‘The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie’ is one of those films I’ve often heard mentioned among the higher-brow of my associates. Several times I have made a mental note to seek it out. The fiftieth anniversary of Luis Buñuel’s celebrated masterpiece of French cinema was a great opportunity to finally immerse myself in a modern classic. (Although Buñuel was Spanish, he cut his teeth in French cinema, and this one has a French cast, writer and producer).
Though I had heard of the film, I knew tantalisingly little about it, and therefore viewed it for the first time with zero expectations. Given the advertising saturation of many modern blockbusters, this is a rare feat in our times. Thus, following the adventure as depicted in this film was an unfiltered and open-minded experience. By the time the credits rolled, I wasn’t entirely sure what I had just seen: I just knew that it was very funny and playful, that I enjoyed it immensely and that I immediately wanted to revisit it.
It’s a difficult task to summarise the plot in anything but the loosest terms. Ostensibly, six friends attempt to dine together. For one reason or another, their efforts are thwarted. In one memorable sequence, they take a table in a quiet high-end restaurant, only to discover that the proprietor has died and is lying in state in the next room. Something rather similar happened to me once, and it’s amazing how one’s appetite can be zapped by such a turn of events. We learn that the characters aren’t altogether ethical. An affair is taking place, as well as a fortune being made from selling narcotics. One of the characters an alcoholic, another is ambassador to the fictional country of Miranda and is being hunted by a Maoist terrorist organisation. The waiting staff and other labourers are looked down upon, and the clergy are shown great reverence. Yet each of the three men and three women have distinct personality traits and you can’t help but be absorbed by their seemingly petty pursuits. It helps that they are played by an ensemble cast of superb character actors, and director Luis Buñuel extracts fine performances from each of them.
The whole film is shot with great panache and an eye for detail. There are beautiful locations and lavish sets. But as the film progresses, Luis Buñuel starts to play tricks with the audience’s preconceptions of what a film is, and their expectations for how a narrative unfolds. Thus, we are introduced to seemingly extraneous characters such as a very serious young soldier (Maxence Mailfort) who divulges his tragic backstory to the women. It involves the ghost of his late mother, but since we’re seeing his narrated childhood memories, we accept the intrusion of the supernatural. Yet ghosts become a recurring theme. So too do dreams, and we quickly latch onto the idea that what we’re seeing is not an authentic part of the narrative, but something inside the sleeping subconscious of one of the characters. So, what is real and what is fantasy? And how do the characters end up in each other’s dreams?
Although outlining the plot makes it sound convoluted, or as if the director is trying to be too clever by half, ‘The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie’ is really a highly amusing film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. For that reason, audiences won’t become exasperated with trying to work out whether or not what they are witnessing is authentic, and neither will they feel that filmmaker Luis Buñuel is treating them like an idiot or trying to trick them. Instead, the use of humour, absurdity and surrealism grounds the film in the moment, allowing the audience to accept what they are being shown at face value. For this reason we enjoy the subversion when it turns out that the friends are really on a theatre set in front of a live audience who boo the ‘actors’ for not in turn fulfilling their expectations of performances. You could say it’s all very meta!
It’s hard to single out performances as the cast is stunningly brilliant throughout. I was particularly enamoured with Stéphane Audran and Jean-Pierre Cassel as the Sénéchals, but Fernando Rey brings a detached and humorous quality to the part of Acosta that arguably steals the show.
The film has been fully restored for its fiftieth anniversary and is being re-released as part of Studiocanal’s Vintage World Cinema collection on Blu-ray and high definition 4K. For a lucky few, there’s also a limited theatrical release. It looks absolutely stunning. The picture quality is sharp and crisp, and the bright and colourful French countryside looks particularly rich. The extra features are mostly in the service of explaining the film, with critic Charles Tesson and Professor Peter W Evans separately providing analysis. There’s also an interview with writer Jean-Claude Carrière and the original trailer plus one that is new for 2022 (see above). Comparing and contrasting the trailers half a century apart is a good way of seeing how those fine editing techniques have improved. But the film itself is timeless and close to perfection.
I am delighted to have finally seen ‘The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie’. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since watching it. You can see the inspiration Luis Buñuel has had on contemporary directors (there were definite shades of ‘The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie’ in Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Mother’). This playful masterpiece of French cinema is one that will continue to capture audience’s imaginations for generations to come.
Cast: Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, Stéphane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Maxence Mailfort Director: Luis Buñuel Writers: Jean-Claude Carrière Certificate: 15 Duration: 102 mins Released by: Studiocanal Release date: 20th June 2022 Buy ‘The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie’