“…a writer or painter cannot change the world. But they can keep an essential margin of nonconformity alive… The final sense of my films is this: to repeat, over and over again, in case anyone forgets it or believes to the contrary, that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.”–Luis Buñuel, 1973
DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel
PLOT: Two well-to-do couples arrive at the home of a third for dinner, but find there has been a misunderstanding on the date, and their hostess has not prepared a meal. The sextet tries to reschedule dinner over and over, but meets with increasingly absurd obstacles: dead restaurateurs, a platoon of soldiers who intrude on the evening, police officers who burst in and arrest the entire party before the first course. Complicating the scenario further is a bishop who imposes himself on their party, flashback ghost stories told by minor characters, a subplot about an ambassador smuggling cocaine and being hunted by a female terrorist assassin, and scenes that turn out to be dreams.
- Buñuel had announced that he would retire after Tristana (1971), but was inspired to make this movie by a story his producer Serge Silberman told him about having dinner guests show up unexpectedly due to a calendar mix-up.
- Co-written by Surrealist screenwriting specialist
- Among other honors, Discreet Charm won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (an indifferent Buñuel did not bother to show up to accept the award) and is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
- Stephen Sondheim has a musical based on both The Exterminating Angel and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in the works.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Shots of the six bourgeois friends, walking down an isolated country road, inserted at random between scenes. Their stride is purposeful, their destination… nowhere.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dinner theater; bishop with a shotgun; electrified piano cockroach torture
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: exercise in bourgeois frustration begins simply, with a canceled dinner appointment, but quickly spirals out of control with a cocaine smuggling subplot, a foxy female terrorist, a vengeful bishop, and dreams inside of dreams. They never do get to that dinner party, although Fernando Rey does get to sneak in a slice of lamb and a midnight snack.
Original trailer for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
COMMENTS: Luis Buñuel is cinema’s poet of frustration, of eternal becoming, of can’t. Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a movie where friends repeatedly sit down to dinner but never eat, inverts The Exterminating Angel, where the bourgeoisie throw a dinner party that they can never leave. The characters in L’Age D’Or and That Obscure Object of Desire can never consummate their passion; every attempt is interrupted. Viridiana‘s charitable impulses all end in disaster; no net good results from the novice’s beneficent intentions, and she sinks into degradation. In Un Chien Andalou a man tries to reach a woman but finds himself held back because he is lugging a two pianos, themselves burdened with dead donkeys and clerics. Rare is the character in a Buñuel film who reaches a goal or finds satisfaction; life in a Buñuel film is a game of endless pursuit of an ever-receding prize.
Buñuel is the poet of dreams, and even when he is not explicitly depicting dreams, his cinema of becoming resembles a dream. Dreams are about desires, not fulfillments. Buñuel is too often pigeonholed as a Marxist political filmmaker, based largely on the pro-proletariat, pre-Exterminating Angel films of his Mexican middle period. But his great contribution to the world of film is not his leftist political satires, but his deep understanding of the unconscious mind, and how its mysteries could be captured and translated into moving images and stories. Late in his life politics—at least, big “P” politics— decayed in importance in his movies, as he returned to the psychological concerns of his youthful Surrealist period. The hatred of the bourgeoisie that animated the savage Exterminating Angel—which depicts the upper classes as barely restrained cannibals—had mellowed into mere amusement with their antics in his silver years.
Wouldn’t ‘t it be typical of Buñuel, who loved to tweak the critics and notoriously hated their analysis of his films, to include the word “bourgeoisie” in the title of his film as a red herring? The upper-class satire gives critics something comfortable to latch on to and to discuss; they can be sure Buñuel is not just being “weird for the sake of weird,” that there’s a ‘political purpose” to the weirdness that gives it “meaning” and justifies it. Of course, mocking the upper crust (like the Catholic Church) was in Buñuel’s DNA, and little jokes and jibes inevitably sneak into all of his films. But the direct assaults on the bourgeoisie here could fill a fat thimble. There is the bit where the assembled friends humiliate a clueless chauffeur for not savoring a martini properly, and the scene where a couple kick a bishop (what would a Buñuel movie be without a bishop?) out of their house when he is dressed as a gardener, then embrace and revere him when he returns in his vestments. Fernando Rey says that no system can give the lower classes the proper social graces, while his host and hostess are ignoring their guests to make noisy love in the garden.
But these obvious pokes at the bourgeoisie occupy only the first third of the film; as things get more and more absurd, they are increasingly left behind. Buñuel almost seems to be humanizing and sympathizing with his characters as he puts them through increasingly surreal scenarios. Things begin to change as the three ladies sit down to lunch in a café which, Monty Python cheese shop style, is out of tea, coffee, or any other drink they order. A young soldier, a complete stranger, comes to their table and tells them a macabre story about how he murdered his stepfather at the urging of his mother’s ghost. The women do not find this at all odd. But what does it have to do with the bourgeois satire? Soldiers invade their dinner party, and one relates a dream at the urging of his superior officer. The next thing we know, their friends next attempt to dine together actually tuns out to be a dream. Then there’s a digression where the interloping bishop gives last rites to his parent’s murderers, and a scene of police station torture—on Bloody Sergeant’s day, no less. The film turns from an on-the-nose satire of class hypocrisy into a completely irrational series of dream sketches. Buñuel is clearly having private a joke at the expense of his audience, leading us to expect one type of movie and then pulling the rug out from under us; but he does it with such charm and wit that we feel energized and curious, not betrayed.
In his seventies, Buñuel confided to Carlos Fuentes that “I believe that the class struggle is no longer the central social problem.” He had seen too much hypocrisy to confine human folly to a single scapegoat The characters here are bourgeois, for sure, but they are not discreetly charming. The best we can say is that he finds their dilemma amusing, when seen from an abstract existential distance. He might as sensibly called the film the Facile Curiosity of the Bourgeoisie, or the Apparent Impishness of the Bourgeoisie, or the Flimsy Brassieres of the Bourgeoisie, or perhaps even the Andalusian Dogs of the Bourgeoisie. It is not their bourgeoisness that prevents the sextet from sharing a meal. The idea proposed by a few critics that the dinner party is a bourgeois institution worthy of scorn is ludicrous—as if poor people did not dine together, or Buñuel himself always ate and drank alone, never enjoying the companionship of his friends over a meal. The well that Buñuel draws his comedy from is infinite unfillable human desire, that dissatisfaction and yearning for more that comes out in dreams. That the eternal non-diners just happen to be pompous upper-class twist only makes for a better joke.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…, perhaps it has now slightly lost its special strangeness, but ‘The Discreet Charm’ remains both an amusing satire on polite society and a tricksy exercise in pulling the rug out from under our expectations.”–Dave Calhoun, Time Out London
“Luis Buñuel’s surreal masterpiece from 1972, co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière, is stranger and more sensual than ever. The weirdness under the conventions throbs even more insistently and indiscreetly, now that those conventions themselves are historically distant.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
“Time is banished here, as politics intrude, death knocks, circumstances are misperceived and dreams are tethered to dreams within dreams. There is no through-line to a perceivable start and the Möbius strip of it all happens to be Buñuel at his most blatantly, accessibly fun.”–Wesley Morris, The San Francisco Examiner
IMDB LINK: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) – The Criterion Collection – Includes the trailer, an article on screenwriter
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie Movie Review (1972) | Roger Ebert – Ebert’s essay on the film for his “Great Movies” series
Le Charme Discret De La Bourgeoisie – Film (Movie) Plot and Review – A very thorough bibliography of the film, with a short article by critic Robin Wood
Spain, Catholicism, Surrealism, Anarchy – The complete text of the Carlos Fuentes portrait of Buñuel excerpted in the Criterion Collection essay (from the March 11, 1973 edition of The New York Times)
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – Melissa Acker’s Dec. 2013 essay on the film for Senses of Cinema, focusing on Discreet Charm‘s methodology of interruption
‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ | Critics’ Picks | The New York Times – NYT critic A.O. Scott’s short video review of the film
LIST CANDIDATE: THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE – Otto Black’s original article for this site
“Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” – Collection of academic essays on the film from Cambridge University Press
DVD INFO: The out-of-print, but still readily available 2002 Criterion Collection 2-DVD set (buy) includes the trailer and two documentaries on Buñuel: the shorter focuses a good bit on the director making his beloved martinis and other cocktails, while the longer one, 2000’s Speaking of Buñuel, occupies the second disc. Prices can vary wildly for this set but we last saw it priced at around $30.00.
In 2013 the rights reverted to Studio Canal, who put out an region-free, extras-free DVD-R of the film (buy), which is available at about half the price of a used Criterion set.
Discreet Charm seems long overdue for a Region A Blu-ray upgrade. Europeans and those with multi-region players can avail themselves of a German disk with no advertised special features (buy).
Discreet Charm can also be rented or purchased digitally on-demand (buy or rent).