The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

Rates: * * * * 1/2

Why Did I Watch It? Classic Film Club watch.

Cast, crew, etc.

Trailer

A group of upwardly mobile types gather for a meal; or, at least, they try to. Their lunch and dinner plans are continuously interrupted by a series of escalatingly unlikely events. There is a mixup over the dates. One restaurant has run out of all food and drink. In another, the proprieter has just died, and a wake is being held. The army disrupt yet another get together when they start military maneouvres in the garden.

It gets even more outlandish. When visiting the house of a local home guard colonel, the dinner guests suddenly realise their meal is being mounted on a stage, in front of a live (and disgruntled) audience. Several social gatherings end in violence, even murder. There is a ghost story, and a patracide story, told in flashback.

French surrealist provocateur Luis Bunuel based his whole career around lampooning the middle class. Surrealism is mostly equated with strangeness; unusual, often impossible, images that do not make literal sense. But distilling surrealist art down to its foundational ideas often reveals a playful takedown of the oddity of everyday life. When you think about many of the things that we do, day to day, NONE of it makes literal sense.

This film, made towards the end of the director’s career, seems like one very long joke. Or, more specifically, a series of jokes on the same subject. The bourgeoisie characters depicted have little pressing on them except where to get a decent meal. Their conversations are trivial, vaccuous. When they are confronted with something upsetting – several periferal characters interject to tell personal horror stories – they shrug it off and ask for the drinks menu. Nothing penetrates their bubble.

As their meal plans are continuously thwarted, they simply make new ones; diligently working out the next day and time everyone is free. There seems to be no reason behind any of this; the get togethers are not for anything specific, they are just a way of filling time. Everyone seems bored out of their minds. Most social plans, for Bunuel, seem to be meaningless rituals, that people act out by rote.

Road to nowhere

He takes more direct aim at the characters as well. Beneath their respectable facades, their expensive clothes and polite manners, all of them are degenerates. The South American ambassador is a cocaine smuggler having an affair with his friend’s wife; the business man and his wife are constantly rutting, anywhere it takes their fancy; this woman’s sister is an empty headed drunk who sleeps around. These behaviours are suggested as a coping mechanism to help them deal with their empty existance, but it is also a comment on their privelaged social status; they do this stuff, because they can. As members of the elite, no one will call them on their behaviour.

Bunuel dots the film with additional references that show (I think) he is just having fun wrong footing the audience. The narrative (for want of a better term) switches back repeatedly to a shot of the character’s walking along an empty, remote country road, and several of the disrupted meal sequences are revealed to be dreams. Is the whole thing a dream? Are the characters actually dead? In limbo? You can decide for yourself, and ultimately, none of these touches really matter.

For this director, life is a silly farce, without much of a point. And the best way to handle it is to laugh.

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