The feature film this week was preceded by a short film called “Taipei, Taipei” made by an acquaintance of Kevin’s (name of Shin, I believe), which was a stop-motion claymation film depicting the growth of industrial Taipei out of rural farmland, eventually under the guidance of Chiang Kai-shek. It was fantastic animation, carefully (and painstakingly) made, but it carried with it no small amount of ambiguity. The tranquility of the farmland is lost, but the city itself shimmers in its own light-off-glass beauty. Should we see the silent figure of Chiang Kai-shek as a benevolent overseer or a ruthless tyrant? Was his final enshrinement in the temple done with genuine or ironic affection? For someone without a cultural knowledge of Taiwan, it’s practically impossible to tell.
Ambiguity, however, seemed to be the theme of the night, exemplified again in the feature presentation The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the 1972 film by surrealist Luis Buñuel. Although Buñuel’s portrayal of French high society is clearly critical, the ultimate point of the film is not readily accessible (and I’ve seen it twice now).
The film begins with four friends arriving at the home of two others for a dinner party. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line the dates got mixed up, the host is away, and the hostess has nothing prepared – failure to eat #1. Undeterred, they head off to a local inn only to find (after being seated) that the back room is occupied by the fresh corpse of the owner, who died that day and has yet to be hauled off by the mortuary. Too gruesome a scene to dine – failure to eat #2. Even a rescheduled luncheon is thwarted when the host and hostess sneak out to the garden for some hanky-panky instead of entertaining their guests.
The guests flee after believing that the couple slipped out to escape a possible police raid (the men, you see, are all drug traffickers, led by one who is the Ambassador from the fictional and pharmaceutical Latin American country of Miranda) and we have the third failure to eat. You can see where this goes. In fact, the majority of the film concerns the impotence of the Bourgeoisie — interrupted dining, interrupted drinking, interrupted affairs — they never seem to actually get anything done.
During the second half of the film, the picture devolves into a series of (sometimes nested) dreams of the main characters focusing on the less pleasant possible aspects of their lives — murder, imprisonment, death by fellow drug traffickers. In between we are treated to scenes equally, if not more, bizarre. A random soldier insists upon relating to our heroines the story of his childhood, wherein the ghost of his murdered mother instructs him to poison his guilty stepfather. Another soldier later relates his dream of finding himself among dead acquaintances in a city where the clock tower strikes infinity. A local bishop (yes, bishop) signs on as gardener for the romping couple and later finds himself giving absolution to a man he discovers is the very murderer of his own parents. After absolving the man, he murders him. The characters in the film are, to say the least, not untouched by violence.
The film ends on a vignette that is repeated throughout the film — our diners, in dress clothes, walking down a road in the midst of green fields to an unspecified destination.
What does it all mean? I don’t know. But it’s one heck of a ride.