Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

The verdict: Very obviously inspiration for Monty Python, Michel Gondry, Stanley Kubrick and, no doubt, countless others.

This is a funny, accessible dream-like satire featuring deceptively serious themes of mortality and purpose.

The rating: 8/10

Although I had vague memories of watching 'Belle de Jour' many moons ago, I was a little wary of what to expect from my first Luis Bunuel movie as an adult, especially one with a title as wacky as this one. It turns out that the title is strangely descriptive though, as the movie is essentially a gentle satire of upper class habits and customs.

I felt on safe ground almost immediately as the opening scenes of this movie developed. It centers around the movements of a group of three wealthy French couples, who are constantly meeting for dinner, or at least, attempting to meet for dinner. Every time they meet, something seems to scupper their plans, be it a simple mix-up with dates in the beginning of the movie, or the frustrating fact that the entire meeting was dreamed by one of the group, as happens later in the movie when things get a little more involved.

The group of well-heeled couples are versed in etiquette and proper behaviour, and espouse decorum at all times. Behind this layer of politeness however, lurks a significant amount of dark secrets. The male characters are up to no good right from the get-go, with Fernando Rey (you might remember him as the bad guy from 'The French Connection') proving to be a softly spoken, well mannered cocaine smuggler.

The relationships and dialogue between the three couples reminded me of the dinner party scene in 'Monty Python's The Meaning of Life', when Eric Idle's salmon accidentally killed herself and all her guests. Oh bother. This scene from Monty Python was most definitely inspired from scenes in Bunuel's movie, where absurd politeness also happens to sit alongside the imminent approach of death. Just as death played a role in the Monty Python movie, so it does here. In one of many dream sequences, a young boy is visited by the ghost of his mother. After catching a glimpse of her in a mirror, he begins writing on a mirror in red lipstick in a subtly frightening scene, a single shot that instantly reminded me of 'The Shining'. When his mother appears the second time, she speaks without moving her lips, and this too is more than a little unnerving. However, the kid is happy to see her, and hasquickly grown more comfortable with his dead visitor.

Dream sequences play a large part in this movie, and a single shot, repeated three times, may be designed to have the audience question whether these characters are actually alive at all. At three separate moments, we see six main characters alone on a country road, walking towards the distance without speaking to each another. Is this a dream of one of the characters? Or is it merely designed to signal to the audience that the real lives of these characters is the pointless journey? Open to interpretation that one.

The dream sequences are complex, but never get too out of hand. The satire is gentle, and sometimes bombastic - such as when the military batallion interrupt one of the dinner parties - but it never goes over the top. There is a sense of madcap humour about this movie that is infectious however, and even some elements of farce - such as when the local bishop becomes a gardener to one of the couples - but this is explained, and makes a crazy sort of sense, in the context of the movie.

Bunuel collaborated with the prolific Jean Claude Carriere on six movies, all made consecutively, and this one was made in 1972. It's awesome to think just what a source of inspiration it has been to film-makers over the years, and how original it must have seemed at the time it was released.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, and am now looking forward to the prospect of getting through my Bunuel box set: this one is heartily recommended as a jaunty little madcap diversion from the mainstream. It's a little surreal, but then again, so was 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind', and how good was that?

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