As with Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers and Monty Python, abnormalities are taken for granted and treated as everyday occurrences, and Buñuel treads a very fine line between the possible and the impossible. Keaton talked about the necessity of limiting or toning down his ‘impossible jokes’ once he started making features; Buñuel and his co-writer (Jean-Claude Carrière) apparently considered having a hippopotamus crash through the ceiling at the inn in the first sequence, but decided this would rupture the fabric of reality too violently. One of the characters says, during the ‘poorly-stocked cafe’ episode, that their predicament is ‘invraisemblable’, which it sort of is and sort of isn’t: it’s normal to be told that certain items on the menu are not available today, just not that all items are unavailable (as in the Python ‘cheese shop’ sketch, broadcast the same year). The ‘discreet charm’ referred to in the title is, in part, the ability to take such improbabilities in your stride, and to deal with them in a suitably (ab)normal manner. So you have a go at repeating the lines being fed to you by the prompter before you abandon the stage; you put up with the improbable deluge of insults at the party until they cross a certain line, and then you draw your revolver; you hide from the gangsters, but not to the point of abstaining from a second helping of this delicious lamb. Although these goings-on are self-evidently weird, I also find them quite easy to accept as appropriate and decorous responses to the given circumstances.
Buñuel and Carrière only came up with the title after finishing the film, and hadn’t talked about ‘the bourgeoisie’ at all during filming, but obviously there is some class satire here. The master/servant relations vaguely echo The Exterminating Angel, in that the servants (especially Inès) seem detached from the surreal events that encompass their ‘betters’, and in the way that the humiliation of the driver (made to perform, unwittingly, for the amusement of the others when they give him a dry martini) is visited upon the diners themselves when they find themselves tricked into the public humiliation of the stage performance. And of course there’s the failure of the Sénéchals to recognise the bishop when he’s dressed as a gardener, or the hypocritical denunciation of ‘drug addicts’ by men who are literally drug-traffickers. But on the whole I find it hard to see this film as particularly scathing or judgmental. It would be interesting to compare it to La grande bouffe, which I need to re-watch but which I think might almost be the flip-side of this film: a more biting critique of the bourgeoisie’s charmless indiscretions (maybe...I vaguely remember it treating its characters with a certain amount of affection and empathy too).
Buñuel’s film is aiming for something much more interesting than finger-wagging critique. Just as The Milky Way is more than a satire on religion, and is about something broader and more pervasive than religion, so Discreet Charm is not just about the bourgeoisie. It focuses on a group of people who regularly engage in certain established rituals in order to explore what happens when those rituals are disrupted or frustrated, or when they blur into each other (dinner/funeral/theatre/cocktails/duel). The film thereby throws light, not so much on the nature of a particular social class, but on the relationship between waking reality and dreams, between the limiting effects of social conventions and the realm of unfettered imagination which is always simmering beneath, or latent within, the most mundane social activity.
That’s an interesting way to read this episode. I think his actions in the barn are a good example of what I referred to above, that ability to balance competing social obligations which the other characters display as well. He manages to be an agent of God’s grace and of vengeance for his parents, maintaining an appropriately disinterested air in both cases. Maybe, as you say, he does this more successfully than anyone else, achieving the fulfilment that is always withheld from the other characters, and so excluding him from their aimless wanderings. However, it doesn’t quite feel like that to me – I’m not sure the film is saying that he escapes from whatever it is the others are trapped by.Michael Kerpan wrote:The "worker bishop" is probably my favorite character in all of Bunuel's films. After being (temporarily) in "limbo" with the rest of the crew, he escapes after fulfilling his duties as both a son and as a priest (albeit in a highly unconventional manner).
He is distinct from them because he belongs to a different ‘estate’, meaning that he gets treated differently. He has to wear his designated costume to be respected, but when he wears it he is granted the utmost respect: the others give up their seats for him, they let him say grace at the dinner table, and so on. When he doesn’t wear it he is forcibly ejected from the house, and later Mme Sénéchal even forgets that he’s a priest because he’s dressed as a gardener. This explains why he is oversensitive about having the Napoleon hat put on him, because so much of his social status is invested in his clothes.
Buñuel apparently hated people psychoanalysing his characters, or even the actors themselves trying to figure out the ‘psychology’ of the people they were playing, but the bishop’s eagerness to turn into a gardener is practically begging to be analysed, so much so that it almost feels like the film is taunting analytically-minded viewers. When he hatches his plan, there’s a dramatic close-up on his hungry eyes, and then he looks at the tools and clothes in the garden shed with gluttonous relish. He knows about gardening because he grew up in a big house like that of the Sénéchals, and so presumably worked with the gardener there, or at least took an interest in what the gardener was doing. His desire to be the Sénéchals’ gardener seems to stem from a wish to reclaim his lost parents and lost childhood, and from the vague sense of irresolution he’s been haunted by since their deaths (because the murderer was never found). But in taking on this job he also unwittingly occupies the same role as his parents’ murderer, and prompts the Sénéchals to treat him like shit, just as his parents treated their gardener like shit – of course once the Sénéchals know he’s a bishop, they become more respectful and agree to pay him union rates (having just fired their previous non-union gardener, perhaps because he asked for more money), but we’re left with a sense that this is a worker-bishop who doesn’t quite know who he is, who is trapped between different identities and has no fixed place in society. That would lend a nice irony to the idea that he is the only character to achieve some sort of balance and stability in the end, but I think that overall he’s defined more by conflict – this is the feeling I get at the end of his final scene in the film. He’s a bishop so he does his job and provides absolution; but he also kind of hates being a bishop so he blows the man’s head off. He becomes his parents’ murderer; he absolves his parents’ murderer; he only avenges them after finding out that they were horrible people.
On a less serious note, I also wonder whether the bishop’s apparent exclusion from the main group is one of the ways in which the film aims to deliberately confuse and irritate the viewer. This is a story of six people, and also this bishop, so it’s sometimes seven people, but he’s not really one of them so it’s six (or seven). Perhaps I’m just stuck on the Monty Python connection...