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With: Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, Stephane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Julien Bertheau, Claude Pieplu, Michel Piccoli
Written by: Luis Bunuel, Jean-Claude Carriere
Directed by: Luis Bunuel
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 101
Date: 09/14/1972

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Square Meals

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Luis Buñuel's great The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) was re-released in a new print in 2000 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the master's birth. (Buñuel passed away in 1983.) If you do the math, you'll realize that he was 72 when he made this film, and his vicious and cynical wit had not dulled. Instead it attained a grace that only age could bring.

Buñuel was known mostly for his attacks on religion. In L'Age d'Or (1930), he had a Cardinal thrown out of a high window, and in Viridiana (1961), he re-staged the Last Supper with lepers and homeless people. Buñuel claimed to be an atheist, but was raised Catholic by his family, so it was a conundrum he battled with all his life. He also rallied against the mainstream and the bourgeoisie by becoming part of the Surrealist Movement along with Salvador Dali. He never lost his principles and kept up his attacks all through his career, including his seminal masterworks: Nazarin (1959), Viridiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel (1962), Simon of the Desert (1964), Belle de Jour (1967, re-released in 1995) and That Obscure Object of Desire.

When The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie came along, Buñuel had been slightly tamed by his age. He realized that his attacks had so far gone unnoticed, and so he turned from attacking in anger to attacking with jest. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a comedy, if not necessarily a laugh-out-loud one. It's the kind where you laugh later, when you recall a certain scene. The movie was a hit when it arrived in the United States in 1972 and Buñuel won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (and was nominated along with Jean-Claude Carrière for Best Original Screenplay).

The six friends in the film are constantly trying to get together to eat, but never can. Fernando Rey (a regular in four of Buñuel's films) stars as the Mirandan Ambassador in Paris who smuggles cocaine in his diplomatic pouch. Stephane Audran (who won a British acting award for her role) and Jean-Pierre Cassel play a rich couple. Paul Frankeur and Delphine Seryrig are another couple with a tagalong (drunk) sister, Bulle Ogier. The first time we see them, the friends are the victim of a misunderstanding. They arrive for dinner on the wrong night. The hostess is in her dressing gown and is getting ready for bed. They decide to go to a nearby inn, but leave when they realize that the owner has recently died and is laid out on a table in the next room.

Another character is a bishop who takes a job working as a gardener for Audran and Cassel. A shocking scene occurs when he is called to give absolution to a dying man, finds out that he killed the bishop's parents years before, and shoots him to death. This scene was once considered controversial because it breaks the dream-rhythm of the movie, and it was cut out in several countries. Today, it just seems part of the jest.

Dreams enter into the scenario as well. In one scene, the three women are sitting in a cafe (which has apparently run out of coffee, tea, and milk) when a soldier comes up to them and begins describing a gory dream he had where his mother's ghost came to him and told him to kill his father. Several times during the movie, authority figures (military and police) describe dreams, and they always turn gory or scary. Our six friends have dreams, too. One occurs as they sit down to dinner again, and find that they are really on a stage, with unknown lines to recite. This scene then turns out to be a dream-within-a-dream. Sometimes dream logic works its way into reality as when a young maid (probably in her 20's) explains that her boyfriend is leaving her because she's 52 years old.

Interspersed with the action are scenes of the six friends walking happily and aimlessly down a paved road that seemingly goes nowhere. Symbol-happy viewers will be in hog heaven trying to figure out what everything means, but Buñuel was seemingly not concerned with such things. Indeed, his style of direction was very simple and straightforward. There were not a lot of complex movements or cuts. He was mostly concerned with photographing everything straight-on. The scene he was perhaps most concerned with was the one that explained his personal recipe for the perfect martini (alas, the scene is interrupted by a cut, but the recipe appears complete in Buñuel's autobiography, My Last Sigh, an excellent read).

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie has aged particularly well, despite its funky '70s clothes and the lack of computer technology. Today these characters would be sporting cell phones and smoking imported cigars, but their actions and words would still be quite similar. The bourgeoisie never change and never will. (If anything, they've become more greedy and backstabbing over time.) But though Buñuel himself is gone, his films remain to skewer them whenever we feel the urge to see them humiliated.

The Criterion Collection DVD of the film includes not one but two documentaries on Bunuel himself, essential information for truly enjoying the feature film. The first, El Naufrago de la calle de la providencia (The Survivor on the Street of Providence), is a 24-minute home movie made by Arturo Ripstein (now an outstanding filmmaker in his own right) in 1970 that shows Bunuel making his trademark martini and interviews friends talking about him. The other doc is a brand new feature-length affair, A Proposito de Bunuel (Regarding Bunuel), more comprehensive but less spontaneous than the short. To preserve the outstanding quality of the digital transfer, Criterion sprang for a two-disc set rather than smashing all this material on one disc. The package also includes a theatrical trailer, a Bunuel filmography, and optional subtitles.

In 2020, Criterion released a three-disc Blu-ray box set, Three Films by Luis Buñuel.

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