The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Jean-Claude Carrière and Luis Buñuel, 1972

#9 (chronologically) in Mike D'Angelo's list of twelve films to which he would give a score of 100 out of 100.

Over the course of several days half a dozen people attempt to have a meal together but something always goes wrong: they've shown up at their hosts' house a day early, the restaurant owner has died, there are loud military exercises outside, etc.

Quit after about an hour. This is a dream-logic—

Wait, that's what I said about the last one of these. Hmmm! Looks like we've got a new pattern.

Roger Ebert says, in a rave review of this film, that Buñuel "is amusing himself," feeling "free at last to indulge his fancies" and "liberated from any commercial or narrative requirement." I agree! Except I would tweak Ebert's phrasing ever so slightly:

original:replace with:
"is amusing himself""is wanking"
"free at last to indulge his fancies""self-indulgent"
"liberated from any commercial or narrative requirement" "fails to meet narrative requirements"

There's no reason to keep watching a movie if you don't want to know what comes next. Now, one reason you might want to keep watching is that the movie is so beautiful or so funny or has such an attractive performer in it that you keep watching just to gaze at the next landscape or laugh at the next joke or leer at the attractive performer some more. Maybe you care about the characters so much that you want to know what happens to them just out of general interest. But most often, you watch because you're at least somewhat interested in the plot.

So, what's the plot of this one? Let's check out the IMDb plot summary page. Ah, here we go. "A complex, shifting, virtually plotless web of dreams within dreams within dreams." Uh-huh. Also, the characters were annoying, it wasn't much to look at, I didn't find it funny, and none of the performers did much for me. So plotlessness is a problem.

As is the dreaminess. Off the top of my head, I can think of three main problems with modeling movies after dreams:

  • Dreams are personal. A couple of nights ago I dreamed that I was talking to my best friend from high school, whom I haven't seen in ten years. To me this was a powerful dream, because I miss her a lot. Interest to you: zero. In Discreet Charm, there's a bit in which a soldier relates a dream about being in an abandoned city. And he sees a friend who's long dead, and he sees his mother, and he goes into the a building, and it's full of cobwebs, and he comes back out, and she isn't there anymore, and I don't care. Nothing in that situation is intrinsically interesting. It would be tiresome coming from someone I cared about; coming from some random it was death.

  • Dreams are internal. Dreams in movies and comics and TV always feel fake to me, because these are visual media, and dreams are not about things you can see. At least, mine aren't, not usually. Most of my dreams are heavily predicated on knowledge. "It didn't look like my house, but I knew it was my house." "And then suddenly I knew that the city had been destroyed, so I didn't go there." Viewing the events of a dream on a screen is like watching someone listening to a song on headphones. You're missing the most important information.

  • Dreams are plotless. As EM Forster famously noted, to turn "the king died and then the queen died" into a plot, you need to add "of grief" — that is, turn the first part into a cause and the second into an effect. But the defining trait of dream logic is that it eschews the chains of cause and effect that make the world coherent. In dreams, you just suddenly know things, for no reason; the world is suddenly different, for no reason; you undertake actions for no reason, because they just seem like the thing to do.

Now, some say that modern physics has shown that cause and effect are really just neurological illusions and that dream logic is actually how the universe truly operates. But (a) those people are usually high and (b) even if this is true, I still see the role of the artist, at least of any artist I'd be interested in, as bringing order to the chaos. And so:

New pattern
29 Storytelling is about communication, but dreams tend to be meaningful only to the dreamer; film is a visual medium, but dreams tend to be a tissue of internal states that can't be seen; narrative is a web of causality, but in dreams the links between cause and effect are tenuous at best. Therefore dream logic is the enemy of narrative and should be avoided, particularly in movies.

Return to the Calendar page!