August 17, 2013

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

On the surface, Luis Buñuel's surrealist film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) is about six people who keep meeting up for meals together and never actually get to eat anything. It starts out with four of them arriving at the home of the other couple, only to discover the invitation was for the following evening. The would-be dinner guests drag the lady of the house (played by Stephane Audran)--whose husband is out--to a restaurant, but they're turned off when they discover that the owner has just died unexpectedly, and the staff is weeping over his corpse in another room. 

What seems to be going on in Discreet Charm is a critique of the middle class and their good-natured apathy towards the problems of the world. Their lives revolve around meals, where they chatter about things of little importance in a world that's enduring Vietnam and all kinds of political unrest: One of the characters, played by Fernando Rey, is a Venezuelan ambassador who's being targeted by terrorists; meanwhile, both he and his colleague (Paul Frankeur) are cocaine addicts living in fear that they will be busted by the police at any moment. Also, did I mention that the ambassador is having an affair with his friend's wife, Simone (Delphine Seyrig)?

Buñuel keeps things moving in Discreet Charm, and his sense of humor shines through some of the film's bleaker moments. There are a number of disturbing dream sequences--some of which are convincing enough to take advantage of one's gullability--that are like little shards of glass penetrating the well-manicured exterior of the bourgeoisie culture. There's also a marvelously funny scene where Jean-Pierre Cassel (father of Vincent) and his wife (Audran) sneak out of their own house to make love while their four hungry guests are waiting for them in the living room. 

Many times you will find yourself wondering what in the hell is going on in this movie, but the film manages to be unwaveringly fascinating, even at its most bizarre. Buñuel is clearly a master of the surreal: his playful mingling of fantasy and reality tends toward the comic, and the humor is perfected by the banal seriousness of the characters. I don't mean to suggest that they're boring, but rather that they play the roles with the utmost sincerity: they're sincerely upper-middle-class people with the trappings of normality on display to conceal their real selves: pure id, pure appetite. (When they finally get to eat some food, near the end, a trio of machine-gun-wielding gangsters ambushes them. Rey sneaks under the dinner table, and we see his hand reaching up to grab a slice of beef.)

With Bulle Ogier, Michel Piccoli as a Catholic priest who becomes a gardener, and Milena Vukotic as the maid. Written by the director and Jean-Claude Carriere.  

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