A few years ago, after a double bill of Buñuel and Dali’s surrealist classics Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or (made in 1929 and 1930 respectively), I heard a woman remark to her companion in seats behind me, “You know, I think they were just too surreal.” I don’t think she would have been so put off by Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Although it still follows its own oblique logic, but it’s less relentlessly surreal.
The film does have a plot… of sorts. Four respectable people, or four bourgeois if you like, head to a friend’s house for dinner only to find that the man thought they were coming round the following night and is out while his wife is just about to go to bed. After a few polite apologies about the confusing mix-up, the guests take their hostess and head off to a nearby restaurant to sate their appetites. There, just as they have placed their orders, they discover the maître d’ has not only recently died, but mourners are weeping over his body behind a curtain in the dining room. Unsurprisingly they are put off their food and leave. The rest of the film follows these people (and the hostess’s husband) as they try, and fail, to have their dinner party together.
Many of the events that occur are strange, and some are certainly surreal, but the film is not a descent into the far side of the cranium in the same way that Buñuel’s first two films with Dali were. An air of plausibility gives the film a satirical bent. Don Raphael (played by frequent Buñuel collaborator Fernando Rey), the ambassador of the fictional South American republic of Miranda, is using is diplomatic bag to smuggle cocaine. Here art prefigured reality as only this January cocaine was discovered in the diplomatic bag of Ecuador having been smuggled into Italy. So, it is true that these outwardly respectable diplomatic types are not as clean as they would like us to believe.
Buñuel and his screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière skewer a number of other things including religion, the social pretensions of the middle class, and politics, but The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is not simply satire. During one of their futile attempts to eat dinner, the waiter drops the roast chickens on the floor and when one of the guests picks up the birds, they turn out to be made from rubber. The curtain behind them then rises to reveal that they are all on stage in front of an audience. Naturally, they get booed off for not knowing their lines. Perhaps here a more metaphysical point is being made – “all the world’s a stage” after all. Surely the bourgeoisie, with their manners and brittle social routines, are more aware than most that all of us men and women are merely players.
So the film continues, surprising us with ludicrous scenarios and violent intrusions into the complacent bourgeois world. Many of these incidents later turn out to be dreams. In his biography, My Last Sigh, Buñuel writes of his love for dreams and that it was this love which was the single most important thing he shared with the Surrealists. The dreams themselves range from those representing bourgeois anxiety – terrorists and soldiers invading one’s home – to simple and sad episodes involving meeting a dead friend or parent once more.
Fears of student radical terrorists, soldiers and the concern with turmoil in South American republics initially sounds very much of its time – the film came out in 1972. But come to think of it, both terrorists and turmoil in the developing world are issues that resonate very deeply with the present. Anxieties manifesting in dreams are universal; we can all add our own examples, like for instance those of a man who writes a splendidly insightful review of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in pellucid prose only to forget it when waking up.
So, is the The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie itself charming? The characters are not exactly the deepest, most sympathetic in the history of cinema, but they are polite and they try to be considerate and, well, charming. More pertinently, their bourgeois charm adds to the dream-like nature of proceedings: both in dreams and polite conversation we tend to react to even the strangest events with a pleasant smile.
The film can at times feel like a series of impenetrable allegories. At one point the contents of a young terrorist’s bag are spilled onto a table to reveal a gun, but also more strangely a lettuce, bread, “a key to dreams”. Hmm, what can it mean? Thankfully, Buñuel let’s us decide and keeps the film moving fast enough that it might not even matter if we don’t figure it all out. The new Canal release also comes with a helpful introduction to the film and Buñuel’s work by scholar, Peter William Evans.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is out on DVD and Blu-Ray today and the Jean-Claude Carrière season at the BFI is kicking off on 28 June with a screening of the film with an introduction by Jean-Claude Carrière himself.