The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

D: Luis Buñuel
S: Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig

The cinematic radicalism and social satire of the original surrealists became diluted quickly. After an initial outpouring of angry avant garde energy which included a strong measure of moral and political critique, the technique of tapping into the dream world to reveal the inner workings of human beings within society became nothing more than a narrative convention used even in Hollywood.

Luis Buñuel was one of the group of surrealist cineastes active during the 1920s and '30s, but following a series of protracted controversies and battles with Church and State, he retired from directing for almost twenty years. When he resurfaced, most of his contemporaries had faded from view or lost themselves to excessive aesthetic obscurity. Some such as Salvador Dali (his co-director on Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L'age d'Ôr (1930)) had abandoned the medium altogether.

Buñuel alone retained the ability to make serious moral and political statements while stretching the limits of the cinema as a communicator of ideas through images arranged in sequence. Working mostly out of Mexico during the 1950s and early '60s, he directed a number of critically and commercially successful films which managed to tackle social issues with a disarming sense of humour and a powerful underlying psychoanalytic awareness of the motivations behind human behaviour.

His return to Europe as a conquering hero was almost aborted following the massive controversy surrounding Cannes Grand Prix winner Viridiana (1961), but in conjunction with French producer Serge Silberman, he spent the last phase of his career working on a series of high profile, internationally financed 'art' films. His touch was less subtle, his anger less palpable, and his shocks less outrageous, but he had become a recognised master of the art and an important influence on European filmmaking.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was his last masterpiece (his third last film). Concerning itself with the questions of social and moral hypocrisy which had always defined his work, it was a playful depiction of the problems which beset a group of well-to-do socialites who attempt to get together for a meal but are constantly interrupted by bizarre events and circumstances.

In common with the films from the earlier period, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is frequently fragmentary and imagistic. Juxtaposition and montage play an important part in Buñuel's methodology. Illogic and discontinuity triumph over conventional narrative structure and occasional flashes of clearly symbolic but unexplained action suggest the intervention of dream states in the waking lives of the characters.

The 'good manners' of these bourgeois socialites are consistantly exposed through revelation of their underlying prejudices: one of them is a South American ambassador who calmly deals in drugs while complainig about the political state of his country. 'Proper' behaviour seems fantastic when the characters' responses to the most outlandish situations are inevitably in obeyance of convention, often in conflict with their actual feelings: an amorous couple refuse to allow their copulation to be interrupted by the arrival of their dinner guests, and are chagrined when the guests leave in embarrassment. The logic of beliefs is tested through the extension of action beyond its 'accepted' limits: a bishop gives last rites to a dying man, and promptly decides to ensure he cannot committ any more sins by shooting him.

Yet as with his Mexican output, Buñuel's control of the medium allows him to hold the audience with something approaching a storyline. The central premise of the interrupted dinner provides a stable centre which also may easily be read as a psychoanalytic metaphor in which there is no climax or catharsis. There is also an underlying continuity in the social and political concern demonstrated by the presistent presence of soldiers, revolutionaries and police men.

The suggestion of a dream state is not the same as the total immersion which characterised L'age d'Ôr, or, for that matter, the work of Jean Cocteau. As Buñuel had demonstrated with the likes of The Exterminating Angel (1962) and Belle de Jour (1967), sometimes human behaviour is often odd enough on its own to require only a small shift of perspective to appear insane.

Note: The Criterion Collection DVD comes with documentaries and analysis.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.