Sunday, April 4, 2010
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois
This is about the failure of a group of well to do people to consummate a party. They gather repeatedly to dine together but are prevented from dining by one thing or another. The first time, there is a misunderstanding about the day of the appointment and the guests arrive a day earlier. As they settle down around the table at an inn, they are interrupted by wailing from the next door: the owner has died earlier that day. Invited to a general's house, the wall opens out and they are they find themselves on a stage in front of a hall filled with people, and worse, they have forgotten their lines, and of course, no food. On the next occasion, a bunch of hit men invade the room where they are about to start eating, and mowed down by gun fire. Another time they are all arrested. Interspersed with these episodes are a series of blood splattered dreams.
The movie leaves me almost cold. I can neither recognise the society I am familiar nor identify with the humor which is to a large extent bases on the fads, foibles and snobberies of the Western upper classes related to their culinary preferences (snails, hare and of course caviar) food their and the act of eating. Possibly the film is highly specific to western culture and that may be the reason for it's failure to tickle either the Asian funny bone or it's social sensibilities, even at the second viewing. The net result is bewilderment. Where lies the heart of this acclaimed movie? Acceptably amusing in it's social observation and compelling in the nightmare sequences-- but a great film? Or is it the law of diminishing returns--too many of a kind sequentially? It does seem a better idea not to see two movies by the same director together--unnecessary comparison is a sure result.
Postscript: The difficulties of the film are partially explained by the following perceptive remarks of Ebert: It was released in a year when social unrest was at its height, the Vietnam War was in full flower, and the upper middle class was a fashionable target of disdain. How different to see it again in 2000, when affluence is once again praised and envied. The primary audience for the film in 1972 saw it as attacking others; the primary audience today will, if it is perceptive, see it as an attack on itself.
There is an interval of twelve years between Discreet Charms and Exterminating Angel and Bunuel was now 72. The social class under observation is the same but the vicious satire of the first with it's dark and disturbing undercurrents has changed into parody and ridicule, with purely comic stretches. Perhaps the mocker has joined the ranks of the mocked. And in 2000, when Ebert made the quoted observations, the whole western society seems to be looking around in confusion on a plateau of affluence, with no where to go. And here at our end, as we hasten to catch up with the "developed" world, one can find classes with more money than culture. The struggle to make it good is well behind, and there is little to talk about besides brands of products. They are distinguished more than anything else by what they eat, drink, wear and drive. It is the poverty of the times.