Cruelty and Luxury: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie at Fifty

Cruelty and Luxury: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie at Fifty

Luis Buñuel’s most famous film is a furious, if restrained, critique of the wealthy and a scathing look inside their collective unconscious.

Still from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Flickr)

Last fall marked the fifty-year anniversary of Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a surreal, plot-light comedy about the waking anxieties of the upper classes in France. Filmed three years after the May 1968 protests, following President Charles de Gaulle’s shaky triumph over the largest student-led general strike ever attempted in the country, Discreet Charm sees its wealthy sextet drift from soiree to soiree, dreaming of their own embarrassment and demise. The anniversary couldn’t have come at a better time.

The U.S. film industry seemed to have all but forgotten the concept of class until Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite was a surprise hit in 2019. Since then, film and TV studios have inundated us with class comedies, thrillers, dramas, whodunits, and gnarled combinations of all of the above. Last year, there was Triangle of Sadness, which satirizes gender roles and exploitation aboard a luxury yacht; The Menu, a horror revenge fantasy about service-worker exploitation at a gourmet restaurant; Glass Onion, about, among other things, Elon Musk; and the second season of The White Lotus, which, like the first, takes a knock at the high-end resort crowd, but this time with lighter punches.

We don’t need to squint for these pictures to blend together. But what of their satire? Do they offer any fresh insights? Not really. Instead, for the most part, it’s the mere fact of luxury—the idea that an expensive lifestyle could be afforded by someone at all—that we’re supposed to find absurd. It is absurd; but this point either dulls through repeated use or flattens into a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy. Wouldn’t it be nice to vacation in Sicily?

Although the central characters in Discreet Charm are practically ancestors of our contemporary resort dwellers, Buñuel takes an entirely different tack, intertwining a furious, if restrained, critique of power with a scathing look inside the wealthy’s collective unconscious. He does so not merely to poke fun, but to destabilize our vision of class domination altogether. Paraphrasing Friedrich Engels, Buñuel once said his view of the artist’s purpose was “to shatter the optimism of the bourgeois world” and force the viewer “to question the permanency of the prevailing order.” For all its surrealist pivots and tangled dream sequences, his film is compulsively lucid.

Today’s class-conscious comedies wouldn’t presume to go so far. Instead, they settle for evoking schadenfreude—a clumsy substitute for actual politics. The result is an overarching sterility in tone, an absence of concerted interest or intent, and a rich topic reduced to window dressing. Buñuel was often didactic and prone to sadism, and he was never much of an optimist. Yet in retrospect, there’s a confidence under all that insolence. His films are still surprising, not just in their visual novelty, but because he believed, through actions big and small, symbolic and literal, our social order could be flipped on its head. He had seen it happen before.

When Buñuel was born in 1900, the first of seven children, Spain was reeling from its loss of colonies in the Spanish−American War. In response, the ruling classes were turning with nostalgia toward monarchism, as if reifying tradition might restore what had been lost, if not materially then spiritually. Buñuel wrote that his childhood in Calanda, a small agrarian village in the northeast, had an “almost medieval atmosphere.” He was a rich Jesuit school student surrounded by poverty and death. His father Leonardo had accrued a fortune in colonial Cuba before returning to his homeland after the war. Like many bourgeois schoolboys before and after him, Buñuel not only rejected the principles of his upbringing but made a career out of his scorn for them.

Enrolling at the University of Madrid, Buñuel studied entomology for a year before falling in with the artists. He formed close friendships in the students’ residence with Federico García Lorca, José Moreno Villa, and Salvador Dalí. With Dalí, Buñuel encountered the surrealist movement in Paris. He was mostly interested in theatrical plays before co-directing Un Chien Andalou (1929), his first film, with Dalí, and L’Age d’Or (1930)—two phantasmagoric avant-garde works that challenged middle-class sexual mores. Audiences found these films shocking, punkish, and more than a little misanthropic. By 1932, Buñuel had dissociated himself from the surrealist movement altogether—later calling it “bourgeois revolting against the bourgeoisie”—and joined the Spanish Communist Party. His next film, Land Without Bread (1933), was more overtly political, a faux-documentary with surreal elements depicting poverty in rural Spain. When the Spanish Civil War broke out three years later, Buñuel coordinated the Spanish Republicans’ film propaganda effort from Paris. In 1938, he was in Hollywood consulting on a film project when it seemed all but inevitable that Franco’s nationalists would win. With returning to Spain now impossible, he bounced around Los Angeles and New York looking for steady work before settling in Mexico City in 1946, where he supported his family by directing pulp films.

These low-budget, populist features were “uneven,” by Buñuel’s own admission; his shooting schedules were rarely longer than twenty-four days. (Still, there are some gems, like Los Olvidados, a coming-of-age story set in Mexico City’s slums, and El Bruto, about a slaughterhouse worker who is hired to break up a rent strike.) His 1961 film Viridiana, about a would-be nun in Spain who attempts to “reform” the homeless people in town by paying them to live on her inherited estate, marked his return to European audiences. The beggars behave themselves while Viridiana is around, but when she goes into town they rebel, breaking into her home and throwing a feast resembling Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. The film is a scathing rebuke of charity, which despite the best intentions can’t change the unequal distribution of wealth. In 1962, Buñuel released The Exterminating Angel, about a supernatural force that traps a group of wealthy guests at a dinner party after compelling the help to leave their posts. Without the servants, the film supposes, their employers couldn’t even leave the house.

Discreet Charm builds off Viridiana and The Exterminating Angel by again desecrating the dinner banquet. Each time the band of Parisian socialites sits down to eat, they’re interrupted by incidents escalating in severity. A café runs out of tea, milk, and coffee; the army drops in unannounced; a firing squad lines them up against a fireplace. While these gatherings are symbols of an in-group’s power, in Buñuel’s film they become signs of impotence—of an elite in love with its ceremonies but unable to consummate them. What are the rich without their dinner parties?

Early in the film, one of the six, François Thévenot, proposes an “experiment.” He prepares a martini and calls a chauffeur into the manor to drink it. The chauffeur obliges, downing the whole glass in one gulp, and Thévenot smirks. “See that?” he asks his friends. The chauffeur had stumbled directly into Thévenot’s point: as a servant, he wouldn’t know that a dry martini is a sipping drink. Thévenot’s friend Don Rafael concurs. “No system will ever enable the masses to acquire refinement.” Refinement, signified by luxury, requires an opposite to preserve its value.

The poor treatment of service workers by wealthy consumers is also of central interest to the contemporary class comedy. But the bad behavior of the rich seems to stem from obliviousness rather than deliberate cruelty, suggesting there is still hope for the clueless customer—that she could restore workers’ dignity simply by adjusting her perspective. When the wife of a Russian oligarch in Triangle of Sadness insists that the yacht workers pause their daily tasks to go down the water slide, she says she wants them to experience the privileges they can’t afford, essentially ordering them to have fun. Her actions are well-meaning but blinkered; she doesn’t see that the workers can’t refuse her. Interspersed between these scenes of naïveté are reminders that the wealthy characters are only human, caught up in their own family dramas, lovers’ quarrels, and the like: They know not what they’ve done; we can only hope they might change. “WEALTHY PEOPLE OF PRIVILEGE, THIS FILM IS ABOUT YOU,” exclaimed a promotional poster, which advertised the movie like an instructional tape.

This framing suggests such mistreatment is incidental to the class structure rather than foundational to it. Buñuel knew better. His films reveal how the little rituals that differentiate the lifestyles of the rich from the common lot act as everyday reminders of the prevailing social hierarchy and serve to bolster it. In his work, there’s no expectation that we might shame the wealthy into respectful conduct. Instead, the entire hierarchy is challenged from below. No matter the victor, Buñuel saw the classes in persistent conflict with each other, acting and reacting to repeated grabs for power. When given orders, it’s possible his characters might simply say no. And even when they don’t, through surreal intervention, the action plays out as if they did.

What happens in the years following a successful defense of a hierarchy? Discreet Charm is an attempt to play out that question. Insulated as the main characters are, protected by the police and plainclothes agents of some unspoken regime, they can’t help but torment themselves with dreams of what might disrupt their peace.

The nightmares begin innocuously enough. Around halfway through the film, after a colonel in the French military invites the group to a private dinner party, Henri Sénéchal dreams that when they show up it isn’t a house at all, but a theater stage, with fake decorations and plastic food, and he’s forgotten his lines—a classic anxiety dream. Immediately after Sénéchal wakes, another dream begins, depicting the same dinner party, this time in the colonel’s actual home, but focused on Don Rafael, an ambassador for the fictional Latin American country of Miranda, who defends his homeland against an onslaught of insults. “I’m told it’s common practice in your country to bribe a judge or a policeman,” one guest says. Not making eye contact, Don Rafael denies all charges. “Today we are a true democracy,” he says. “Corruption no longer exists.” This from a man who smuggled cocaine into France to distribute with the help of his colleagues.

As the film unfolds, the dreams escalate, propelling the narrative forward even though not much has occurred. Don Rafael is hounded by a group of student-aged Mirandan guerrillas whom he labels as terrorists. Etiquette, in his hands, is a kind of shield. When one of the guerrillas confronts him in his home, he retrieves his gun from an ornate soup tureen and pushes it against her back before offering champagne and asking about her family. When she protests, he chides her: “Violence leads nowhere. I keep saying so.”

Don Rafael is the antithesis of depictions of the rich in many contemporary class comedies; they are almost invariably stupid or childlike. We’re more likely to find these would-be villains as embarrassing refractions of The Office’s Michael Scott: oafish in a charming way, unable to fend for themselves, and largely unaware of how their power affects others. Among the French socialites—some of whom are stupid and childlike—Don Rafael is an outlier. But his presence makes explicit the link between their cushy lifestyle and the violence safeguarding it just off-screen.

On more than one occasion, Buñuel’s focus roves from his six main characters to plunge into the subconscious of a cop or soldier; their fates, like their psyches, are linked to our dinner guests by their vested interest in the social order. While the lives of the cops and soldiers are calm, boring even, in the recent past they used brutality and torture and now they are haunted by blood-soaked ghosts. In light of the revolutions of the 1960s, the film presents a thesis: even failures have consequences, and while rebellions can be quelled, the bourgeoisie might still crumble under its own psychic weight.

A half-century later, it can be hard to know what to make of that contention. For decades, most rebellions seemed ineffective amid an overarching sense of stasis—the purported end of history. We might say that Buñuel foresaw this state of affairs. Punctuating the film at random intervals are scenes where the central cast abruptly disappears from Paris and turns up on a quiet country road. There are no sounds other than their footsteps. It’s an eerie quiet, tense with possibilities, and yet nothing happens. These segments, reminiscent of purgatory, are the film’s most abstract flourish.

Discreet Charm has been called Buñuel’s most accessible work, and it won a slew of mainstream awards, including the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. If bourgeois optimism had been shattered, the establishment had a funny way of showing it. He didn’t show up to accept the award, but when the Academy called, asking him to submit a picture of himself with his new trophy, he obliged, donning a wig and oversized glasses for the photo in a weak act of protest. At around this point in his career, Buñuel told Max Aub, “I’m a revolutionary, but revolution horrifies me. I’m an anarchist, but I’m totally against the anarchists.” Perhaps the reason Discreet Charm has been so popular is that it can’t or won’t do more than name the problem—though it names the problem better than most. Vague anti-capitalism is an easier sell. Its argument is largely unspoken, which allows directors to shirk the duty of paving new ground and permits audiences to take what they like and ignore the rest.

A show like The White Lotus is soaked in inevitability: by the end of the very first scene of each season, the viewer knows someone will die, but they can safely assume the rest of the wealthy will live on, practically unperturbed, from resort to resort. On its face, the premise that the rich can get away with murder is realistic, but the events that propel the plot to that conclusion are facile. There’s no real sense of possibility. The lower classes may grit their teeth and curse, but they could never hope to materially change their situation. Meanwhile, if anyone took the show’s critique to heart, they are hard to find. After the second season aired, the Four Seasons hotel in Sicily where The White Lotus was filmed saw a rush of fans booking rooms—which cost upward of $4,200 per night—to mimic their favorite characters’ vacation. Clearly, for some, these satires were viewed as a form of flattery.

If Discreet Charm was responding to the fallout of the May ’68 protests, when countries around the world were funneling millions into policing dissent, today’s class comedies are reckoning with the state of affairs after decades of such investment. The fact that it feels like so much more is possible in Discreet Charm is by design, but it’s also a byproduct of the time. Despite or because of this enclosure of our collective imagination, we deserve the sort of aesthetic openness Discreet Charm invites us into. I often think of those pastoral scenes where Buñuel’s socialites are pacing toward nothing, unsettled, almost frantic in the accentuated quiet. Those moments were charged with potential. If the class comedy can return with such cultural force, that sense of chance can too. But it will require more than conciliatory TV shows to bring it back.

Sam Russek is a reporter-researcher at the New Republic.

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