One of Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s most acclaimed works and an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is not the easiest movie to penetrate—the story’s satire operates at such a sophisticated level that it’s easy to mistake some stretches of the narrative for straightforward psychodrama. Plus, as was Buñuel’s wont, the story loops around itself several times via tricky dream sequences and fake-outs that obscure what’s “really” happening. Yet for patient viewers willing to participate in Buñuel’s postmodern games, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie delivers a droll appraisal of the way feelings of entitlement blind the semi-rich to the absurdity of their own circumstances.
The principal running gag of the movie involves a group of upper-middle-class friends attempting to get together for a dinner date. Throughout the story, outrageous events scuttle the plans—a restaurant holds a wake, complete with a corpse, during the dinner hour; a group of soldiers appears at a country house expecting entertainment and food; gun-toting gangsters invade a dinner party; and so on. The joke, of course, is that the protagonists are so preoccupied with creature comforts that they never lose their appetites—it’s as if the working-class people who interrupt the protagonists simply don’t exist. Meanwhile, Buñuel and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière reveal the sordid activities of the main characters. A foreign ambassador (Fernando Rey) moonlights as a cocaine smuggler; a horny couple (Jean-Pierre Cassel and Stéphane Audran) sneaks away from guests to screw in the woods; an underserviced housewife (Delphine Seyrig) has an affair with a family friend; et cetera.
Even though The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie runs a brisk 102 minutes, Buñuel and Carrière cram a lot of narrative content into the movie—beyond the items already mentioned, there’s also a subplot about a sexy would-be terrorist and two strange sequences of people describing their dreams, which are depicted via surrealistic vignettes.
Whether all of this material coalesces into a unified statement is a subjective matter, because the ambiguous final images could imply a heavy-handed theme of awful people stuck on a road to nowhere—or the images could imply something else. (Providing concrete answers was never Buñuel’s thing.) Appraising The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie by standard criteria is pointless, seeing as how the film does not aspire to realism, but it’s sufficient to say that Buñuel stocks the film with attractive women, debonair men, and elegant locations—these slick surfaces amplify the director’s ideas about a class preoccupied with materialism. One more thing: Because other viewers may have the same experience, I should add that that the discreet charm of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie escaped me on first viewing, but the more I thought about the movie, the more its aesthetic scheme—and its virtues—came into focus.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: GROOVY