The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

Dinner dates never happen in Buñuel’s playfully witty, absurdist satire

Director: Luis Buñuel

Cast: Fernando Rey (Rafael Acosta), Paul Frankeur (François Thévenot), Delphine Seyrig (Simone Thévenot), Bulle Ogier (Florence Thévenot), Stéphane Audran (Alice Sénéchal), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Henri Sénéchal), Julien Bertheau (Monsignor Dufour), Milena Vukotic (Inès), Claude Piéplu (The Colonel), Maria Gabriella Maione (Terrorist), Muni (Peasant), Michel Piccoli (Interior Minister), Pierre Maguelon (Brigadier Sanglant), François Maistre (Commissaire Delecluze)

Six very bourgeoisie Parisian friends try to have dinner; but circumstances keep getting in the way. Circumstances that become increasingly bizarre, surreal and absurdist and half of which may or may not be dreams (or even dreams within dreams). This is the jumping off point for Buñuel’s engagingly light and witty, but also profound, intriguing and defying interpretation. The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie. In the hands of a dogmatic artist, it would be heavy-handed trash: in Buñuel’s it maintains a playfulness making it entertainingly (if at times infuriatingly) mystifyingly unreadable.

Those six friends are a shallow, self-obsessed bunch who talk the snobby talk of class and culture, but their knowledge is skin-deep and their lifestyle funded by cocaine smuggling. That cocaine is trafficked into Paris in the diplomatic bag of Ambassador Rafel Acosta (Fernando Rey), representative of the (fictional) Latin American Republic of Miranda. It’s sold by his friends, François Thévenot (Paul Frankeur) and Henri Sénéchal (Jean-Pierre Cassel), and its these three – along with their wives Alice Sénéchal (Stéphane Audran) and Simeone Thévenot (Delphine Seyrig) and Simone’s sister Florence (Bulle Ogier) – who keep trying to have dinner.

Those dinners are constantly interrupted by a series of increasingly outlandish events, that the guests accept with the sort of blasé insouciance this sort of people pride themselves on. Things escalate on successive nights from Henri forgetting he has invited their guests to dinner, to a dead landlord of a country inn, the Sénéchals slipping out to the garden to have sex, a Bishop (Julien Bertheau) who longs to be a gardener, a café that runs out of tea and coffee, an army division on military manoeuvres, their arrest by the police… That’s not mentioning the onslaught of dreams as the characters imagine yet more meals interrupted by murder, terrorism and even their dining room turning into a stage in front of an audience where they don’t know their lines.

If that sounds pretentious… I suppose that’s fair. But the point is that Buñuel never hectors or overplays his hand. Instead, the film is an absurdist light comedy, a whimsical road-to-nowhere (like the country road we frequently see the six characters walking down in cutaways) that, in its structure, aims to expose the shallowness and hypocrisy of an entire class. Our ‘heroes’ are overwhelmingly concerned, time and again, with their own basest needs – mostly food and sex – and are more than happen to call in a chauffeur so they can mock him for not knowing how to drink a cocktail correctly (doesn’t stop him enjoying the cocktail way more than any of them do). They encapsulate a whole class, concerned only with tucking in and making sure everyone can see they are unshaken by events, no matter how outlandish they seem.

Into this mix, Buñuel throws an astonishing and inventive selection of dreams that increasingly dominate the second half of the film. (And in fact, makes you wonder after a while whether everything we’ve seen in the film is some sort of crazy, unlikely fever dream). Buñuel used to joke he slipped in dreams when he needed to expand a films runtime, but it’s wonderful here how often the dreams comment subtly on the characters and their perceptions of each other: and how little they seem to learn or be aware of the implications of this.

The most surreal dream of all is Henri’s fantasy of entering a house – a house with walls painted with false perspective images of other rooms – where the group encounter rubber food and then a curtain sweeps aside to find an expectant audience watching them. Despite the prompts for their lines, the characters flee in sweaty nervous panic. Do they realise the meaning of this exposure of their sense of unbelonging? You can be sure they don’t.

In fact, in a stroke of daring by Buñuel, they are so remote from understanding this that Henri is in fact having a dream inside François’ dream: as if François can only vicariously confront his fear of unbelonging by dreaming about another man dreaming about it. That worry of mockery and isolation in society is then continued in François’ dream, as he dreams of Henri waking from a dream and arriving at a party at a Colonel’s house where the mockery and ignorance of Rafael’s home country becomes so overbearing, Rafael shoots the Colonel dead. As if, again, François can only imagine being pushed to extremes vicariously.

Perhaps he’s simply jealous of Rafael, who is blatantly conducting an affair with his wife. Rafael’s a man of class, obsessed with greed and lust. He’s also a sneaky coward and a creepy opportunist, not above trying to seduce a female terrorist who tries to kill him (and then having her shipped off by his security when she turns him down). Doesn’t make him different from anyone else: the Thévenots are arrogant upper-classes scorning those below them, Florence a shallow, selfish drunk, the Sénéchals full of hedonistic entitlement.

Buñuel’s film gently deconstructs the code and hypocrisies of this society – with its unspoken rules, strange hierarchies and lusts – not with lectures but with the tools of farcical theatre. The film repeatedly feels like a left-field Cowardian drawing room comedy, mixed with Moliere farce. A cheating wife is interrupted by the sudden arrival of her husband, a Bishop borrows the clothes of a gardener so no one believes he is a priest, sudden entrances and exits constantly interrupt scenes. This is all told with a light, revealing wit: with subtle playing and controlled, skilful direction, we learn about these characters depth (or lack of them) while enjoying the frequently bizarre circumstances.

It doesn’t just touch them either. When the characters are arrested, they are released on the orders of the Interior Minister for reasons that we are don’t hear three times because of traffic noise. Outside noise jumps in at several key points to undermine key information and interrupt events – the characters indifference to this as constant as their general ambivalent uncaring coolness to everything else. It’s also funny.

There are also darker dreams, told by soldiers and police officers, haunted by mauled bodies and murderous consequences. A soldier tells a dream of a ghostly encounter of his dead mother, urging him to avenge the death of his parents (its left unclear if this is a false memory or a dream). A policeman sees a vision of his dead body releasing his prisoners – after an interrogation of a young man that sees a piano transformed into an electric chair.

Not to mention a world where suave class and violence sit side by side. Rafael’s readiness to use guns – shooting a wind-up toy of a terrorist from across the street, his apartment littered with hidden firearms – is matched by the Bishop who mixes forgiveness and revenge for the man who killed his father. Much of this taking place in the classiest and most well-observed of environments.

There are excellent peformances across the board, but this is a triumph from Buñuel. It’s a film that defies easy interpretation and understanding, that wraps its insight up in intriguing, unreadable and bizarre dreams and events which strike a magical balance between both possible and impossible. It explores a whole class and its hypocrisies, but does so in a series of light, even playful, scenes which feel more like light-comedy. It’s the work of an inventive master working with the medium in a unique and unrepeatable way, who can be both surrealist enigma and master of farce. You could watch it multiple times, drawing different shades and interpretations every time.

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