The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

Luis Buñuel | 1hr 41min

Even after all the dream sequences and absurd tangents that The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie goes on, somehow it still stands high above the rest of cinema history as one the greatest demonstrations of film form. There are certainly some scenes that stand about the rest, but its success cannot be nailed down to one singular moment. Rather, it is how each successive scene builds on previously established motifs and ideas that gives the film such formal rigour, and which serves to bolster Luis Buñuel’s acidic attacks on Europe’s wealthy ruling classes.

The repetition of a dinner party that never quite gets going is the main running thread, coming to represent the affluent’s unyielding dedication to preserving their social status. These are cultural rituals filled with vapid conversations and obsessive demonstrations of superiority, and yet each rude interruption reveals the meetings to be nothing more than façades masking gluttony, insecurity, incompetence, debauchery, and narcissism.

Dinner party after dinner party after dinner party – what else is one so wealthy and carefree supposed to do with their time? Each one comically interrupted by some absurd intrusion.

Buñuel continues to strip back the layers of class and civility in the second half, probing into the nonsensical nightmares of his six central characters and exposing their greatest anxieties. Most of these dreams play out in extended sequences, escalating towards the public humiliation of these men and women. The first one involves a sudden recognition during a dinner party that they are onstage in front of an audience, and they have forgotten their lines. This dream is nested inside another, in which Rafael, the ambassador for fictional South American country Miranda, is uncomfortably confronted with questions about his nation’s failing economy – not at all like the frothy small talk he is used to.

It’s all one big show – the aristocrats caught out, the artifice of their lives exposed.

These continue to escalate, eventually leading to the execution of all six aristocrats during a dinner party. Raphael escapes by hiding under a table, but he can’t help reaching up to grab a piece of meat, feebly falling prey to his own gluttonous impulses and thereby giving himself away. Once again, Buñuel reveals the emptiness of the threat by revealing this was yet another dream, playing with his narrative structure to consistently give these aristocrats the easiest way out of any tricky situation. After all, this is the closest any of them will get to real danger.
 
Buñuel’s world is larger than these six people though. We spend a fair amount of time with a Bishop, who only ever seems to gain respect while dressed in his robes, and through his character, religion at large is branded with its own specific kind of hypocrisy. He is called to be a pious, benevolent servant of his community, but he only ever seems to serve the wealthy. At one point when asked to deliver the last rites to his father’s killer, he only does the bare minimum before landing a vengeful, killing blow. Buñuel goes on to savagely attack the ruling elite classes of business, state, and military industries, exposing the irrational egocentricity that structurally holds them together.

The Bishop, perhaps the most interesting character of them all, acting as a scathing indictment of the church.

Built into the connective tissue of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie are scenes of the six aristocrats walking down a long country road, far away from the opulent mansions and restaurants they are so comfortable hiding in. Out here in the middle of nowhere, they exist in stark contrast to their surroundings, their lavish clothing and mannerisms holding no social sway or purpose in this environment. In the final moments of the film, Buñuel returns to this comically sad image, and this may be his most pointed jab of all. With all the glamour stripped away, life as a self-satisfied aristocrat is nothing but an endless trudge along a depressingly empty road.

These hollow, directionless aristocrats walking along an endless road – a thread of surrealism running through the film, and capping it off.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is available to rent or buy on YouTube.

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