LUIS BUNUEL’S THE DISCREET CHARM of the Bourgeoisie is a deliciously pungent concoction by the 72-year-old filmmaker and his young co-scenarist, Jean-Claude Carriere, that will set your spirits soaring and your mind aglow. Never before has this always fascinating artist been quite so tantalizing, so tongue-in-cheek and so deft in his examination of the inanities and near-surrealism of a society he has long viewed with fatalistic eye. He has, he guilefully leads you to suspect, assumed a tolerance of the fools that mortals be, but the suspicion lasts only for the duration of his intricate, intriguing film. In retrospect one sees his rages at the hypocrisies and brutalities that lie beneath the elegant coolness, the gentilities, the ripostes and the resiliencies that do indeed provide the bourgeoisie with that certain something he admits wryly to be their discreet charm.
His focal figures are the Ambassador of Miranda and five Parisian friends, the Senechals, a chic young couple with an attractive country house; the Thevenots, a more mature couple, and Florence, Mme. Thevenot’s younger sister. To celebrate a drug-smuggling coup by the Ambassador that has netted the three men a fortune, they are to dine at the Senechals’ home. The four arrive to find their hostess alone: they are a day early. They invite her to a nearby restaruant only to find, after they have ordered, that they are in the midst of a noisy wake for the manager who died a few hours earlier. But the charm of the bourgeoisie, of course, is its refusal to be discouraged by the trivia of life—and so Bunuel is off and running into realities, fantasies, dreams and escapades as the six attempt to consummate their dinner engagement.
Lunch at the Senechals instead? The guests arrive but their hosts, in a moment of pre-prandial lust, are off quite literally for a roll in the hay that somehow winds up with no lunch but the Senechals hiring the local prelate (there are, he notes, “working bishops” as well as working priests) as their gardener. Another dinner attempt is interrupted by army maneuvers; the next by a police raid; still another by a band of terrorists. Even the ladies’ attempt at a tea party is frustrated, as is Mme. Thevenot’s assignation with the Ambassador. And whether these are dreams or truths, undaunted, the six walk happily along their chosen road…
The flavoring for Bunuel’s brew is in the characters’ steadfastness and the beautifully disciplined vagaries of all they encounter. Never does composure falter or an amenity go unobserved, whether it is in the bishop’s dispensation of divine justice to the murderer of his parents, in the ladies’ courtesy to a sad lieutenant who pauses to tell them the horror story of his childhood, in a soldier’s recounting his dream of limbo or in the ghostly legend of the bloody police sergeant. The phantoms and the flesh leave the bourgeoisie undisturbed; rude awakenings bring only relief.
Fernando Rey, the brilliant veteran of so many roles (perhaps most recently Bunuel’s Tristana and The French Connection), is perfection as the Ambassador, his amatory passion no more glowing than his outrage at the suggestion that his heroin-filled diplomatic pouch be inspected. He is matched by Delphine Seyrig and Paul Frankeur as the Thevenots; Stephane Audran and Jean-Pierre Cassel as the Senechals and Bulle Ogier as the dissipating Florence laid low by one martini but perpetually demanding more. (Only the lower classes, our friends note, tend to gulp them down unappreciatively.)
Bunuel deals so subtly with his characters that he evokes appreciative smiles rather than gut laughter; there is a grace to his directorial hand and a spark of brilliant laughter in his camera eye as he covers the richness of scene. No exterminating angel hovers over his tableful of fools—only a mature artist whose genius lays bare the truths of ourselves and illuminates them for us to revel in for the nonce—and wince over in retrospect, even as our spirit soars in recognition of his creative wit and insight.
Chloe in the Afternoon is the fourth feature-length film and last of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales”—and compares with the best of the three others: Ma Nuit Chez Maud, Claire’s Knee and La Collectionneuse. Certainly it is the least esoteric and the one of broadest appeal as well as the richest, in social rather than intellectual terms, in its consideration of his basic theme. All the Rohmer tales have been concerned with a man who, in love with one woman, encounters and is attracted to another. The “Moral” aspect of his tale, the writer-director has noted, is not that it is a story with a moral but that it is a story “dealing less with what people do than with what is going on in their minds while they are doing it.”
The only one of his features to be set in Paris, but aglow, as the others were, with atmosphere and ambience, Chloe is closest too to the workaday world. His protagonist is a young businessman, Frederic, caught up in a variety of deals, complete with a partner and two-secretary office. He is deeply devoted to his wife, Helene, an off-beat brunette beauty, a teacher doing graduate work as well, and to his young daughter (another child is on the way), and leads a satisfying social life. He is, Rohmer shows us in that wonderfully literate style he has perfected, of voice-over narration, visual demonstration and perceptive dramatic vignettes, a contented man, handsome, attractive—given to escapist reading, true, and fantasies involving all the beautiful women of whom he is very much aware. Easily seduced by a smart sales-lady into buying but cool in any further involvement, he hasn’t time for love in the afternoon. And then, one day, in walks Chloe out of not even his but his best friend’s past—the girl he hadn’t liked as a partner for his pal, while he himself had been involved with someone else.
Rohmer’s gift is in his subtle differentiation between the cliches of relationships and the eternal verities that