Buñuel is more comfortable with the so-called subconscious (or dreaming mind) than any other artist in any genre that I am aware of. In film only Lynch and Tarkovsky come close. Everyone else is light years away. In flavor however he is quite different. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a comedy. I have yet to find any humor (or even joy) in a Tarkovsky film. And while Lynch is capable of humor, it is a darker, heavier and not very funny kind of humor. Discreet Charm is light and funny and this in itself is, in my view, a sign of Buñuel’s comfort with the dreaming mind.
Something chafes against such a characterization. And while Discreet Charm is light and funny that is not to say it is easy to understand. No, better to say it is too easy and therefore easy to misunderstand. We see it and think we know it because in fact we do. And yet we don’t like to say that one can be “comfortable” with the subconscious. We want to say it involves a struggle, that it is deeply perturbing, deeply disquieting getting to “know” oneself. It’s not supposed to be easy. In this sense Tarkovsky feels right. His films are a struggle.
But is this true? Does “knowing oneself” have to be a struggle? Or is that the wrong question? Are we speaking not of a condition but a process, a process that depends on time and circumstances?
Are there not times when one is comfortable with the fact that one does not “know” oneself in a certain sense after all? It has often been noted that in Buñuel’s films the irrational constantly interrupts law, order and rational thought. It also interrupts normal ideas of the self. Buñuel is content to rest on the surface of such questions. This does not make his films superficial or deprive viewers of opportunities for deep thought. But if you’re not inclined to go there you’ll miss them. Buñuel has simply made an art that evokes the kind of feeling one has for one’s relationship to such issues, such as the everyday encounters one has with the oddities, peculiarities or uncanniness of the dream-world, that fuzzy-headed I had the weirdest dream experience. Some folks don’t place any importance whatsoever on their dreams. Others don’t remember a single one. Unless they are inclined to think about their place in the full light of the waking world such viewers aren’t likely to get much out of a Buñuel film.
One commentator described Discreet Charm as “grandpa comedy”.* The film dates from 1972 and younger viewers may have seen Twin Peaks and other Lynch films. Compared to them, Buñuel might look like Lynch Lite. But allow me to reformulate my original question: is it a disservice to one’s relationship with oneself to laugh? Not that old cliche of refusing to take oneself too seriously, but learning how to laugh in the “face” of identity itself like that grown man in the Gombrowicz novel who made faces every time he looked at himself in the mirror.
Obviously the title of the film is tongue in cheek. Oh, aren’t they cute! Those people who are so clueless about their appetites! Cute but horrifying as well. The curtain goes up and we’re all onstage exposed as players, and what were our lines? What are our lines when habitual context is disturbed for whatever reason, from rain to death? Discreet Charm is a sophisticated film for those who have spent the time becoming acquainted and therefore comfortable with a broad range of their entire minds. The mirror is up. Who do you see?
*Criterion Creeps podcast