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Several bourgeois friends planning to get together for dinner experience a succession of highly unusual occurrences that interfere with their expected dining enjoyment. Written by
Ed Cannon <email@example.com>
Bunuel is arguably the greatest of all filmmakers. With the possible exceptions of Hitchcock and Fassbinder, I can think of no other director who so completely understood the potential of the medium to transcend the traditional conventions of narrative, or exploited this potential with such élan. And he doesn't rely on special effects: we enter the surreal realm so seamlessly that it at times seems banal. This is especially the case in 'Le charme': banal people have banal sub-consciousnesses.
In order to begin to appreciate Bunuel I had to immerse myself in his milieu, so foreign was his sensibility to the usual expectations I had brought with me into a movie theater.
It took me several viewings to get the 'jokes' if 'Le charme'. The Ambassador from some obscure Latin American country ('Miranda', or 'wonder', a nod to Shakespeare), supports this little microcosm of comfortable Parisian bourgeois respectability with cocaine smuggled in diplomatic pouches. Guests arrive for a dinner party on the wrong evening, and interrupt the hosts having sex. A wake is being held in the back room of the restaurant they are planning to dine at. Ice cubes for martinis must be 'exactly zero degrees'. Elegant ladies sit down for a fashionable afternoon tea, only to be told by their waiter that the restaurant has run out of water (?!!). A soldier then comes to their table and relates his parricidal dream, while the polite ladies listen to him unfazed. One of the ladies discreetly slips away for an assignation with another one's husband. Only Bunuel!
Doubtless the inspiration for this film comes from the Latin Bunuel's lifetime of experience observing the French in situ. Much of its fun comes from simply watching the French be so . . . French. And there is no bourgeois like a French bourgeois!
Much of 'Le Charme' takes place in the nightmares of its characters: you are sitting down for a dinner being hosted by a general, only to realize that you are on stage (with a prompter giving a cue from Don Juan: 'Invite the commander's ghost for dinner!'); your elegant dinner party is broken up by a gang of thugs looking to kill you. However, you are so wedded to the ceremony of the dinner party that you get caught stealing a piece of meat from the table under which you are hiding (and end up dying like a dog!)
I could see this movie a hundred times and always find something new. I would never be bored by it.
Bunuel is very funny, but he is also dense and difficult. One doesn't realize the true complexity of his films because they all seem so effortless. Nothing great comes easily. He's like great Bordeaux: you can't quaff it -- it demands to be sipped.
Bunuel is famous for having the lowest shoot to take ratio of any filmmaker, less than 2:1. Second takes were rare (compare with the reams that end up on the cutting room floor for the typical Spielberg film.) He knew exactly what he wanted to see before he shot. Hitchcock, a director who resembles Bunuel in many ways, famously referred to actors as 'cattle'. For Bunuel, they were probably more like toy soldiers. This isn't to say that he didn't get brilliant performances out of them, especially from his screen alter-ego, the wonderful Fernando Rey.
Henry Miller dubbed his good friend Luis Bunuel "The Last Heretic". I can't think of a higher compliment. Bunuel's memoirs, 'My Last Sigh', are a must read for anyone who wants to have an appreciation of Paris in the 20s, the of art in the last century, and martinis, made as they should be, with gin.
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