Low Expectations – Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

It is difficult, but as much as possible I try to minimise my expectations of films. Too many films have been built up by friends and critics, only for me to watch them and be most underwhelmed. In fact there is not much I hate hearing someone say to me more than “you have to see this film”. The opposite can also ring true though, and that is the case with this film, Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Not particularly listening to whoever said you should never judge a book by its cover, just from the title and DVD cover of this film I gleaned the conviction that I was going to hate this film. It was going to be slow, boring, very confusing and above all pretentious. Having low expectations of a film I find can work both ways. It can mean that it has to do something absolutely incredible to win me over cause I already have such a low opinion of it. Or it can benefit from these low expectations and merely by not being terrible leave me pleasantly surprised. Let’s see how Mr Bunuel’s film with the rather lengthy title does.

The first thing that was exposed was the folly in trying to create expectations from the title and DVD cover. I was sure from the images on the cover that this was set in some 17th Centuryish French Court. The opening image though is of a traffic jam, pretty clearly not something too common in 17th Century France. Like many films, it is folly to try and sum up the plot of this one. If I was to partake in such folly I would tell you that the film is about a group of people trying and failing to have a meal together. The core group of characters are wonderfully absurd made up of a drug-running ambassador to a small, fictional South American country and his associates. On the fringe of this group is the bishop who wishes to be a gardener. It is hilarious to watch these upper-class companions try to deal with the barriers to their meals which grow greater and more illogical. It is hilarious to see them take these barriers generally in their stride, never failing to set the next dinner date after one after another fails.

One of the film’s core concerns is class. I am not going to pretend that I got all of the allusions and satire relating to class that the film is filled with. But I did find the movie as a whole wryly amusing and much of that came from the class snobbery exhibited by pretty much every character in this film. The characters that populate the film outside the core dinner party are defined by their class. Rather than names, it is generally just made clear that they are maids, chauffers, soldiers (cavalry not infantry!), terrorists, gardeners, policemen and so on. Structurally the film is absurdist and non-linear with dream sequences abounding and suspension of logic a prerequisite. There are many suggestive recurrent images and themes throughout the movie. Just as their attempts at dinner are endlessly interrupted, so are the characters attempts at sexual intercourse, poisoning is a recurrent theme and there is a repeated image of the six central characters walking down a highway. Rather than needing to completely understand all of these, you can just allow them to wash over you, providing humour and confusion in equal measure. I am sure they would become more thought-provoking (and clearer?) with repeat viewings.

I liked this movie a lot, and not just because my expectations of it were so low. Even just in terms of the bits of the film that I actually ‘got’, it is very clever and very funny. I am tempted to say it is a little pretentious as I feared, but in reality I think I would only be saying that because I didn’t understand a whole lot of it. And I think that is a wonderful thing – being able to only half-understand a film yet thoroughly enjoy the experience. If you’ve seen this film, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

Progress: 32/1001

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