The Luis Buñuel Project – The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie

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The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie. credit: wondersinthedark.wordpress.com

The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (Le Charme Discret De La Bourgeoisie) (France, 1972) was the Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner in 1973. Academy members had been no doubt watching Luis Buñuel’s career throughout the sixties – the films are always entertaining, in their particular ways – and now they had finally found one of his films that didn’t feature poverty, disfigurements, sexual fetishes, outright blasphemy or homages to the Marquis de Sade. A winner! But simmering here underneath the narrative’s overt drawing-room-comedy aspects are Buñuel’s (and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière‘s) usual darkly surrealist conceits regarding sex, death and dreams.

The film is a series of episodes where a group of friends attempt to sit down together and have a proper meal. There’s Don Raphael (Fernando Rey), an ambassador to a fictional Latin American country, M. and Mme. Thévenot (Paul Frankeur and Delphine Seyrig), Mme. Thévenot’s younger sister Florence (Bulle Ogier), and the Sénéchals, Henri and Alice (Jean-Pierre Cassel and Stéphane Audran). But they arrive for a friend’s dinner on the wrong night. Or they discover the restaurateur has passed away and is lying in state in the adjoining dining room. Or a seemingly busy café is out of tea. And coffee. And milk. Or a military squad on war exercises arrives and must eat first. The interruptions become sillier, and/or darker, and/or more abstract as the narrative moves along. But it’s what’s revealed about the characters along the way that gives the film its subversive frisson. Between social engagements, the three men are active in the international cocaine trade. Don Raphael is stalked by a pretty female ‘terrorist’ selling stuffed animals (whom of course quickly becomes desaparecido thanks to two of his agents), and he is often asked about the allegedly miserable and corrupt conditions of his small country, which he amiably denies. The Thévenot’s are gourmand connoisseurs; she poring over menu choices or guessing dishes from the kitchen smells, while he goes on and on about his own delicious caviar supplies or his making the perfect martini while demonstrating that the working class is too unrefined to be allowed to drink them. “There’s nothing more relaxing than a dry martini,” he states. “I read it in a woman’s magazine.” The sister, Florence, is perky and charming, but prone to overindulgence in the aforementioned martinis. The Sénéchals are textbook social companions – there’s no indication of what they do for a living or where their contentedness springs from, but dinners are usually at their place, provided by a kitchen full of domestics, except on the rare occasion where Henri and Alice sneak down their own back trellis to have sex with each other in the backyard behind the bushes, while their guests wait to be served…

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The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie. credit: archive-cinema.tumbler.com

Each potential meal with the six becomes its own little parlor drama, but some of them feature other guests as well. Monsignor Dufour (Julien Bertheau) is the presiding local bishop, but nothing makes him happier than gardening for the Sénéchals on the side. A young soldier in the out-of-everything café, apropos of nothing, narrates a grisly ghost story of familial betrayal and retribution. A sergeant in the military squad relates a dream he had about meeting dead friends on a quiet city street. Then, gradually, our main characters’ exploits start slipping into dreams as well. The military-squad Colonel (Claude Piéplu) invites all to dinner at his place, but his whisky is cola, the chickens are rubber, and his dining room turns out to be a stage in a theater, with a booing, whistling audience deriding them all for not knowing their ‘lines.’ Then Henri Sénéchal wakes up… to go to the Colonel’s for dinner, where he witnesses Don Raphael arguing with the Colonel over insults to his country, and then shooting him in fury. And then M. Thévenot wakes up. It doesn’t all dissolve into dreams, though – Monsignor Dufour is called to the side of a dying man for last rites, only to discover the man is the killer of Dufour’s own parents. Should he absolve him or avenge them? If only this could be a dream…

Speaking of crime, the intrepid Inspector Delecluze (François Maistre) breaks the case of the cocaine-smuggling diplomat, and promptly arrests Don Raphael and his five accomplices just as they’re sitting down to dinner. (*gasp!*) Delecluze dreams of a bloody, ghostly sergeant letting prisoners free at night, and, now awake, he receives a call from an interior minister ordering him to free his arrestees. Freed, they sit down to dinner again. But now there are gangsters with machine guns…

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The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie. credit: 1001plus.blogspot.com

A genuine surrealist, Luis Buñuel rarely trafficks in outright allegory or symbolism. He, rather, sets up a series of recurring associations, and hopes that you’ll draw a lot of the same impressions and conclusions that he has. But, if that doesn’t happen, he’ll work hard to have, at least, entertained you anyway. Overlapping dreams, irony and surprise, stagey and stylized sex and violence, and even a soundtrack that interrupts its own characters are familiar devices these days, but Buñuel and Carrière were true masters at inventing and employing them. The film overall seems remarkably tame these days, almost half-hearted compared to the comedies and satires that ensued over the following 45 years, inspired by work like this. But there are still very few films that are even remotely like these late Buñuel films. Indulge.

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