For as long as civilized society has welcomed and relished the opportunity to be uncivilized, gnawing and sniping at the lower classes like pigs jostling in hot mud, there have been great artists to satirize and make farcical their very mannered antipathy. Drawing from Jean Renoir’s WWII comedy The Rules Of The Game (1939) and Patrick Hamilton’s tart, nihilistic Hangover Square (published 1941), Luis Buñuel’s own social satire, The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, takes place within the realm of dreams, navigating the dark cranial tissue of six wealthy middle-class friends who throughout the film’s course attempt to be seated and dine together, only to find themselves disrupted by increasingly absurd and surreal events – from military manoeuvres to political assassinations.
The screenplay, co-written by Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (their third collaboration, of six), is ostensibly the director’s most fragmentary and difficult, mingling dream and reality like coco and cream in an oversized melting pot, creating an indefinable yet luxuriant taste. In execution, however, the film is much more accessible, taking as its dramatic foundation the scheming politicians of the Republic of Miranda (a fictionalized city teeming with corruption and scandal), their interpersonal relationships and affairs, and through them discusses themes of sex and marriage, revolution and dissolution, faith and politics.
The Sénéchal’s, Alice and Henri (Stéphane Audran and Jean-Pierre Cassel) are our hosts. Their guests are Ambassador Rafael Acosta (Fernando Rey), diplomat for the fascist-run central American of Miranda, who’d “even be a socialist, if socialists believed in God”, Mr. and Mrs. Thévenot (Paul Frankeur and Delphine Seyrig), the former Rafael’s partner in crime (they’re smuggling heroin into the city), the latter his secret lover, and the floozy Florence (Bulle Ogier), Mrs. Thévenot’s sister. Oh, and also accompanying the party is a Bishop played by the great Michel Piccoli, who offers to the Sénéchal’s his services as a gardener (with dubious motive).
Before considering the technical and artistic achievements of Discreet Charm, it’s perhaps of interest to place the film within the context of Buñuel’s own life. Shot in his 72nd year, the director would have undoubtedly been in reflective spirit at this time, and perhaps even saw the film as a chance to re-write his own history. Buñuel’s parents were fairly well-to-do, and his artistic education focused at the prestigious Residencia de Estudiantes University (where his classmates included Salvador Dalí and Federico García Lorca), but as he grew up – during WWI, just as Discreet Charm’s Miranda is teetering on the brink of war from political turpitude and scandal – he rejected both the class system of his parents and their strict Jesuit faith, in his films explicitly mocking distorted bourgeoisie values and organized religion. The Sénéchal’s live a liberated life, and have no kids – but Buñuel was the oldest of seven children. It would seem that Buñuel is ready to demolish the standards of the bourgeoisie, but only once he has detached himself from its delusion, when he can no longer see himself in its superficial glaze.
It would have been far too easy for Buñuel and Carrière to paint the bourgeoisie as vile, debased creatures – like those of Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), for example – so instead they crafted six blindly conceited human begins, flawed as any of us, who give into nature’s impulse (romping and rolling in the hydrangeas when they should be hosting a dinner party) and, as a result, have their values unveiled as worthless. The bourgeoisie here are polite in a Dorian Gray kind of way, their civility crumbling whenever their very ordered lives go awry; when mixed up dates on a calendar force them to eat out at a public inn, and Mrs. Sénéchal remarks, in deliciously throwaway fashion, “It’s not expensive here!” These are simply people to whom material values mean more than moral ones, and for that Buñuel places them under the microscope and prods at their most wonderful façade. The film’s dream structure, however, allows Buñuel to suggest that the bourgeoisie will eventually eat themselves, and that with a little tear in their seemingly perfect fabric, they will fall apart, and be dragged down to “our” level (the lower classes). This class fear exposure. They fear that their friends will one day discover what frauds and phonies they are, and that they will be denounced as naked emperors of a corrupt kingdom. Their dreams personify these fears in different forms, and on each occasion the bourgeoisie let themselves slip in an attempt to keep up appearances, to look out for themselves – Rafael’s reaching for the last slice of meat on his plate, for example, and revealing his position to the terrorists from whom he is hiding under the dining table.
The film became Buñuel’s most acclaimed work winning him the 1972 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (“nothing would disgust me more morally than winning an Oscar”), and still the film is held in high regard by critics, often cited as his best by academics and historians (it’s not unusual to see the film mentioned in the same breath as 1929′s Un Chien Andalou, co-directed by Buñuel and Dalí). I can’t quite get on-board with that idea – for me, 1969′s La voie lactée, which had it starred John Cleese and Eric Idle would easily have passed for a Python film, has the bite which this one doesn’t, and satirizes class and religious systems with a much greater, more absurd zeal – but it does remain one of the most fascinating and witty films of the 1970s. Roger Ebert, in his original review of Discreet Charm, describes Buñuel as “the most pessimistic of filmmakers, the most negative, certainly the most cynical”, and in that regard, this might be the film most emblematic of the director’s worldview, and his approach to what cinema could – and should – be. It’s dark and bizarre, shocking at times (the first soldier’s flashback is astonishing; a face at a window, without wanting to spoil too much, is undoubtedly an image which will haunt me forever), and has myriad layers ripe for dissection, but for me the film just felt like the diluted version of The Exterminating Angel or La voie lactée. It’s probably for this reason that it did so well in the mainstream, and found Buñuel accepted into the establishment. His rejection of them was to be expected. After all, rejection of authority, of class or ranking systems, is what Discreet Charm is all about…
How’s the picture and sound?
Perfectly acceptable, though frankly the film deserves better. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get my hands on the Blu-Ray, which might make some significant improvements, but the DVD restoration bears little improvement over StudioCanal’s previous release of Discreet Charm, as part of 2006′s Buñuel Collection, and the image retains some fading from that iteration. This may well be down to irrevocable print damage, but given the lack of extras also, this package feels like more of an unnecessary retread than a celebratory, 40th anniversary re-release. Some scenes are much cleaner than others, but it shouldn’t affect your overall enjoyment of the film, and the crisp sound mix makes up for it a little.
Accompanying the original theatrical trailer there’s a 34-minute critical analysis by Peter William Evans, author of The Films Of Luis Buñuel: Subjectivity And Desire. To be perfectly honest, Evans appears a reticent commentator, and although his observations are interesting, and his passion for Buñuel very apparent, it can be a tedious watch. It’s a shame that the 2006 doc A Walk In The Shadows hasn’t been ported over from the aforementioned collection; it would have at least bulked the package out a little bit. The opportunity for a commentary definitely feels missed too. For a film so valued by critics and scholars, the package is surprisingly vanilla.
Frequently hailed as Buñuel’s masterpiece, The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie might not hit the dizzying heights of Un Chien Andalou or The Exterminating Angel, but its fluidity, black wit and consistency of vision, combined with some excellent performances, mean that it’s definitely worth a watch.
Extra Features Rating:
When’s it out?
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is out now