The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, released in 1972, was one of the last films made by the great Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. He directed it when he was in his 70s, but you would hardly guess that from the movie itself—it’s his liveliest and most inventive comedy, a metafictional satire with heart. This is not to say that he compromised his sarcastic vision—only that here the uncomfortable truths seem more felt from within rather than mocked from without. The film is dry and delicious, and, most importantly, its provocations are genuinely amusing.
To try to describe the story is a bit like parsing the grammatical structure of a joke. Suffice it to say that there are three men and three women: the ambassador of the fictional country of Miranda (Buñuel regular Fernando Rey), his lover (Delphine Seyrig), her pompous businessman husband (Paul Frankeur), her sister (Bulle Ogier), and a younger couple (Jean-Pierre Cassel and Stéphane Audran). Throughout the film they attempt to dine together at various locales, but they are never able to finish a meal, due to a series of increasingly absurd mishaps, including interruptions by the army, the police, and a criminal gang. Buñuel has fun toying with, and subverting, narrative conventions—interrupting the film with minor characters telling their dreams or life stories, presenting sequences that end with a character waking up and realizing that it was all a dream, only to be revealed as a part of another character’s dream, and so on.
The sense of dislocation from the world “out there” (the real world) is also evoked through melodramatic cliché: a priest (who is hired as a gardener by one of the couples) must perform absolution for a man who murdered his parents; and the three central male characters run a cocaine smuggling ring. (Here Buñuel pokes a little fun at his favorite actor Fernando Rey, who had just had a taste of fame playing the elusive drug kingpin in The French Connection.)
Interspersed with all this buffoonery are shots of the six main characters walking down a deserted country road with a preoccupied air—they are of course going nowhere. Do I need to point out that Buñuel considered modern middle class life to be pointless and empty? Well, I just did.
Instead of his usual plain style, that generally relied on close-ups and abrupt editing, Buñuel adopts a fluid technique here, with lots of camera movement and varying spatial perspectives. The color photography is perfect—visually this is one of his smoothest efforts. It’s also one of his few original scenarios, managing the difficult feat of portraying the humanity of its targets without either turning them into monsters or blunting the satire. I usually feel cheated by pranks that are extended to feature length, but this one is thoroughly rich in significance and in style, and more timely than ever.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (was there ever a better title for a film?) is available on DVD.