One of the most striking feature of Bunuel’s film is the drastic contrast between its smooth, seamless and elegant, even graceful form and the violence of its content. We see several murders, one of them with agonizing death, two attempted murders, walking corpses with bleeding holes (made by the entered bullets) in the heads, a scene of physical torture, we see people who behave unattractively, clashes of false pride, serious quarrel without serious reasons, the life of petty calculations and disrespect for human nobility. But nothing, it seems, spoils our refined aesthetic pleasure from watching this film which is like a soft air unnoticeably streams into our perception regardless of its content and of the fact that identification of the viewers with the characters is blocked or devaluated by the director.

The major characters of the film are charming yet coarse, they behave discretely yet as individual they are quite impudent, each in his/her own way. They don’t have refined souls, their emotions are rather ordinary, they are often tactless and some of them are permanently engaged in petty power games. And yet they are undoubtedly charming. They are not always discreet, but their charm is. Bourgeoisie during the mid-20th century still had charm, when used democracy (discreetness) as aesthetic cover for imperial drives and obsession with profit by any price.

Bourgeois charm was a specific ontological appeal of these people. The bourgeoisie then produced charm as a fish – certain sounds or luminescence. Its charm was like birds’ plumage, or like specific coloration of skin and fur or a particular odor in animals. In his “Mythologies” (Hill and Wang, 1986, p. 141) Roland Barthes notes that bourgeois has a tendency to flight from the name “bourgeois” and that this flight is the bourgeois ideology itself, “the process through which the bourgeoisie transforms the reality of the world into an image of the world, history into nature”. The “discreet charm” is just another route of this bourgeois flight from its own essence (by thinking and suggesting that there is nothing specifically bourgeois in the bourgeois, that a bourgeois is just a paradigmatic representative of humankind and that his/her way of life is just a result of natural state of things).

The bourgeois charm is the direct expression of this tendency to create appearance (as bad artists’ intuition – appealing form of the work of art), to name this appearance as the essence and then try to register it in public consciousness as an expression of natural state of affair. In Bunuel’s terms, bourgeoisie wanted to register itself in history as a group of charming people who are full of charming plans and who have achieved through their activities in the world not just charming but charmingly admirable results. The production of bourgeois charm is a discreet bourgeois strategy to mask the ruthlessness of their dreams and actions as charming discreetness through which bourgeoisie tried to attract and seduce the world and was and is amazingly successful in this enterprise.

May be, the most striking feature of the film is demonstratively “objective”, distant, without a shade of compassion or empathy, even arrogantly scientific scrupulosity with which Bunuel investigates the bourgeoisie as a specific anthropological sub-specie. Bunuel’s film is a representation without plot (bourgeoisie, according to him, doesn’t have any “plot” – any responsible scenario for humanity). The film is a pure research, study and in this sense it can be extremely offensive for the bourgeoisie. But bourgeois viewers reacted positively on the film – charm of discreetness is what they had or wanted to achieve at that time which the film reflects.

Bunuel imitates “the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie” with discreet charm of his cinematic style – impeccable, aloof, elegantly ironic, emotionally neutral, abstractly beautiful, not imposing but involving viewers bit by bit by charming them unnoticeably into being silently fascinated. And this style is ultimately responsible for the success of the film. By using his artistic charms to say the truth about the bourgeoisie Bunuel simultaneously pleases and fools it. He has “out-discreeted” and “out-charmed” the bourgeoisie. And he did it to nail it down. For the sake of his cinema, Bunuel becomes an artistic and philosophical bourgeois (discreet one) who is on the side of the truth against the bourgeois comme il faut hiding behind every bourgeois.

The realities of war, military life and the tragic destiny of militaries are a substantial part of the film. Three psychological aspects of being a military in bourgeois world are represented in the film: to be a killer (the story of the lieutenant Hubert de Rochcahin), to be killed (the story about the dream of the young sergeant about being dead), and to be dedicated to the fetishism of military honor (the presence of the colonel in the film and the story of his petty quarrel with Rafael Acosta, the ambassador of Latin American country). Bunuel insists that apart from being a killer, killed and the aggrandized through association with narcissistic tradition of belonging to the military force – nothing else exists in being a military except suffering of servicemen and their families.

Discreet charm of bourgeoisie is a historical phenomenon. Today, bourgeoisie has lost its discreteness, charm and its connection with protecting their country of origins. Today, the goal of the military structure is to protect the interests of the 1-2-3 % percent of population and agree with austerity for the 97%. Today, wealthy decision-makers don’t need discreteness or charm – money as a weapon and weapon itself deployed for the sake of making more profit do the job of conquering the world better. But Bunuel in his film provides the etiology of the present condition of bourgeoisie – we today have to know its previous condition to understand it better in order to try to handle it more effectively. Without Bunuel’s “The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie” we will not be on the level of this necessary and urgent task. Bunuel’s film must be part of a curriculum of History studies in every high school.

Rafael-the ambassador talks here about the “mutinous students” who loves to “protest and demonstrate” “instead of studying”, but he cannot resist a dose of universal right-wing “philosophizing”. By this Rafael deserves an extra-glass of dry martini from Thevenot and creates in ladies extra-admiration, which, as we see, is not unconditional.

How Colonel of the French Army quarreled with Rafael-the ambassador

The colonel giving a party at his place remembers that at the Senechal‘s the ambassador took a critical stance against the use of drugs in the military, and now he wants to respond by reminding the South American that Europe will always be in charge whatever it does.

It is funny that Rafael’s response follows a mutinous tradition of the previous colonies against the colonel’s of colonizing empires – he, a wealthy collaborator with the West, betrayer of the interests of his people for the sake of personal advantage suddenly, in this situation behaves like a parody on Southern revolutionary he never was. He is a part of the West’s puppet government.

The “empire” puts the “ambassador of Southern slaves” to his place, but… the colonizers have sold a lot of weapons to their colonies…

From the story of Lieutenant Hubert de Rochahin

To the table, where our three ladies – Simone Thevenot, Alice Senechal and Florence were preparing to have a good time, approached a melancholic lieutenant asking for their permission to share with them his personal story.

Lieutenants story was about how his step-father sent him to a military college and by this decided the course of his whole life. Here, we see the lieutenants mother and father killed by his stepfather whom Hubert in his boyhood has poisoned by the suggestion of the ghost of his mother. In this shot, we see the lieutenants mother and father in the apotheosis of their revenge through their son and the villain himself lying on the bed before joining his rivals in a better world.

While the sad lieutenant was opening to the ladies about how he poisoned his stepfather, the waiter approaches the table to inform the women that their order cannot be fulfilled because the restaurant is out of coffee and tea. Bunuel expects the viewers to grasp how something like this can happen.

Posted on March 17 2015 –   Luis Bunuel’s “The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie” (1972) – When Wealth-Makers And Status-climbers Were Still Human Beings by Acting-Out Politics