November 5, 2012

5 The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

Country: France-Italy-Spain
Director: Luis Buñuel

What the hell do you write about a movie directed by Luis Buñuel? His films don't deal in a direct way with social, political, or ethical issues, so a discussion of theme isn't really relevant. Even on the rare occasions he worked with major stars like Simone Signoret or Catherine Deneuve, he used actors essentially as extensions of his imagination, so a discussion of personalities and performances doesn't hold much promise either. Also out is the topic of style. Though admired by bold film stylists like Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, Buñuel was himself one of the most straightforward of directors, his style virtually a definition of the expression "invisible technique." Yet he was in a way the ultimate auteur director, forging a creative identity not through subject or style, but by vividly showing us his own wholly idiosyncratic view of the world, his personal alternate reality, in one film after another. While other directors have also attempted this, I can't think of one who has used this approach so prolifically, so adroitly, or so intelligibly as Buñuel.

Like a number of Buñuel's later films, his 1972 comic masterpiece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is organized not around a traditional rising and falling arc of action but, like a piece of music, around a theme and a set of variations. Here the theme is six people—three men and three women—trying to sit down for a meal and repeatedly getting interrupted before they can get started. The variations consist of their trying time after time to dine, only to be thwarted again. No matter what the circumstances, they just can't seem to finish a meal. It's perpetually delayed gratification, the gastronomic equivalent of involuntary coitus interruptus.

Buñuel returned time and again in his films to certain subjects, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie touches on just about all of them—sex, death, Catholicism, fetishes and phobias, the convergence of dream and reality. What sets this film apart is that here Buñuel's preoccupations are wrapped around his trenchant view of the mores and behavior of the bourgeoisie. His six main characters are exemplars of their class, people for whom surfaces and appearances are everything, not just in their homes, grooming and dress, and genteel pastimes, but above all in their deportment. They are unfailingly observant of the social niceties. Even when disagreeing they are decorous and restrained. Their guiding principle seems to be that one must respond to every situation with perfect manners.

It's an ethos that in this film Buñuel thoroughly trashes. As we know, appearances can be deceiving, and that's certainly the case with this group of people. In their public lives they might appear flawlessly urbane and mannerly, but their private lives leave a far different impression. Led by Rafael (Buñuel favorite Fernando Rey), the ambassador from a small Latin American country, the men are all involved in a cocaine-smuggling ring. Simone (Delphine Seyrig), the wife of another of the men, is having an affair with Rafael. Simone's sister (Bulle Ogier) is a bored young woman who's permanently half sloshed. The cultured Rafael has no qualms about having his country's secret police kidnap a young female revolutionary, presumably to be interrogated and tortured or even assassinated.  Overcome with lust, Alice (Stéphane Audran) and Henri Sénéchal (Jean-Pierre Cassel) keep their dinner guests waiting while they sneak into the shrubbery for a quick one.  All those vulgar human urges these paragons of bourgeois refinement so thoroughly repress have to find an outlet somewhere, and beneath the surface their outwardly respectable lives are riddled with hypocrisy and vice.

Lest you get the impression that this film is a somber affair, let me assure you that it most certainly is not. Buñuel treats all these things with the lightest and wittiest touch imaginable. This is one very entertaining film, and a very funny one. The humor is derived not from pratfalls or any of the other traditional comedic devices, but instead from the contrast between the social ideal these people have set for themselves and the sudden irruption of the unpredictable into their lives. Their world is all about control, both of themselves and of their environment, so any intrusion of chaos is bound to have an exaggerated effect. This works on us as well. The first part of the film lulls us into an expectation of normalcy in the lives and behavior of these people, and when that normalcy becomes disrupted with increasing frequency and in increasingly outlandish ways, we're caught off guard. The effect on us, as on the characters, is not just startling, but through its sheer anomaly very, very funny.

No film director has ever been able to integrate dreams and narrative as seamlessly as Buñuel. Around half-way through the film, he introduces the subject of dreams when a young soldier interrupts the would-be diners to describe the dream he had the night before. From this point on, without ever losing its narrative thread, the film becomes a series of episodes which each culminate in a dream of some act that is shocking to the bourgeois sensibility—an act of extreme public embarrassment, of violence, of the supernatural, of death. The more of these episodes we see, the more the film itself takes on a dreamlike atmosphere and the more we begin to wonder if the entire movie might be a Chinese puzzle of dreams within dreams, all prompted by Rafael's attack of the nocturnal munchies.

As each dream tops the previous one, Buñuel seems to be pushing the boundaries of conventional narrative logic in the direction of dream logic, in which things don't always make sense on the rational level yet somehow resonate on an unconscious level. It's a surrealist vision of art in which images and incidents seem to spring directly from Buñuel's unconscious and connect unmediated with the unconscious of the viewer, a way of artistic communication so inherently nonverbal that it is nearly impossible to describe concretely. This might all sound frightfully intellectual and rarefied, but Buñuel's sense of detached amusement keeps the film from developing even the merest whiff of pretension. He's basically just having fun with the notion that any sense can be made of a universe that is fundamentally absurd.

Of all the images in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, there is one above all others that I have carried with me ever since first seeing the film. At three points—not long after the beginning of the film, again near the middle, and finally right before the end—Buñuel digresses for a short montage of the six main characters strolling down a country road in the sunshine on a summer day. I wouldn't venture to speculate what Buñuel intends by these images, if such a thing is even possible. But I do know that when I think of this film, it's the first thing I picture in my mind, those six wandering characters in search of a movie.

This post was written as part of the ongoing Comedy Countdown at Wonders in the Dark, where The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie came in at #39. Be sure to check out all the great films being covered in the countdown, which runs through late December.


  1. I saw this movie long ago but it's one of the ones that stay with you.

  2. Fine review of one of Bunuel's most popular and accessible works. It may not deal directly with political or social issues, but it clearly pokes fun at the affluent French by exposing the social decay occurring all around them (e.g., drugs, adultery, social apathy). Indeed, though the tone is very different, it shares some similar elements with Renoir's RULES OF THE GAME. Ironically, both Bunuel and Renoir each adapted the novel DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, another examination of class (and surely one of Bunuel's most straightforward films).

    1. Rick, Bunuel's social and political views and his views on religion were seldom far from the surface, especially in his later films when he had more freedom to do what he wanted. Even so, for me they're secondary to his playfulness with narrative structure and his fascination with the nature of perception and reality. I too thought of "Rules of the Game" in relation to this film. I recently watched both versions of "Diary of a Chambermaid." Although the Renoir version wasn't without interest, what I remember most is Irene Ryan (Granny of "The Beverly Hillbillies") as a mousy little maid! The Bunuel version was something else altogether. It was the first Bunuel film I ever saw (a double feature at a revival theater with "Viridiana," my favorite Bunuel film of all) and hadn't seen it again in many years. I liked it if anything better on re-viewing. Straightforward it may be for Bunuel, but it certainly has its share of weirdness. I love Bunuel but have to agree that he isn't always that accessible, especially his more experimental, abstract films.

  3. Reading your post makes me want to revisit this film again. I saw it for the first time way back in the 80s at a revival house and recall being surprised at how funny I found it. Years later I tried to get my partner to watch it with me on DVD and he fell asleep. (It's rarely a recommended practice, insisting to someone "You'll LOVE this movie!" and trying to hold them to it. You inevitably find yourself watching the other person's reactions more than the film.)
    Anyhow, your crisp descriptions of the film's non-linear pleasures and satirical jabs at the wealthy class have stirred a lot of memories. Thanks for another terrific post. I've been away too long, R.D., I have some catching up to do!

    1. Ken, Bunuel is definitely not to everyone's taste, but I find that's often the case with filmmakers, or other artists for that matter, with a strongly individual style. I know well the sensation of inviting someone to share the pleasures of a favorite movie, then watching that person's attention wander or even watching them nod off. I once took a good friend to see "Tristana" at a revival theater and he nodded off. I thought, "Well, he was just too tired for a movie that requires the kind of attention Bunuel does." A few years later I got him to watch the film with me at home (he didn't even remember the theater experience), and within fifteen minutes he had nodded off again!

      I often talk of the way Bunuel likes to play with narrative structure, and this film is a great example. The events are presented as if you're watching a conventional linear plot, yet when you start thinking about them they develop a certain quality that might be described as circular or repetitive or even fragmented, if it can be accurately described at all. Yet they still seem to make sense on some kind of level, as if the movie has its own wacky internal narrative logic. Glad you found this post and hope to hear from you again.