The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie/ le Charme Discret De La Bourgeoisie
Directed by Luis Buñuel. Starring Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig, Stéphane Audran, Bulle Ogier, Jean-Pierre Cassel Club, IFI, Dublin (ifi.ie), 102 min
Possible tagline: Four dreams, three Oedipal adventures and absolutely no dinner parties.
Narrative and coherence were deeply unfashionable in 1972, when, two years after Herzog’s diegesis-bashing Even Dwarves Started Small and five years after Godard’s similarly inclined Weekend, Luis Buñuel fashioned this giddy, anarchic masterpiece. The pitch is simple enough: a group drawn from the well-heeled class of the title are persistently interrupted in their attempts to have a dinner party.
Buñuel and his regular screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière, have no problem with the increasingly frantic onscreen characters having dinner per se: Fernando Rey does indeed get to scoff something down. It’s the business of the dinner party, that traditional bourgeois display of having more stuff than one needs, that rankles with the film-makers and takes on an evil emblematic function.
Buñuel’s mischievous interruptions radiate increasingly surreal vibes as the film bounces manically along. There’s a mistaken dinner date, then a wailing vigil over a corpse in the next room, there’s an entire squadron of French officers and any number of pesky ghosts.
It gets weirder. Freudian recollections or reveries are visually realised without any indication of their reliability. On four occasions male characters awaken to reveal that what we’ve been watching was only a demented dream.
And, just to add to the confusing merriment, a recurring motif of watching a group wandering aimlessly through the countryside punctuates the chaos. Are they a dream within the dream? Or are they the only “real” thing in the picture? How can we tell? Edmund Richard’s saturated Eastmancolor stock never corpses or falters; the performances stay straighter than Leslie Nielsen’s face.
Four decades after the film’s release, the spirit of 1968 hangs over the proceedings, like one of its many ghosts. If nothing else in the picture is cardinal, the battle cry still sounds loud and clear: Off with their heads.