desire's search.

Next, the three women sit down for drinks at an upper-class bistro. They discuss a person playing cello, and one woman has to change places with another, because she cannot stand to observe the cellist playing. She says, "…If they were young at least," meaning that the obscenity of the cello playing is amplified by the fact that it is an older man doing it. Obscenity in a young man can be viewed as vigorous, playful; obscenity in an older man is lecherous and distasteful. Again Buñuel emphasizes that it is not the object that is obscene, but how it fits into the social/symbolic structure of being observed.

The trio then turns their attention to a young lieutenant who sits across from them. He stares at them. Being under the gaze of the other makes the bourgeoisie uncomfortable. They would prefer to go on not directly acknowledging each other. The lieutenant, however, immediately engages the women by standing and acknowledging them politely. This intrusion into the hermetic seal of bourgeois delicacy leads into the waiter informing the trio that there is no tea. Desire has again been foiled. Now that there is no tea, the object of desire must be projected onto something else. The first two women order coffee; the third orders coffee and brandy. The waiter checks her desire, because alcohol is inappropriate. She must settle for coffee. Here Buñuel explores desire's ephemeral nature. It doesn’t matter what the object of desire is, so long as one desires it: each commodity or fetish is interchangeable.

The lieutenant invites himself over to the table, asking if he can join the ladies. They are obliged to accept, as not to do so would be "rude." He has trapped them with their adherence to symbolic rules. The lieutenant hilariously starts in with intimate questions and revelations. This too is a form of obscenity. As Zizek points out, when someone asks, "How are you?" they work within the accepted symbolic structure that they will not get a sincere answer. Unsolicited intimacy embarrasses the façade of nicety. The rest of this scene elaborates on this idea, with the Lieutenant asking the women intimate questions about their childhood and telling them of his own.

Just as the story concludes, the waiter appears to inform the women that, alas, they are also out of coffee. And milk. And herbal tea. They order water. The lieutenant leaves, a welcome departure for the women. However, before the waiter returns, one of them, Simone, says she has an appointment and must leave as well. We follow her, unsure of whether the remaining women ever satisfy their thirst. We now go to the ambassador's house, where Simone, wife of the ambassador's friend Francois, has left the bistro to come to his house for an extra-marital affair. The ambassador closes up his windows. The affair's illicit nature does not stop him from having his pleasure, provided he does so with discretion.

Discretion as fundamental to enjoyment manifests again when Simone insists he turn off the lights before they make love. In addition to not wanting the phantasmatic "others" to observe her nakedness or enjoyment, she does not want the ambassador to observe her either. This unwillingness to expose one's vulnerability is paramount in the bourgeois libidinal economy. One must maintain a certain distance from others to assure one's safety. The ambassador reluctantly complies, and the light is turned out. As the stage is set for discreet sexual release, a doorbell sounds. Coitus is interrupted once again. It is Francois, the husband of the woman in his bed.

Discretion by all parties allows this volatile situation to defuse itself. The ambassador still wants to satisfy his desire, and he asks the husband if his wife couldn't stay just a few more minutes. The husband naturally asks why, and the ambassador replies, "To see the sursicks." This is a very funny and observant gag by Buñuel. When the husband agrees, too proud to inquire further, and the woman asks the ambassador what a "sursick" is, he replies, "I don't know and don't care." The ambassador invents a word to rid himself of his obstacle. Using the symbolic as a weapon is of course the great ploy of the bourgeoisie. The husband, in an attempt to not look foolish, plays the word off as something he knows and goes along with the ambassador's request with a shared, though false, understanding of how important the "sursicks" are. Not to do so would impolitely force others to reify his ignorance. Trumping the real with the symbolic to pursue one's desire formulates precisely bourgeois existence.

However, the ambassador's plan fails, because it is no longer discreet enough for the woman to enjoy. She leaves him, sans release. Thankfully, the life of the bourgeoisie is picaresque — one episode follows another, discretely. The second appearance of the beautiful woman terrorist follows this instance of coitus interruptus, opportunely joining the aging male's boudoir failures with his declining sociopolitical potency.

The scene between the two mixes social and sexual dynamics flawlessly interchangeably. To handle this encounter with the terrorist, the ambassador must retrieve his gun — a classic symbol, in shape and supposed power. The ambassador sneaks behind the terrorist and, using the gun, forces her into his apartment. He says, "You're better qualified for love than war," implying that the two are perhaps mutually exclusive and that the detriment of one can be an advantage in the other.

Here a mock ideological discussion takes place, the ambassador commenting that he "would even be a socialist, if socialists believed in God." He denotes the bourgeois attachment to symbolic authority and the necessity of God-as-Other to validate human action. It isn't the socialists' policies the ambassador disagrees with; it is their lack of symbolic hierarchy. The terrorist responds to this without words — without invoking the symbolic — but with an action: throwing the ambassador's lamp to the floor. He responds to this by again pointing out that she would do better to fill the housewife's typical symbolic role than to struggle against it and be a terrorist. He finds her gun and disarms her, making her potency his own. Buñuel’s conflation of a hostile encounter between two classes or class ideologies and the banal small talk of a first date is not accidental. For the bourgeoisie, the libidinal economy is strictly tied to the financial economy. He offers her champagne and again she answers him with action; she smashes the glass.

When she finally speaks, a horn from the street outside masks her speech. Lacan said that human discourse is a series of misunderstandings. Here Buñuel uses a slapstick device to prove the inefficacy of communication, especially that between the classes. The ambassador says, "The only solution to famine and poverty is the military solution"; however, previously he said, "Violence is not the answer." This is not contradictory in the mind of the bourgeoisie. They require a clear delineation between actual physical violence and the symbolic superstructure of violence par excellence, the military, to compartmentalize "civilization" and "authoritarianism." It is the symbolic presence of a standing military that controls economy and policy, not their actual activity.

While he gives this speech, he turns to pick up the lamp, and the woman terrorist takes his gun, which he left on the table. She wastes no time and pulls the trigger. Unfortunately for her, his gun is not loaded: he has no real power. He has projected his impotence onto the woman and at the same time stolen her potency and made it his own. He responds by pointing her gun at her and commenting that hers must be loaded.

Instead of killing her, he lets her go. The Roman emperors knew that the ultimate manifestation of power is mercy. Holding a person's life in one’s hands is not power because one can kill — anyone can kill — it is power in allowing that person to live. They owe their remaining time to the mercy shown them. The ambassador has successfully proxied his sexual release. Through his domination of the terrorist he achieves the satisfaction he could not get in the previous scene with his friend's wife. Predictably, this gesture of mercy is strictly symbolic. After she leaves, the ambassador waves down his cronies, and they abduct the girl in their car. She is not seen again.

In the next scene, the three couples and the bishop try again to have their dinner party. One woman comments on the International Women's Movement and how their "sign" is two hands placed together to make a yoni. She says that "this sign is just as stupid as the rest" and goes through several gestures that represent political or social ideologies. The irony here is that while the bourgeoisie reject these overt symbols, they live almost strictly in the symbolic. But the compartmentalization of the bourgeoisie allows them to live the symbolic as though it were real. The problem with political ideology and symbolism is that it offensively displays enthusiasms that other people are forced to observe and have feelings about either positively or negatively, feelings which they may be obliged to voice.

Just as they sit down to dinner, the doorbell rings; of course, prandium interruptus. This time, in a surreal, metaphorical scene, the army enters the house, led by a general. This is Buñuel, in no uncertain terms, commenting on the tight relationship between the bourgeoisie and the military. The bourgeoisie literally make the military their houseguests. They are a necessary evil to be properly admired in their station, in order for the bourgeois economy to prosper. Buñuel brings the real social connection home, unhousing the comfortable compartmentalization of suburbia, by presenting it as a face-to-face meeting in which the bourgeoisie and the military are shown in their true symbiotic relationship.

As the hosts bustle to make room for the soldiers, they hold an interesting discussion about drugs. The general smokes marijuana and offers some to the bourgeoisie, all of whom reject it, except for the same woman who earlier admitted to the lieutenant to having a host of "complexes" as a youth. The bourgeoisie comment that marijuana is a gateway drug and that they loathe drug addicts. They are also cocaine suppliers. This is not farce: this is the essence of compartmentalization. They really do loathe drug addicts. They also really do deal drugs. One is a public, social opinion. The other is an action done out of the sight of the symbolic order and therefore does not violate its morality.

Next follows a series of interruptions. War maneuvers have begun, and the soldiers must leave, only after one of the soldiers relates a dream of his. In this dream, the soldier meets those he knows are dead — first a comrade, second his mother. This interaction with shades points to the hell in which all of these people live. They are not that far from the dead. After this telling, with no reaction or comment, the army departs. The dinner party cannot continue, because loud artillery blasts and gunshots rock the residence. The general reports back and offers his apologies for the noise and invites the bourgeoisie to dinner at his home. Buñuel abruptly cuts to the next dinner party — the current one never having reached its conclusion or indeed its climax.

At first the subsequent dinner party and guests appear to be more of the same. However, if one pays close attention, it becomes clear that something is odd. The backgrounds, the furniture, the windows and the hanging pictures are all painted on the wall. It is not a room but a set. A waiter enters with a platter of chickens and clumsily drops them. They bounce. He picks them up and serves them as if nothing had happened. Senechal touches the chicken, realizes that it is made of rubber and says, "Is this a joke?" The set lights up, and the curtain rolls back, revealing an audience.

It's a bit jarring on first viewing, but Buñuel again takes the metaphorical farce of the casual bourgeois dinner and makes it a literal farce — an appearance for an audience. The stage director appears and feeds lines to the guests, prescribed words constituting a primary sustenance for their lives at this moment. Even their speech is dictated by an external power. The bourgeoisie flee the stage in terror, except for Senechal, who says, "I forgot my lines." The audience then jeers at the bad performance, and Senechal starts awake. The whole thing was his dream.

Why did Buñuel insert this dream in the narrative, and why did he do so in such a way as to make the viewer think that it was actually happening? Buñuel uses this dream to comment on the contradictory nature of bourgeois life. It is at once a spectacle, to be observed by other people, an audience, but also infused with a sense of extreme privacy. It is not being on the stage in front of the audience that shakes Senechal out of the dream, but rather his failure to perform the spectacle correctly for them. This is the heart of bourgeois fear: Buñuel blurs the line between spectacle and reality, reality and dream, because the distinct quality of bourgeois reality is unreality. It is equal parts façade, spectacle and illusion. So closely are they tied together that immediately upon waking, Senechal receives a phone call that he is late for the actual party he just dreamed about.

At the party, several people inquire about the state of affairs in Miranda. The ambassador is put on the defensive. They lob accusations of guerrilla resistance, student uprising, poverty, lack of class, corruption, all of which he answers diplomatically (so to speak), discreetly turning each weakness into a strength. This whole time he runs from room to room to escape his pursuers. It seems each person he encounters wishes to point out a hidden flaw in his reality. Finally, he attempts to flee the party all together, but in bourgeois hell, there is no escape.

On his way out, the hostess confronts him and enters him into conversation with her husband, the general. It's clear that the general too is intent on attacking the reputation of the ambassador's homeland. The general quickly grows more direct and insulting, until the two men sling insults and threats at one another, ending with the general saying, "I couldn't give a piss about Miranda," and the ambassador saying, "And I shit on your whole army." The general slaps the ambassador, and the ambassador pulls his gun and shoots the general dead.

Again we are in a dream. But, it isn’t the ambassador's dream as expected; it is the dream of the third bourgeoisie man, Thevenot. Senechal's dream was inside his dream. The line between reality and fantasy is blurring. As for the dream itself, it is clear that the interaction between the general and the ambassador is what would happen if they actually told the truth to each other. Polite bourgeois society is founded on contempt. Only discretion prevents this contempt from turning into violence. The fear exposed in this dream, like the one in Senechal's, is fear of exposure, of indiscretion. After this revelation we have the second "walking to nowhere scene." We are still in hell.

The next picaresque episode concerns the bishop. As he tends garden, a peasant approaches the villa and says that they need a priest. The bishop offers his services and leaves with him. The bishop seems to be doing his duty with humility and compassion. However, the dying man is the same man, the gardener, who murdered the bishop's parents. The bishop grants the man forgiveness, then blows his head open with a shotgun. Neither position the bishop adopts is false. He is both forgiver, in his official, symbolic function as bishop, and avenger, in his real position as a son of murdered parents. The compartmentalization of these two selves allows the bishop to behave so. Even he, who entered into a life of religious service in search of humility, cannot escape his bourgeois roots; his parents were rich and treated the gardener like an animal. But his loyalty to the bourgeois order demands that he both uphold his symbolic position and exact revenge.

It seems bourgeois hell is a series of dinner parties. Buñuel's next scene is yet another. But the audience by now knows that there is no way this party will continue uninterrupted, and sure enough the doorbell rings. They assume it is the bishop, back from "helping" the dying man, but it is the police. It looks like the jig is up. The detective arrests them all. It seems the bourgeoisie are finally to face the consequences of their discrete transgressions.

But the next sequence tells the tale of the bloody sergeant, in which Buñuel exposes the gap between the public face of the law and its private transgressions. The police are the police because they have the legal monopoly on the use of force. While this force is meant to be used to protect the people, its abuse has been as constant as the existence of law enforcement. The bloody sergeant is a police station "myth" about a torturous sergeant who was murdered during a demonstration and returns every June 14th to redeem himself. This strange, almost non-sequitur follows the logic of the film. The police, like every bourgeois organization, must maintain discretion and a compartmentalization between how they are perceived and how they actually are.

Another dream follows in which the bloody sergeant opens the cells of the bourgeoisie. The detective starts awake, fearful that his recent prisoners were going to escape. This dream becomes reality; a government minister orders the inspector to release the ambassador and his friends. When the inspector asks why, the minister’s answer is drowned out by a passing plane. He repeats himself; another plane passes. The inspector relays the instructions to the sergeant, and the dialogue is drowned out by the sound of typing. All communication is miscommunication; the powers that be need not justify their actions to their inferiors. No words can rationalize this power structure, so Buñuel literally overwhelms them.

The bourgeoisie, having been released, prepare to have another dinner. Over the soup, Senechal comments on a Nazi concentration camp officer tracked down in Miranda. The ambassador assures them that this man, far from being a butcher, was a proper gentleman. Thus Buñuel takes the bourgeois attitude of discretion to its extreme: one can be a proper gentleman AND a Nazi war criminal so long as one dresses nicely and is an animal lover. Only an indiscreet Nazi would be appalling. Not without meaning, the main course, a lamb, is brought out, moments before men armed with automatic weapons storm into the house and murder them all. The ambassador hides beneath the table, but the men discover and kill him when he reaches up to take another piece of lamb. He awakes from another dream.

He rushes into the kitchen, opens the fridge, and takes out some food. He greedily begins to eat, as Buñuel smash cuts to the final scene — the bourgeoisie, walking aimlessly down a country road, seemingly with purpose, but going nowhere. They shuffle forever through their hell from one missed fulfillment to the next, always seeking enjoyment and its obfuscation.

Buñuel's film contains many layers of complexity. Close and repeated viewings are necessary to catch all the details of what exactly is going on in a movie that appears to be about a series of comic mishaps to a group of normal people. Buñuel’s criticism of capitalism would be amplified to its extreme four years later in Pasolini’s Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom. The main motif of insatiable desire coupled with grotesque excess runs through both films as an indictment of the contradictory nature of normal existence.

Buñuel’s idea of bourgeois existence as hell is not metaphorical. Like Dante before him, he forces the hidden truth of the reality into observation, revealing that this lifestyle is indeed a real hell. But films like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie are rarely made anymore. Attempts to criticize capitalism in cinema have been assimilated into the machine and now only serve as narcissistic self-reflection instead of as thought-provoking instruments of change. Fortunately, we are left with these few records of a time when real social commentary was possible. The fact that they are still relevant today speaks to their fundamental truth — and to the perpetuation of the same socioeconomic machine they satirize.

Unfortunately, many of Buñuel’s films were recently put out of print by Criterion. Obtaining a new copy of Discreet Charm may prove difficult, but it's well worth it. The special features are mediocre: two documentaries on Buñuel, both focusing more on his biography than his ideas, but still interesting to watch. The film itself is the real gem, and it alone merits owning a copy.