Spanish-born surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel made three of his most popular and critically acclaimed movies right at the very end of his career, as a septuagenarian. After returning to France under the patronage of respected film producer Serge Silberman for his 1964 film “The Diary of a Chambermaid” (substantial stints in Spain and the United States having previously led him to working exclusively in the Mexican film industry in and throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, where he became a key player in the establishment of the country’s golden age of cinema) the unique, disruptive, challenging sensibility which first astonished the world in Paris in 1929, when, in collaboration with artist Salvador Dali he directed the ground-breaking 16 minute surrealist short “Un Chien andalou” then followed it with the even more revolutionary “L’âge d’or” (1930), seemed to reassert itself with a vengeance once the veteran began collaborating with genius French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who was introduced to him by Silberman and proceeded to work on almost all his remaining films.
“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” is the first of the loose trilogy of freeform, anti-narrative pictures which proved to be Buñuel’s last hurrah, supplying a full stop to his reputation as an iconoclastic scourge of the pillars of the privileged establishment he himself always remained a part of: this reputation was founded on a cinema which somehow sought to amalgamate the worlds of Sigmund Freud, Buster Keaton and Fritz Lang, marshalling a rich stew of imagery and theory which addressed with absurdist humour and affecting dream logic (and an uncommon delicacy of touch) the underlining psychology, neuroses and repressions so structural to the power relations which Buñuel portrayed as the dominating tropes of western capitalist society.
The conceptual idea for “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” was born in an incident which apparently involved Silberman in a real-life socially embarrassing situation that came about after a number of guests turned up at his house one evening while he was out, expecting a dinner party to be held there that night. It transpired that Silberman had completely forgotten all about the arrangement, and had not even informed his wife, who had already gone to bed when the unexpected guests suddenly arrived at the door. A version of this anecdote becomes the starting point for Buñuel’s whimsical dreamlike satire on the pointless social rituals and petty snobberies which adorn the mass of unconscious irrational drives and unvoiced fears and hang-ups which are shown in the film to define the collective experience of an informal group of bourgeois contemporaries. It starts innocuously enough, with businessman M. Thévenot (Paul Frankeur) arriving at the house of his colleague Henri Sénéchal (Jean-Pierre Cassel), accompanied by his wife Simone (Delphine Seyrig – of “Last Year at Marienbad” and “Daughters of Darkness” fame), her sister Florence (Bulle Ogier) and an associate of the two men, Rafael Acosta (Buñuel regular Fernando Rey), ambassador of the obscure Latin American Republic of Miranda. The party discovers Henri is absent, and that his wife Alice (Stéphane Audran) is home alone with her maid Ines (Milena Vukotic) and just about to turn off the lights and go to bed. It turns out that she and her husband were expecting their friends on the following evening; somehow their dates have been mixed up, and Mme Sénéchal has nothing at all prepared she can give her friends to eat.
The group elects to visit a favourite bistro recommended by M. Thévenot for a late-night supper instead, inviting Alice to come along with them. But they arrive to discover the doors of the establishment firmly locked, although the waitress who answers their persistent knocking insists that the restaurant is still open for business and has merely recently undergone a ‘change of management’. The group insists on entering anyway, despite the seeming reluctance of the staff to wait on them and the cheapness of the menu prices compared to their previous visits (suggesting the establishment is now beneath them socially) -- but just before they settle down to eat, strange sobbing noises coming from an adjoining room alerts the assembled party of diners to the bizarre discovery that a funerary wake is in progress mere feet away from their table: the proprietor has recently died and his body is still being displayed in an open casket! This uncomfortable intrusion of the stark fact of the inevitability of death on their social engagement causes an immediate loss of appetite among the party, despite assurances from the staff that the quality of their meal will be entirely unaffected. The friends promptly leave …
This extended sequence sets the pattern for the rest of the film, in which repeated attempts by this bourgeois group of friends to dine in each other’s company, either at the Sénéchals’ house or at other events or establishments, are continually frustrated, interrupted or displaced by other activity, so that the assembly is never able to fulfil its true purpose. The dinner party was also the centrepiece of Buñuel’s Mexican-made film “The Exterminating Angel” in which the guests at a lavish function find themselves unable to leave the room at the end of the event. The tone of this particular movie, though, remains that of a light breezy French farce; the characters are airy, often funny and mostly likable -- despite the revelation early on that the three males, Thévenot, Sénéchal and Acosta, are all involved in a drugs smuggling cartel together. The style of the movie gives it the whimsical ambience of a comedy of manners, but the events depicted become increasingly strange and the incessant roll call of interruptions include a series of odd dreams, which are sometimes related to the assembly by some outside party while at other times a whole sequence of events turns out to have been dreamt by one of the main characters.
As the film progresses, some of its happenings are even discovered to have been a dream dreamt within a dream -- with one character waking with a start and discovering that he has just been dreaming that another of the group had dreamt one of the earlier events in the fractured, episodic narrative; this includes the final sequence – which makes the whole film a rich, open-ended, free associative account capable of endlessly reconfigurable interpretations. The episodic structure, the film’s nested dream-within-dream device and a recurring symbolic image -- itself dreamlike in that it has no narrative connection to the rest of the film -- of the group trekking across an open roadway to nowhere, in a picturesque area of the French countryside (a landmark in the background never seems to vary in distance, and sometimes the party is walking away from it while at other moments they appear to be moving towards it) all combine to create Buñuel’s classic film-as-Freudian-dream-work stylisation, in which a series of film genres, including satirical comedy, light farce and even Gothic horror, are commandeered for a playful psychoanalytic exercise which proceeds by mimicking dream mechanisms the unconscious uses, according to Freudian psychoanalytic theory, for evading and displacing uncomfortable truths.
Here though, Buñuel’s targets are the shared, collective illusions which form the unquestioned conventions of society, rather than those of the individual unconscious of any one character in the film. At the same time, the director’s use of such familiar, sometimes hackneyed Freudian tropes in order to elaborate the hypocrisies and complacencies of Bourgeois society, can equally be seen as a satirical dig at the Viennese iconoclast himself: one of the recurring motifs of the film involves everyone, from dinner party guests to army officers, depicted as being uncommonly fascinated by the subject of dreams, the recounting of which becomes merely a form of dinner party entertainment. When a platoon of soldiers on maneuverers unaccountably invade the Sénéchals’ house during one of their aborted soirées, the colonel requests one of his men recount a dream for the guests about meeting the ghost of his mother (on a street which is clearly just a deliberately poorly painted stage set) as a kind of payment for interrupting their meal. Earlier, the three women in the group had attempted to take afternoon tea in a posh tearoom which, for some reason, had nothing on the menu but water, when they were approached by a young soldier who also insisted on recounting a dream, also about the ghost of his dead mother, who emerges from the closet in his bedroom to inform him that his father is an imposter who murdered his real father in a duel, and that he must now poison and kill this imposter as revenge.
Political corruption, organised religion (and the inherent, self-serving emptiness maintained by its social platitudes) along with the smug sense of entitlement wielded by Patriarchal authority in general are all connected here in a web of intertwining side-narratives designed to highlight how their complicit, reinforcing natures are occluded by social expectancy, petty social snobberies and the ridiculous conventions which a constant threat of social embarrassment helps keep fixed in place: Acosta threatens a pretty female student terrorist from his homeland (who he believes has intent to assassinate him) by firing a rifle he keeps in the corner of his plush office, at the windup toys she sells in the street outside his embassy building while keeping tabs on his movements; the image is repeated later in the film when the Catholic Bishop, monsignor Dufour (Julien Bertheau), who has cast aside his cassock to work as the Sénéchals’ gardener, discovers that the dying man who had the same gardening job at the house before him, murdered the Bishop’s parents years earlier. After blessing him on his death bed in a warehouse at a nearby farm, the Bishop picks up a discarded rifle and shoots the repentant man dead without a thought.
After their first queasy encounter with the reality of death at the closed restaurant near the start of the film, the flimsiness of mortality becomes a constant taunting threat for the party of friends; it hangs over proceedings throughout the rest of the picture thanks to the constant re-occurrence in the skittering narrative of various dreamlike phantoms and ghostly manifestations (including that of a right wing police Commissaire [François Maistre] who previously died during a student riot he was suppressing, and who’s ghost later returns to free the group from a prison cell after they are arrested for no apparent reason during another of their failed get-togethers at the Sénéchals’ house) which are accompanied by frequent expressions of murderous desire, concealed by polite manners until they break out in scenes of sudden and unexpected violence. The friends' unvoiced fear that retribution will one day be visited upon them for the corruption they vainly couch in their ritualistic good manners and their refined class-bound conventions centred on the preparation of food or the correct way to drink a dry martini etc., eventually takes the guise of Acosta’s climactic dream in which the whole party is machine-gunned to death over dinner by Latin American Guerrillas from his own Republic, and his hiding place under the table getting exposed when greed means he can’t resist reaching out and snatching an extra piece of meat from the dining table! For despite the relentless parade of increasingly outlandish occurrences (barely even registered as strange by any of the characters) which continue to interrupt their gatherings, the unconscious irrational drives governing human behaviour, such as Acosta’s inability to resist laying bare his hiding place for one last morsel of food, are suggested as the primary agents of the entire party’s constant state of discord and distress -- with the veneer of ritual and polite social manners being their vain attempt to impose order and meaning on their world; an order brutally exposed as illusory in one famous dream episode in which the party of friends suddenly finds itself seated on stage in a theatre before a baying crowd that catcalls them for not being able to remember their lines.
Comic depictions of l’amour fou are Buñuel’s favourite device for illustrating characters driven to behavioural absurdity by their own unwonted and uncontrollable desires; the group make fun of their working-class chauffeur for his rough-hewn manners, and the Sénéchals’ snobbishly turn away the Bishop from their door when he shows up in his working mans’ gardening clothes (while hypocritically fawning over him the minute he dons his cassock) yet the behaviour of the friends is always ruled by their own Freudian sexual excesses, whether it be the Sénéchals’ delaying a dinner party to go and make love in the garden while their guests inside become increasingly more paranoid about the reason for the delay, or Acosta flirting with the female terrorist at gunpoint before he has her met outside the embassy by trench-coated heavies, presumably to be spirited away and disposed of discreetly without causing social embarrassment – which is the way Buñuel’s bourgeoisie likes to go about its business.
The director’s tone is always one of amused resignation at ingrained human folly; the feel of the movie is indeed that of a light farce driven by a concatenation of absurd events and narrative ellipses, hinting, in a comedy sketch-like way, at the constant connectedness of human desire, politics and repression -- and their inviolate intractability. The film comes to DVD in a mostly handsome new HD transfer which is variable in terms of the quality of the source print but which, at its best, attains very pleasing levels of extra clarity in comparison to the previously released (but now discontinued) studio canal region 2 DVD versions. There is also a new DVD version (available separately) released alongside this, but the Blu-ray features German and English dubbed language tracks (an acquired taste) as well as the French original with clear and removable subtitles. The only extra is a 35 minute monologue to camera by Peter William Evans, author of ‘The Films of Luis Buñuel: Subjectivity and Desire’ who, despite a somewhat faltering lecture style, manages to convey a great deal of information on Buñuel’s influences, his career trajectory after his first films in Paris with Dali, and the circumstances under which the film in question got made when the director was, by this time, in to his early-seventies; as well as this, Evans is good on providing a fairly astute summation and analysis of the film’s highly subjective and open-ended content. He also talks about Buñuel’s influence on other modern filmmakers in the years since his death, which includes a range of diverse talents, from Pedro Almodóvar to Woody Allen and Walt Stillman.
“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” remains a distinctive, timeless piece of filmmaking, full of playful comic exuberance and occasional images which continue to provoke over forty years since the film’s original release. It’s a masterpiece which fully deserves to be preserved and cherished in the best form technology allows, and this Blu-ray edition will be a welcome addition to any cineaste’s collection.