Dir. Luis Bunuel, France / Italy / Spain, 1972, 102 mins, In French and Spanish with English subtitles
Review by Adam Hollingworth
Combining the surrealism of the early works which made his name with his later penchant for biting social satire, Luis Bunuel’s late masterpiece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a gloriously bizarre and savage critique of the pillars of a corrupt society and the gradual collapse of their sheltered worlds of corpulent luxury brought about by administrative incompetence and invasive dreams.
The film charts the increasingly absurd and hilarious attempts made by six members of the social elite to meet for a dinner party. At first they are hindered by slight human errors such as scheduling confusions and prolonged waits; and later by more gross interruptions such as a restaurateur’s death and the maneuvers of a nearby cavalry brigade; and finally find themselves contending with their own arrests and a series of surreal Bunuellian dreams, the most memorable of which involve a theatre and a series of parties which culminate in one or numerous murders. The six bourgeois would-be diners occupy a social circle surrounding Fernando Rey’s Don Rafael Accosta, the corrupt ambassador of fictitious South American republic (we’re told) of Miranda and a major international drugs trafficker. His companions include Paul Frankeur and his wife Delphine Seyrig (with whom Rafael is having a casual affair), Seyrig’s easily inebriated sister Florence (Ogier), and consistently thwarted hosts the Senechals (Cassel and Audran, whose frisky sex lives thwart one of the group’s many botched engagements).
Since Bunuel’s sole political figure represents a fictional nation, and his central characters occupy an esoteric universe displaced from time and space, the satire of the piece rings true to this day as a universal condemnation of the ridiculousness of the supposedly refined upper classes, and his deconstructions of the inbuilt elitism of this class continue to resonate forty years after the film was made. What specifically political jokes are included follow the pattern of light farce which underpins the work as a whole, with particular highlights including Rey’s handling of a beautiful but inept terrorist, and his growing discomfort during a party nightmare when the guests begin to ask awkward questions about his nation’s true make-up.
What have also allowed the film to remain so fresh and entertaining is the idiosyncratic direction of Bunuel and the prescient wit of Jean-Claude Carriere’s screenplay. The gradual shift in the narrative from farce to surreal nightmare is superbly constructed, and even manages to intermingle into the story’s central thrust two remarkably tangential yet highly amusing dream anecdotes related by a young sergeant. Bunuel is consistently visually inventive yet never ostentatiously so, meaning that when truly surreal moments of visual juxtaposition occur they feel entirely natural in the context of the film, such as the red insects which pour onto a piano during a random interrogation scene. His dream sequences are especially striking, employing artificial scenery and vibrant colours to mesmerizing effect.
The actors are uniformly excellent in investing humour and even perhaps charisma into a cast of subtly unpleasant characters, allowing both them and the audience to take particular relish in the moments where their superficial composure and poise is ruined and yet their true ugly natures remain unaffected. One of many examples is a moment when Rey, hidden under the dining table to avoid a hit squad, betrays his presence by reaching out to grab one final slice of the succulent-looking lamb they’ve been eating. Carriere’s screenplay is a master class of one-liners as delicious as the food the characters attempt to eat, all played with such delightful nonchalance that the surreal tone of the work is never betrayed.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is re-released in cinemas on 29th June, and on 16th July will be re-released on DVD and, for the first time, on Blu-Ray. It will also enjoy an extended cinematic run at the BFI Southbank as part of their retrospective of the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere.