Wednesday, July 23, 2008


In an attempt to create the kind of double feature the WHC film series specializes in, I borrowed this week from the WHC Film Studies Center two films released in 1972: Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers. The match-up was better than I expected. I had seen both films before, some time ago for Bergman, more recently for Buñuel, but even so, I wasn't quite thinking about the degree to which both films, in rather different ways, are scathing indictments of the bourgeoisie.

It's hard, watching the films, to detest the bourgeois characters at once. Unless one already approaches art from the perspective of the class warrior, ready in a heartbeat to tear down these protected and self-satisfied lives lived with dedicated servants attending them, splendid accouterments surrounding them, and a sense of decorum and mastery in all their actions -- and in Bergman's film, beautifully photographed by Sven Nykvist.

In Buñuel's film, any admiration we might feel (if, like most film viewers, we are happy when a film allows us into the select circle of the privileged) is quickly tempered by the film's complete absurdist irony toward its protagonists, subjecting them to situations that begin with something simply awkward (arriving for a dinner invitation on the wrong evening) and spiral down, finally, to murder by gangsters. Along the way, the running gag is that the bourgeoisie are never so much themselves as when sitting down to eat -- au table their taste and sense of manners come to the fore -- and our coterie of six or seven diners is interrupted time and again. At times, one or several of the principles engages in scenes separate from the group -- particularly memorable is one member of the group, M. Thevenot, interrupting an assignation between his wife and Don Rafael Acosta (Fernando Rey, the unflappable, slightly sinister face associated with late Buñuel); Acosta is then visited by an attractive young female terrorist sent to kill him. He offers her champagne, naturellement. Indeed, Acosta's attitude toward terrorists and agitating students is benignly ruthless -- a tone set throughout the film. Then there's the three women attempting to have tea at a restaurant that's out of tea, and coffee, and doesn't serve liquor, but does feature a soulful lieutenant at a nearby table who asks permission to tell the strange story of his mother's ghost and her wish that he murder the man he had believed to be his father...

Buñuel's film is full of odd moments of feeling that clash -- we might say jarringly, we might say surreally -- with the world of the bourgeoisie but which they seem to accept, unruffled, forbearing, displaying their characteristic charme discret. Oddities abound -- such as a bishop who volunteers to work as gardener for one couple, then is called to the bedside of a dying workman who, it turns out, was the murderer of the bishop's parents long ago. But quizzical as such moments are, I got my biggest laugh from a local peasant woman who confides to the bishop: "I can't accept Jesus. Even as a little girl I hated him."

In Buñuel's world, soldiers see ghosts and have interesting dreams, peasants have unexpected complexity; in Bergman's film, the selfless servant, Anna, is the only locus of real feeling and devotion. The sisters, Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann) are unhappily married to men who may be partly to blame for their states of soul, but the film seems to assume that bourgeois marriage can't be fulfilling for anyone. Karin is a real hater and her self-loathing at one point had taken the form of inserting broken glass into her vagina and then smearing the blood across her lips while lying back in bed and seeming to beckon to her husband (much older than her, more of a father figure). Meanwhile, also in the past, Maria's fling with the local doctor (Erland Josephson) caused her husband to inflict a negligible wound upon himself. Lives of quiet desperation, in other words. This all sounds the stuff of lurid melodrama, but add to it the fact that, in the present, the eldest sister, Agnes (Harriet Anderson) is dying painfully of cancer at home on the estate (where the other two sisters are visiting to care for her) and you've got the stuff of Bergmanian psychodrama, as familiar to his world as the absurdity and interlineated stories are to Buñuel's.

As in Buñuel's bourgeoisie in the grip of absurdity, the bourgeois here are faced with horrors that they countenance in their characteristic and distantly engaged way (including what have to be some of the more harrowing enactments of physical pain by Anderson); but more telling about the difficulty of these lives is the scene in which Karin finally speaks what she feels (at the dinner table, of course) and then manages a flood of tears and what seems a heartfelt reconciliation with her estranged sister Maria. In other words, it seems the death of Agnes has inspired a sense of the importance of one's relations and a need to get past the borders and silences that have been constructed. And these actresses are masterful at suggesting all that might be going on behind the deliberate images of politesse that each masks herself with. But in the end, the most telling scene is when Maria, who Karin had vilified for her superficiality, returns to her mask of civil cordiality as the sisters part (with their husbands). Not even the brusque treatment of Anna who, if selfless in her love and sympathy for Agnes, also manifests a degree of devoted pet faithfulness that can be somewhat unnerving in a human, strikes home as forcefully with the unrelenting froideur of these lives.

Or maybe that's just to say that the peasant who could never stand Jesus had more immediate resonance for me than the Christlike (or actually Madonna-like) servant Anna. Though I won't say Bergman's characteristic religious questioning didn't resonate for me, surprisingly moreso than usual (I must be getting old) in the prayer of the priest over Agnes' dead body. Delivered by Anders Ek, the indelible Frost in Bergman's Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), the prayer spoke precisely for a bourgeoisie without firm convictions, whose lives are structured to avoid acknowledgment of real suffering or need or desire, asking one who has suffered to represent their case before God, asking, as it were, for forgiveness for their superficiality and lack of purpose.

Full of seething, wormy, hollow feelingsrather nasty --How beastly the bourgeois is!
--D. H. Lawrence, "How Beastly the Bourgeois Is --" (1929)

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