White picket sex

Luis Buquel's "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" pulls the curtain back on dream and desire.

By David Thomson
July 7, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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To celebrate the centenary of his birth, Luis Buquel's "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (1972) is roaming the nation in the spirit of an orgy's recruiting agent. No one has ever sucked the secrets of dream into film better than Buquel. He is a genius at letting the shapes of desire rear up behind polite conversation.

The conversation in this case skitters around a small band of polished bourgeoisie hoping to have dinner together. The Ambassador from Miranda arrives with his friends, the Thevenots, to dine with the Senechals, only to find something amiss. The fire is not blazing; the table is not laid; Senechal himself is away, his wife explains. The guest has come a day early, she points out. Impossible, says the Ambassador, I am already booked for tomorrow. They laugh politely at the odd error. But what about dinner?

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Of course, the Senechals are devastated with embarrassment: Immediate recompense is planned with a lunch the following Saturday at chez Senechal. So once more, the chosen guests gather on a lovely, bright day. The birds are heard singing, in celebration -- or is it mockery?

The Senechals are both present this time, but some unconquerable urge keeps them from their guests. They really want a quick one, before cocktails, and perhaps not even that quick. Upstairs, allegedly dressing, they are undressing, in and out of their very nice clothes.

They might do it there, but she makes such a noise at these times. So they slip out of their upstairs window and run like wantons into their own garden. She slumps, like Venus, on a grassy slope, pulls up her dress and makes to undo her stockings. But he hurries her behind shrubbery for their carnal luncheon. Encore -- the guests go hungry again.

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But here is the thing: That shot of Stephane Audran needing to rid herself of stockings and suspender belt is so exquisite and nostalgic. Tights and pantyhose come across as inescapable as bourgeois life itself. But the full articulation of middle-class desire requires even more time undressing -- if only Audran had palisades of lace and silk to be negotiated, and then coils of barbed wire and the final puzzle of a chastity belt that opened only with the satisfactory answering of three profound questions in mathematics.

Long live the fussy, neurotic, finger-confusing barriers to desire: They are monuments to time, while spent pantyhose lie on the ground like old elastic.


David Thomson

David Thomson is the author of "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" (new edition just published), "Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles" and "In Nevada."

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