Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (1972) – Friday Classic review
Whilst dinnertime descends into surrealist ennui for the guests, the audience gets to feast on Buñuel’s richly mischievous imagination for the duration.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
(Luis Buñuel, Fr, 1972)
The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie is a film about food (or, rather, the lack of it). Sex and death – the surrealists’ favourites – are pretty much sidelined to making cameo appearances, whilst the dining experience takes centre stage…literally, at one point. Just about everything happens during the (ahem) course of Buñuel’s surrealist classic, except that his characters cannot get their food eaten.
It’s a very funny concept to play out an entire film on the characters’ discreet acceptance of the continual interruptions to their consumption, but also a brave one. Unlike the director’s 1962 hit The Exterminating Angel, where the difficulty lay in maintaining a single focus, here the opposite is true. Faced with the task of maintaining audience interest, it’s amazing how much variety Buñuel comes up with for the interruptions.
[Intriguingly, this was one of Buñuel’s first films since Monty Python. Whilst it’s probably a stretch to declare a direct influence – after all, the Pythons were themselves long term devotees of Buñuel – it’s weird how much the comedy of Discreet Charm resembles theirs. The structure is almost sketch-based…or a surrealist variety show, where each new flourish of eccentricity is marked by the ringing of a bell or a phone. And some scenes – like the tea room that doesn’t serve any drinks – are dead ringers for classics from the Python repertoire.]
The result is one of the most wildly unpredictable films ever made. No matter that much of it is contained in dream sequences (which, if this were a conventional narrative, would be considered cheating): the sheer delight of anticipation and discovery remains constant. The storytelling sleight-of-hand, far from being a cop-out, allows an ongoing re-evaluation of events, characters and the relationships between them.
The film’s probing of the characters’ discreet charm is undoubtedly helped by its fluid, elegant camerawork, constantly circling the characters or switches point-of-view: everyone is in Buñuel’s sights. The calm gentility of the surface gives it the feel of prestige, bourgeois cinema – but of course that’s half the joke.
Are his targets obvious? Buñuel spent most of his career taking potshots at the bourgeoisie (and its partner-in-crime, the clergy) so maybe some of his vitriol had dissipated by the 1970s. But, despite its accessibility as absurdist comedy, it’s hardly affectionate. If anything, the anger is muted by an (ironic) sense of tragedy at how the bourgeoisie, complacent and unquestioning, remains frozen in stasis, doomed to forever wander the roads in search of a meal. It’s as if Buñuel can’t quite believe that, after all these years, his quarry still isn’t listening to him.