Made by Spanish-born director Luis Buñuel in 1972, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a deliciously surreal comedy rereleased by StudioCanal and the ICA for the film’s 40th Anniversary. The plot is an inversion of Buñuel’s earlier work The Exterminating Angel (1962) where a group of friends are unable to leave a dinner party despite having every opportunity to.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie reverses this concept. A group of aristocratic and upper-class friends are never able to sit down and eat a meal together, at first due to practical reasons but later due to more and more surreal events such as the army interrupting or the dinning room actually being on stage in a theatrical performance. As the narrative progresses the film moves away from any form of realism into four sets of dreams from four of the characters, deconstructing the social conventions of bourgeoisie society.
The project was another collaboration with French writer Jean-Claude Carriére (with whom Buñuel worked for over 20 years) after they heard their producer, Serge Silberman, recount a tale of friends who had shown up to a guest’s house on the wrong date. What is essential to understand about this work is that it is much more an exercise in form than in narrative. The characters are mere puppets to Buñuel’s auteurship where they are never allowed to organically grow but remain at the mercy of the director’s mercurial whims. The story, which is as simple as it sounds, is not the essence of the film; it is the surreal nature in which it is told that is the master-stroke.
As might be expected with this director there are some political themes such as Rafael Acosta (Fernando Rey) as a corrupt cocaine-smuggling ambassador of a banana republic and a priest who gains pleasure from masquerading as a gardener. All of these characters nod towards Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class in its dissection of social norms. With ease and accuracy Buñuel cuts and thrusts at every privileged area of society: church, state, military and landed classes, demonstrating that to divorce these areas of power he merely has to strip them of their meaningless conventions.
However cutting these attacks on the bourgeoisie may be, the real pleasure in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is to be found in the brilliantly-timed absurd comedy. Allowing this to wash over you as Buñuel takes you on his surrealist trip is a tremendous pleasure from beginning to end.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is released on DVD and Blu-ray from 16 July.