Coming in the middle of Luis Bunuel’s final period of filmmaking, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is one of the three Bunuel films (the others being The Milky Way and That Obscure Object of Desire) that not only introduced me to his work as a child, but also were amongst the earliest ‘arthouse’ cinema I ever saw. Watching these films on BBC2 broadcasts (back when you could see subtitled films on a Friday night on BBC2) was as significant a revelation to me as first watching Hammer and Universal horror movies – a realisation that cinema could be so much more than I had previously experienced. Alongside Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Hitler – A Film from Germany, these films were life-changing experiences, and Bunuel has remained one of my favourite filmmakers since.
The Discreet Charm…, is perhaps the most iconic film from his late French period (if we are to separate out the Sixties production Belle De Jour), and possibly the most accessible. A barbed social satire, the film is suitably surreal, yet has a narrative that is easy to follow; gently humorous with a subtle yet pronounced bite; and compelling despite very little actually happening.
The film is, at the most basic level, about a group of rich, arrogant snobs who continually try to have dinner together, only for various events to scupper their plans. These can be as simple as a mix up over dates, or as strange as an army division staying at the house. But the film is a neatly inverted comedy of manners – the vacuous, hypocritical lifestyles and attitudes of the shallow participants constantly revealed, and their carefully laid plans continually doomed to failure because of their own social pretensions. Woven within this are stories involving the main characters being involved in cocaine smuggling and diplomat Fernando Rey (his role as a drug lord neatly reflecting his appearance in The French Connection) being the target of ‘terrorists’ from his home country (the fictitious ‘Miranda’, a central European dictatorship with a dubious human rights record). Bunuel takes delight in exposing the hypocrisy of these people who consider themselves a cut above the rest of society, but who are in fact corrupt, criminal and insincere, even amongst themselves – infidelity and mistrust runs rampant amongst this group.
As the story progresses, more and more incidents take place within dreams (or dreams within dreams from different characters), eventually throwing the viewer’s understanding of what is or isn’t real out of the window, while flashbacks reveal mini-ghost stories from incidental characters. Bunuel is playing with the audience, revealing that we can’t believe anything we’ve seen in the film.
With a stellar cast of Euro-cult talent of the time (alongside Rey, the cast includes Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier and Jean-Pierre Cassel), this film might sound wildly convoluted, but in fact it has a flow that makes it seem deceptively simple. Unfussy, thought provoking and visually slick, it’s perhaps the ideal introduction to Bunuel’s later work – and absolutely essential viewing.