Satirical, humorous, confrontational and overtly anti-establishment, snubbing more sections of society than the titular bourgeoisie, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie marks a further example of Buñuel’s consistently alluring critiques of society by transforming what initially appears to be normal into the unexpectedly bizarre.
One of life’s little pleasures is to hold a dinner party for a group friends who are as elegant and as bourgeois as you. If you can also rely on a decent platter of culinary pleasantries to complement the conversation, so much the better. So it appears to a group who have been invited to such a party only to find that their host is notably absent and there are confused messages about which date the dinner was to take place. Now, on closer inspection, this household does seem to have a variety of issues. The garden is an impressive size but seems a touch poorly managed, which could be something to do with the sacking of the gardener. Perhaps a replacement could miraculously emerge, with exemplary trowel skills and planting proficiency as well as a clerical background, just in case a priest should be needed at any time. And then there is the involvement of the military, the army perhaps needing to use the property for undefined purpose. Meanwhile our collection of bourgeois protagonists need to maintain their elegant lifestyle, even if that does involve dubious business dealings and varied cultural appointments that may, or may not, involve dinner.
Sex, violence, hypocrisy, humour, satire combine as a delicious blend but in a way so rarely seen on film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie remains a compelling combination of drama and on-screen insanity wrapped up in a never-ending spiral of a narrative. It would be wrong to assume that this is an aspect of surrealism that launched Bunuel’s early film-making career with Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930). While some elements could be construed as such, the dreamlike states and visions (which are undoubtedly bizarre and strange) are either dreams that the characters recollect from their pasts, or fantastic realisations of these dreams, or memories that are sometimes shocking and unpleasant. Each dinner party becomes increasingly far-fetched, and the shock of the visualisation combined with the confusion of the characters as they try to understand both their situation and exactly what they are visualising is what makes the film so great, both cinematically and from a narrative perspective, because the revelations are also depicted, at least to us, in a different way than perhaps the characters desire. But that is the point. The film is straightforward in its depictions and challenging in its perceptions. Still, at least the best of the bourgeoisie can have a wander down a nice country lane between cultural engagements to get a break from it all.
Consistently enjoyable, politically amusing and a combination of visual feast, dramatic shock, and questioning of society and the authorities as much as, well, normality, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is as bizarre, engaging and strangely significant as it ever was. Just watch out for the past, the terrorists, the ghosts, the church, the military and, well, anyone else, especially vindictive clerical gardeners…
To celebrate its 40th anniversary The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is playing in cinemas from 29th June and will receive a Blu-ray release on 16th July.