Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

The Picaro in Paris: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and the Picaresque Tradition

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

The Picaro in Paris: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and the Picaresque Tradition

Article excerpt

Digression is my way of telling a story, a little like the Spanish picaresque novel.

-Bunuel, Mi ultimo suspiro1

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) is the middle film in a trilogy that starts with The Milky Way (1969) and ends with The Phantom of Liberty (1974). Both the first and third films fall clearly within the picaresque tradition. Milky Way involves the improbable adventures of a pair of pilgrims traveling on the road to Santiago, while Phantom's meandering plot line follows the casual encounters of a host of characters.

The picaresque elements in Discreet Charm are not as immediately striking as those in Milky Way and Phantom, and apart from the country-road leitmotif, these elements have been almost entirely overlooked in the criticism. Yet, as an essential part of the film's image of life as a "confused labyrinth" (Maravall, La Cultura del Barroco 317), picaresque elements provide the film with a tone and a structure of meaning that do much to explain its peculiar appeal. This article examines Discreet Charm in relation to the conventions of the picaresque genre and the baroque mentality it embodies. I will emphasize the role of Rafael, the picaresque protagonist, arguing that he is a tongue-incheek self portrait of Bunuel-a rogue from a Hispanic country who is the primary dreamer of the film.

Traditional Picaresque

In the classic picaresque novel-Lazarillo de Tormes (1554, anonymous), Gunman de Alfarache (1599, Mateo Aleman), and El buscon (The Swindler, 1626, Francisco de Quevedo-the protagonist (usually a he) often does not know where he will get his next meal. Yet, despite his extreme poverty, he has social pretensions. Aware that hard work will do nothing to advance his cause, he relies on disguise and trickery to improve his station. He keeps on moving to stay ahead of the law, which brings him to a variety of settings and in contact with social types who often tell him their stories. The picaresque novel, then, takes the form of a pseudo-autobiography, loosely structured to accommodate any number of episodes in the life of a small-time con man in search of his big chance. This search is repeatedly frustrated and, inevitably, even though the picaro's misadventures are amusing, the view of society he presents is bleak.

The inception of the picaresque in the sixteenth century is usually explained by the "consciousness of crisis" (Maravell, La picaresca desde 11) brought about by the social, cultural, and psychological changes associated with early modernity: the emergence of the individual, the loss of a sense of community, and the recognition of social injustice as manmade rather than God-given. In Spain this situation was exacerbated by the absence of a strong middle class, a scorn for work, an exaggerated respect for honor fostered by the centuries-long Reconquest of the peninsula from the Arabs, and, finally, by the "clean-blood" statutes, which stigmatized all known descendants of Arabs and Jews even if they had converted to Christianity. For these reasons, Claudio Guillen links the emergence and resurgences of the picaresque with "days of irony and discouragement [that] disclose an awareness of civilization as oppression" (105).

The Picaresque Chez Bunuel

Discreet Charm is usually considered surrealist, but the marriage of the picaresque and the surreal here is not as ill sorted as it seems. Although surrealism ignores the material fact so essential to the picaresque, both share concerns critical to this film: an anxiety about freedom, an awareness of the oppressive nature of social institutions, and an insistence on the central role of chance. It could be argued that in writing Le Payson de Paris, Aragon was simply adapting the picaro's adventures to the more restricted itinerary of the flaneur.

Clearly, Discreet Charm is not "straight" picaresque. The plot turns on the efforts of a group of well-heeled friends to get together for dinner over a period of about two weeks. …

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