Analysis of ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie) is a 1972 French language surrealist film (with some Spanish) directed by Luis Buñuel and written by him and Jean-Claude Carrière. It stars Fernando Rey as Rafael Acosta, ambassador of the (fictional) Republic of Miranda. He and his upper middle class friends keep trying to have dinner together, but one form of ill fortune or another keeps thwarting their plans.

The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and was a hit with filmgoers in Europe and the US. As a surrealist film made by a communist director satirizing bourgeois hypocrisy, it can be seen as an example of a kind of Freudo-Marxism.

Here are some quotes in English translation:

“You’re better suited for making love than for making war.” –Rafael, to Guerrilla Woman

“Finally, if you think about it, the only solution to starvation and poverty is in the hands of the army. You’ll realize it in Miranda, when you have to open your pretty thighs to an infantry battalion.” –Rafael, to Guerrilla Woman

[the Senechals are preparing to make love. There is a knock at the door]

Henri Sénéchal: What is it?

Ines: The guests are here, sir.

Henri Sénéchal: Tell them we’ll be down. Serve them drinks.

Alice Sénéchal: They can wait five minutes. Come on.

Henri Sénéchal: No, no, not here. We can’t.

Alice Sénéchal: But why?

Henri Sénéchal: You scream too loud. You know it.

Henri Sénéchal: Any news from Miranda?

Rafael Acosta: Yes.

Henri Sénéchal: The situation?

Rafael Acosta: Quite calm.

Henri Sénéchal: And the guerrillas?

Rafael Acosta: There are a few left. They are a part of our folklore.

Alice Sénéchal: You have problems with the students?

Rafael Acosta: Students are young. They must have some fun.

Simone Thévenot: How’s your government treating them?

Rafael Acosta: We are not against the students, but what can you do with a room full of flies? You take a fly-swatter and Bang! Bang!

Colonel: Marijuana isn’t a drug. Look at what goes on in Vietnam. From the general down to the private, they all smoke.

Simone Thévenot: As a result, once a week they bomb their own troops.

Colonel: If they bomb their own troops, they must have their reasons.

Colonel: I didn’t know that chivalry still existed in your semi-savage country.

Rafael Acosta: Sir, you just insulted the Republic of Miranda!

Colonel: I don’t give a damn about the Republic of Miranda!

Rafael Acosta: And I shit on your entire army!

Peasant: Father? I want to tell you something.

Bishop Dufour: Then tell me, my child.

Peasant: I really don’t like Jesus Christ. Even as a little girl I hated him.

Bishop Dufour: Such a good, gentle God? How is it possible?

Peasant: Want to know why?

Bishop Dufour: Let me tend to this sick man first, then we’ll talk.

The opening credits are shown with a shot from the point of view of a chauffeur driving Rafael, the Thévenots, and Florence (Mme Thévenot’s younger sister) to the Sénéchals’ home at night. We see through the windshield the black of night and of the road.

They’re all going to a definite destination (though on the wrong night), driven by their chauffeur (i.e., a proletarian working for them). Contrast this with the sextet of bourgeois protagonists (three men–played by Rey, Paul Frankeur, and Jean-Pierre Cassel; and three women–played by Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, and Stéphane Audran) sporadically seen walking down a lonely country road during the day, with no apparent destination. Without workers to help them, or the luxury of transportation, they seem aimless, almost helpless.

Left to right: Florence (Ogier), Mme. Thévenot (Seyrig), Rafael (Rey), M. Thévenot (Frankeur), Alice (Audran) and Henri Sénéchal (Cassel).

Twice in one night is their plan for dinner together thwarted: the first time because Rafael and his friends visit the Sénéchals on the wrong night, the night before the actual agreed dinner date (Henri is away on business); and the second, because they go to a disappointing restaurant (i.e., cheap food and void of diners, implying poor quality, which gives the five bourgeois no narcissistic supply; I’ve discussed elsewhere how close the link is between narcissism and capitalism) where they hear the moans of mourners for the recently deceased manager, whose body is in the next room. Their appetite ruined by such a disconcerting sight, the five of them immediately leave.

This recurring frustration of their plans to dine together gives them all a taste (pardon the pun) of what it is like to go without food–for the six of them, a brief inconvenience, but for the people of the Third World, this is an everyday reality.

The bourgeois sextet is confronted with the reality of human suffering (hunger, death, disease, aging); but they are never edified. Contrast this with the life story of Siddartha Gautama (how much of the traditional telling of the Buddha’s biography is myth, and how much is history, is irrelevant for our purposes; after all, this movie is fiction, too), who as a prince encountered an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man, and thus was inspired to renounce his life of privilege and search for a way to end suffering.

Even the holy man who joins the six bourgeois is neither an inspiration nor himself inspired to righteousness. As contemptuous of the Church as Buñuel was of capitalism, here he takes every opportunity to show how hypocritical the priest is.

Suffering is seen in a variety of forms in this film, from the mildest inconvenience (as the six typically suffer) to the harshest pain (soldiers’ recounting of moments of the loss of loved ones in their lives…in dream or in reality; also, a woman leftist freedom fighter being abducted, and the six being murdered…though in Rafael’s dream). The Buddhist concept of dukkha encapsulates the whole gamut of suffering, from the mildest to the greatest. The whole problem of class is how the bourgeoisie tend to suffer far fewer of the greatest sorrows, on average, than the global proletariat do.

Buddhism links suffering with selfish desire, craving, or attachment, the fire to be blown out by nirvana. Accordingly, the third get-together to eat is thwarted by the sudden urge of Alice and Henri Sénéchal to have a quickie in their bedroom, and they’re about to get it on right when their guests have arrived. Afraid the guests will hear Alice’s squeals of pleasure, she and Henri opt for the absurd alternative of sneaking out the bedroom window, going into the bushes behind the house, and screwing there.

The two lovers have, in effect, subjected themselves–however briefly–to homelessness, rather like a comical version of what happens to King Lear in the play’s third act. Like the vain, proud king, these two bourgeois–examples of the modern version of royalty–would rather “feel what wretches feel” than be embarrassed before their peers.

They sneak back into their house, with pieces of grass in their hair and their clothes needing a few adjustments (reminding us of the untidiness of the homeless), and they’re annoyed to learn that the other four have left (out of a paranoid fear they’ve been found out by the police to be guilty of cocaine possession, as seen in a previous scene).

The priest picks a piece of grass out of Henri’s hair.

The priest appears to the Sénéchals, but dressed as a gardener, because he wishes to do this job for them. Looking like a working class type, he is thrown out of the house; then, back in his priest’s attire, he’s let back in and hypocritically apologized to. The well-off tend thus to judge people by their appearance.

The priest’s desire to be a gardener is an interesting one. He has been inspired by the gardener his late parents had when he was a boy; yet we also learn, by the end of the movie, that it was this beloved gardener who murdered the priest’s parents for having mistreated him while he was in their employ.

The priest’s wish to emulate the man who taught him gardening seems also to be a wish to be like other pious gardeners: Adam, before the Fall, and Candide, who in resisting Pangloss’s absurd attempts to rationalize the capricious ways of the world, knows that “il faut cultiver notre jardin.” We see here the hypocritical false modesty of the priest, who will kill the sick, aging, dying gardener for having killed his parents without ever having been brought to justice.

His change of attitude–from loving and identifying with the man who inspired a wish in him to be a gardener, to hating the man who killed his parents–seems too sudden. The priest must have made a vow, years ago, to kill his parents’ murderer if ever he found him. If my speculation of his commitment to revenge is correct (and this speculation is more than reasonable), it proves the priest’s hypocrisy, for his absolving the dying gardener is nothing more than an outward show of piety.

The choice of name for the fictional country of which Rafael is ambassador–Miranda–is an interesting one. It reminds me of Prospero‘s ingénue daughter, whom he–an imperialist colonizer of Caliban‘s island–jealously protects from the violation of lustful men like Caliban or (Prospero imagines) Ferdinand. Imperialist Rafael is to his country like Prospero: Miranda is like an innocent, virgin daughter being–in one scene–assailed and defiled with, to him, slanders of corruption, wealth inequality, and crime. 

Rafael thus is like any bourgeois who uses nationalism to deflect criticisms of imperialism and class conflict. At the final dinner, he even considers the epithet of ‘butcher’ given to a Nazi found in his country (one Rafael has personally met, also, and considers a gentleman) to be a tad extreme.

Rafael Acosta (Fernando Rey), ambassador of the Republic of Miranda.

The presentation of a number of dreams in the film means we are going down Freud‘s “royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious.” Buñuel’s dream, as wish-fulfillment, is clearly to have the bourgeoisie experience, if only briefly, some of the suffering of the poor: hunger, death, wrongs uncompensated for, humiliation, unjust imprisonment, and fury driving one to violence.

Since dreams lead us into the land of the unconscious, we also see, in the dreams of this film, the inner workings of the unconscious, including unconscious ego defence. This is seen when, as stated above, Rafael is pressured into defending the honour of his country from criticism after criticism, each of which gets more and more intolerable, until Rafael curses at, then shoots, the Colonel (Claude Piéplu). 

M. Thévenot, however, wakes from the dream, not Rafael. This doesn’t matter for the purposes of my analysis, since national differences don’t so much matter to the ruling classes: only the protection of their class interests does. Nationalism, as I mentioned above, is only useful as a deflection of our attention from class war. Thus, it doesn’t matter if a bourgeois from Miranda or one from France has had the dream, and has thus been unconsciously using defence mechanisms against criticisms of Miranda. A bourgeois is a bourgeois, no matter who he is or what country he’s from, for all capitalist countries share Miranda’s vices, to at least some extent, and all bourgeois share the same class interests.

There are the dreams of the bourgeois and there are also those of the common man, the soldier, as in the case of the sergeant’s dream, which he describes when the Colonel and his army interrupt the six bourgeois’ dinner. The sergeant dreams of walking about the streets of what seems to be almost a ghost town, its emptiness (save two men and his mother, with each of whom he chats briefly) and shadows suggesting the desolation that war causes. The first man he chats with, Ramirez, leaves him to enter a store to buy something, but when the soldier goes in later, the interior looks abandoned and dilapidated, again suggesting war’s desolation. We also learn that Ramirez has been dead for the past six years, just as his mother has been long dead. War benefits the bourgeois, but it tears away, from us ordinary people, all of those we care about.

The sergeant then goes back out on the streets, searching for (and not finding) his mother. The other soldiers, Colonel, and six bourgeois listening to the narration of the dream all suggest Buñuel’s wish-fulfillment that the ruling classes would actually listen to, and empathize with, the desires and needs of the ordinary working man.

Rafael enjoys frisking a leftist from Miranda.

This fulfillment of the wish for people’s pain to be heard and cared about happens at another point, earlier in the film, when a young lieutenant joins the three bourgeois women’s table in a café (where…alas! there’s only water to be served) to tell them his tragic life story. His story involves his Oedipal longing for his mother, who appears as a ghost, and tells him (when he’s an eleven-year-old boy about to be sent to a strict military school) his severe male guardian isn’t his biological father, but actually his father’s murderer. The boy then gets his revenge by poisoning the man’s milk, which he drinks at night, then dies in bed.

Since the soldier has still gone to military school (the boy’s listing from side to side as he goes from the study of his strict guardian to his mother’s bedroom, his hands touching the furniture and walls in the hallway, suggests his dislike of any form of discipline), and since his story of seeing his mother’s ghost sounds improbable, it seems safe to assume that the poisoning is more wish-fulfillment, a variant of Freud’s family romance.

The boy’s writing “Maman, je t’…(aime) with her lipstick on the dresser mirror suggests a fusion of the Oedipus complex with Lacan‘s mirror stage: the boy’s reflected False Self in a military uniform is wished to be an illusion; and his reunion with his mother’s ghost, and his learning that his real father is a different, presumably kinder man (this would be what Melanie Klein called the ‘good father’ versus the ‘bad father’) seem to be illusions. And if the man poisoned was the boy’s real father, then we see in this murder the fulfilled Oedipal wish to remove the father, so the boy can have his mother.

On several occasions, we hear the sound of an airplane flying overhead (also, loud typing on one occasion, and on another, a siren) and drowning out the sound of people speaking. What is said is something the bourgeois don’t wish to be heard (the woman ‘terrorist’ discussing Mao, a corrupt politician explaining to the police why the six bourgeois are to be released from jail after being charged, rightly, with cocaine trafficking). The sounds of the airplane, siren, etc., are surrealistically heard at high volumes in indoor places, again suggesting the wish-fulfillment of the non-rational unconscious in dreams, all for the convenience of the bourgeoisie.

Here again, we see the conscious and unconscious manifestations of ego defence. Ego psychology shows us how defence mechanisms, like denial or splitting, sometimes have to be unconscious to avoid detection during therapy. The guilty bourgeois would especially like to keep their secrets undisclosed…including drug trafficking (of which, incidentally, another character played by Rey, only a year earlier in The French Connection, was guilty).

As explained in Freud and Beyond: a History of Psychoanalytic Thought, “…the ego also contains complex unconscious defensive arrangements that have evolved to satisfy the demands of neurotic compromise, ways of thinking that keep repressed impulses out of conscious awareness in an ongoing way…unconscious ego defenses gain nothing from being exposed…The ego, charged with the daunting task of keeping the peace between warring internal parties and ensuring socially acceptable functioning, works more effectively if it works undercover.” (Mitchell and Black, page 26)

Now, there is the life instinct, Eros, expressed by the six bourgeois’ desire to eat and drink socially (being together is an example of their object-seeking–and Fairbairn insisted we all, at our core, seek objects, that is, other people to connect with–and object-seeking is also what the lieutenant, telling the three bourgeois women in the café about his sad life, is doing), as well as in their libido (Alice and Henri screwing in the bushes; Rafael wanting to screw Mme. Thévenot behind her husband’s back). But there’s also Thanatos, the death drive.

Not all dreams are wish-fulfillments, as Freud finally admitted (Freud, page 304) in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he dealt with such issues as the death drive and “the compulsion to repeat” (in the film, there’s the compulsion to repeat the futile attempt to dine together). There’s the urge to put others to death (Rafael, when he shoots the Colonel in M. Thévenot’s dream; the bishop, shooting the gardener; the boy cadet, poisoning his step-father; and Rafael, shooting at the clockwork animal toys of, as well as pointing a pistol at, the leftist woman from Miranda), and there’s also the unconscious drive to bring about one’s own death, as seen in Rafael’s dream of the gunmen shooting all six bourgeois.

Both pleasure and death bring about a relaxation of tension, or of excitation (Freud, page 276), though in opposing ways, like the ouroboros biting its tail, the head and tail symbolizing meeting extreme opposites on a circular continuum, as I’ve argued elsewhere. Death’s relaxation of that tension (“To die, to sleep,–/ No more”) is similar to nirvana, a state of bliss that negates all forms of existence, or paradoxically, of non-existence.

The social bourgeois dinner ought to be thwarted: not only so the ruling classes can begin to understand what it is to go hungry; but also because their every get-together is a façade, a performance of hypocritical, sanctimonious morality. It’s theatre, as literally displayed when the six think they’re dining chez the Colonel, but find themselves on a stage. This phoniness–as shown in them giving a glass of champagne to their chauffeur (then sneering at him, a mere uneducated commoner), disapproving of the smoking of marijuana while dealing in cocaine, asking about the maid’s ex-fiancé who dumped her for being too old (as if the six even care), discussing how Rafael’s sun sign, Pisces–Sagittarius ascendant, reveals his ‘virtues’–is the essence of, sarcastically expressed, the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie.

I’m no Buddhist, but I think we can gain a few insights here and there from the philosophy. Instead of our endless ego defence, which tends in a narcissistic direction, we need to be selfless, abandoning the illusion of an ego. To end the suffering of humanity, we need to end the selfish lust not only for sex, but also for money, especially the money that is gained by addicting people to superficial forms of gratification, like porn, or the cocaine in the film. Giving up on the self means especially giving up on the narcissistic False Self, the person we think we see as ourselves in the mirror. 

Instead of aching and griping about our own inconveniences, we need to feel compassion for the sufferings of others, to listen when they try to tell us what’s hurting them, as the soldiers do. But we should really listen, not just pretend to, as the six bourgeois do. When we can do this, we can really break out of the chains the bourgeoisie has put us all in. For compassion, at the risk of sounding overly sentimental, is what love is all about.

As Che Guevara once said, “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” Love will be a road that we as comrades can walk on together, leading to a definite destination, not as the bourgeois, who look foolish walking along a country road to nowhere.

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