The Exciting Dreams of Boring People in the Films of Luis Buñuel
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
Luis Buñuel, godfather of the Surrealist movement along with Salvador Dali, used his films to explore the relationship between dreams and reality. Buñuel famously once said that the ideal day would consist of being awake for two hours, and dreaming for the remaining twenty-two, and so it’s no wonder the phenomenon is so deeply intertwined with his work. Nowhere else is this area better explored than in his 1967 film Belle de Jour, and 1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Perhaps his best known film, Belle de Jour represents Buñuel at his most accessible. The film follows Séverine (Catherine Deneuve), a demure young woman trapped in a passionless marriage to the wealthy surgeon, Pierre (Jean Sorel). Unsatisfied by her role as the puritanical housewife, and disengaged from her misogynistic, indolent social group, she is forced to retreat into her subconscious in order to fulfil her masochistic fantasies. The film takes place entirely from the perspective of Séverine, giving us access to her fetishistic daydreams that revolve around her husband, friends, and strangers alike. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie centres around six high-class friends who constantly attempt to have dinner together, and who are each time interrupted by increasingly ridiculous scenarios, including an intrusion by a cavalry regiment, the arrival of gun-wielding gangsters, and the realisation that they are in fact part of an elaborate stage play. As the directionless film progresses, the audience finds themselves sub-planted into the dreams of the various characters, each revolving around their anxieties, death, and the unattainable dinner party. In both of these films, Buñuel uses the contrast between dreams and reality in order to highlight the mundanity of bourgeois lives, and the excitement that is desperately longed for. The characters’ wealth removes them from reality, which Buñuel emphasises through constantly moving between real life and fantasy, without giving the audience any clear sign of when this switch occurs.
Belle de Jour opens with a sequence involving Séverine and her husband. In this scene the couple rides down an idyllic rural road in a horse-drawn carriage, helmed by two men. They begin to argue, prompting Pierre to remove his wife from the carriage, beat her, and pass her to the other two men, with the implication that they have sex with her. It’s a startling opening, but one that quickly ends as Séverine wakes up, and finds herself back in the real world, in her single bed, incapable of even sleeping with the man she has passionate, sexual fantasies about. The scene highlights the disconnect between the woman Séverine really is, and the woman she longs to be. Eventually Séverine becomes a prostitute to fulfil the desires her husband cannot, yet due to Buñuel’s clever style, it's almost impossible to tell whether or not anything in her world, beyond her loveless marriage and luxurious Paris apartment, is actually real. As the film progresses, Séverine’s ability to discern when she is awake and when she is fantasising becomes blurred. This gradual change in the film’s structure emphasises her decision to remove herself from the reality which leaves her unfulfilled. In the end, the only thing that viewers can know for sure is that Séverine has been suffocated by her own unhappiness, and is forced to regress into her subconscious if she is to find any form of meaning in her life.
A similar situation is explored in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. In one scene, the three female characters, each a member of France’s elite society, enter a cafe within which everything they attempt to order is unavailable. The scene acts as a satirical takedown of the inconsequential lives of its characters. They then find themselves in a continuous conversation with the waiter as they are comically forced to place multiple orders, whilst a soldier recounts to them the story of his mother’s ghost visiting him, commanding him to kill his father. This is just one example of the many nonsensical sub-plots which overlap and cut each other off as they scramble for dominance. The film reads as a comedy but is played out with sincerity, creating a sense of disorientation. What this scene reveals about the characters’ lives is their vapidity, as their wealth allows them to float through the world without any real motivations with which to form a logical narrative. This idea is emphasised by the recurring scene of the six friends walking aimlessly down a barren road, which interrupts the film at multiple points. As with Belle de Jour, Buñuel never elaborates on which scenes, if any, represent reality, yet his commentary on wealth, and its connection to idleness and immorality remain clear. The characters of Discreet Charm either make their money illegitimately—through acting as corrupt diplomats or drug-dealing politicians—or by marrying into wealth. The dream sequences throughout the film express their deepest anxieties of being imprisoned for their crimes or murdered for their greed, emphasising their fear of exposure, along with the precarious nature of their privilege.
And for those who question the relevance of Buñuel’s surrealist work in today’s world: think of the twenty-foot blimp of a baby Donald Trump that appeared at an anti-Trump protest in London in 2018 after allegations of sexual misconduct reached their peak. Or the increasingly chaotic world of Twitter memes and reactions in response to progressively dire news. Both examples seek to confront the insanity of our current situation with a similarly nonsensical protest through visuals, whilst simultaneously offering an escape from our otherwise unnerving reality. Surrealism has leapt from the museum walls and cinema screens into the discourse of society at large, becoming so inconspicuous so as to be almost invisible. This interpolation of the surreal with the everyday emphasises not the failure of an artistic movement, but rather our descent into complete absurdity. And as we float through the directionless nightmare of our own political turmoil, brought on by the incompetency of today’s privileged leaders, the message Buñuel communicates through his films has become more compelling than ever.
The purpose of the surrealist movement has always been to challenge the audience’s understanding of rationality, and to highlight the meaninglessness of accepted ideologies, both within art and society itself. When put through his politically charged lens, Buñuel used surrealism to suggest that the lives of the influential upper-class were akin to that of dreams: devoid of a coherent structure, or of any discernible purpose. In his attempt to shed light on their greed, Buñuel perfectly captures a section of society wherein consequences and accountability seldom apply, and became the figurehead of an artistic movement, the influence of which is still being felt today in both the real world and in the work of contemporary artists such as David Lynch. ▲
Graham Peacock is currently an undergraduate at Glasgow University, majoring in English Literature and Film Studies.