Recently I wondered what it would entail to “épater la bourgeoisie” today in 2010. I have a hard time locating the bourgeoisie that the 19th century Decadent poets wished to shock. Here in North America, it seems they are a species that generally lives in suburbs (though more and more their children are urbanites); they grow into adulthood setting their sights on marriage/monogamy, home ownership, and raising children. Sometimes they ennoble their own opinions and lifestyle habits in the form of a regularly updated weblog of narratives or witty aperçus.
In fact, middle class-ness is so repeatedly defined in terms of these life goals that it seems hard to believe there could be a decadent off-shoot. But the dancing girls in this “superbitch” video, talking of champers, under-30 nightclubs, and men with money is a good snapshot of the road leading to an ordinary life. A sort of starter-bourgeoisie. They are sporting in some cases very bohemian styles of dress; but what they’re really after, they’re saying, is piles of money, diamonds, champagne, and Hawaii. And following the money, the house, the car, and other conventional features of the family lifestyle can’t be far behind.
In “Metroland” (1997), a film based on Julian Barnes’ novel of the same name, a suburban husband and father, Chris (Christian Bale) is temporarily tempted into a life of sex and drugs when an unmarried poet friend — still decadent and freewheeling in his ways — makes an appearance after a 10-year absence. He questions whether Chris is happy with his decision to settle in suburbia. But the crux of the story also revolves around the figure of the bitch.
In the flashback sequences, Chris is 21 years of age in Paris, and trying to become a photographer, living in a garret, and having a passionate love affair with the openly sexual Frenchwoman Annick (Elsa Zylberstein).
One fine day, he meets Marion from England, his future wife (Emily Watson), but tells her he is firmly set against the bourgeois lifestyle — something she clearly has an interest in pursuing (e.g., settling down with a job and raising children in a single-family home back in England).
But watch closely as Marion’s behaviours toward Chris — measured, controlling, rational — somehow have him losing the French girl and the lifestyle he vowed to keep. He reveals himself to be too yielding and uninteresting to resist the “marriage trap.”
Annick his French lover had already understood his character with very few clues. Even at 21, she spots his essentially bourgeois lack of passion.
Later she will yell at him with her charming French accent, “How rational! How measured, how English you are!”
Marion perhaps knows something — even something distinctly bourgeois — that lands her the man and lifestyle she has always wanted. Is it mere bourgeois strategy, cold, goal-oriented, and calculated?
I suspect that this is a species of mothering superbitch that the “marrying kind” of middle-class man really wants. This is what “Metroland” would have us believe. It reminds me a little of the book, “Why Men Love Bitches: From Doormat To Dreamgirl.”
Of course, too much of the bourgeois life invites longing for an escape—as is the case for the wife in Claude Chabrol’s “La Femme Infidele.”
What do the bourgeoisie do when too tired to have sex? They read novels of course, the literary form that has repeatedly been declared bourgeois. For the socialist, pseudo-bourgeois character in Whit Stillman’s 1988 film “Metropolitan,” you don’t even have to have read a novel to form an opinion of it. He reads the critics instead.
One wants poetry, perhaps — to get to the heart of the matter without bothering with all the narrative, all the life goals, or indeed all the discreet charm.
I often feel that way — I almost never read novels these days. My novelist friends admit they don’t read them either. Too bourgeois.
- Nyla Matuk