“Do not waste your time on social questions. The problem with the poor is Poverty, the problem with the rich is uselessness…”
– George Bernard Shaw
It’s a childish thing to say, perhaps, but Buñuel is my favourite director. The reason is simple: his films are an assault on all of the people and institutions worth offending. He is cinema’s true iconoclast, and he does it all with a shit-eating grin.
An example: after leaving his birth nation of Spain following the start of the civil war, Buñuel lived for years in political exile. In 1960, he was invited back to Spain to film a script of his choosing. He chose Viridiana, a vicious skewering of the Catholic Church and Christian sensibilities, a film which insinuates that kindness and goodness to fellow man is the ultimate egoism, and ends with a blasphemous mockery of the Last Supper, populated by lecherous vagrants and criminals. He was swiftly excommunicated and never made a film in Spain again. When asked about it, Buñuel stated: “I merely hope I don’t go to hell. Imagine the table talk of all those popes and cardinals.”
Dinner, and the act of sitting down to eat dinner, became one of Buñuel’s obsessions. In The Exterminating Angel (1972), guests arrive for dinner, eat and then find that they cannot leave, finally resorting to forms of savagery. Like most of Buñuel’s films, it is a comedy, but a comedy of the kind that keeps you up at night, sweating and desperate. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the problem is similar: several wealthy individuals attempt to have dinner together, but are constantly disrupted by a series of increasingly bizarre interruptions. They arrive, sit down, sometimes even begin to eat. But dinner never happens. That is the central joke, the entire purpose of the film.
Buñuel here is skewering the very essence of middle class existence. The guests have nothing better to do than arrange an intricate series of dinner parties, where they will sit and talk about dinner, how to eat dinner and where the next dinner party will be held. Even when they are prevented from eating, by impositions of violence, death and sex, their first thought is only to rearrange the dinner party. All around them, fantastic events are occurring, even as they wonder about the best way to drink a dry martini. A soldier recounts a tale about the ghost of his mother, who returns to murder her former husband. The dinner table suddenly becomes a stage, complete with audience amd stagehand whispering forgotten lines to the horrified actors. Finally, the gathered guests are gunned down by gangsters, all save one, who hides beneath the table. Yet his primal instincts to engage in the social ritual of dinner is so powerful, so deeply ingrained, that he reaches his hand up from beneath the table cloth, to try just one more piece of perfectly cooked lamb, and is riddled with bullets.
The kicker of the film is a recurring scene of the characters walking, ever walking, along an endless country road. They walk and they walk, never seeming to arrive anywhere, but never appearing ever remotely concerned that their walking may be utterly aimless, their destination non-existent.
And if that isn’t the finest criticism of our social apparatus ever put to film, I’ll shit in my hat.