Written by: John White on May 15th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: France/Italy/Spain, 1972
Director: Luis Bunuel
Cast: Stephane Audran, Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Michel Piccoli
DVD released: December 5th, 2000
Approximate running time: 101 mins
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono French
DVD Release: Criterion Collection
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $39.99
Synopsis: A group of upper class friends attempt to have dinner parties together. They include the Ambassador of Miranda who helps two of his friends to traffic drugs through his diplomatic bag and takes potshots from his embassy at suspected assassins, and a couple who employ a Bishop as their new gardener. When they first try to dine there is a mix up over times, the next time the hosts are out and the guest become scared that the police are coming. When they eventually get down to the meal they are interrupted by the army but accept an invitation from the colonel to a dinner party. The friends dream about this and see the ambassador shooting the colonel and the meal turning into farce for an audience. When the friends meet again for lunch they are all arrested but released after intervention from the interior minister. Their final effort to have a meal is interrupted by criminals and they are all shot. The friends start walking on a road to another appointment.
Luis Bunuel’s satirical take on the habits of the upper-class was always rather biting and with the Discreet Charm he reached new heights in pointing out the vices and the sheer uselessness of his characters. The film also compares their existence of dinner parties and meaningless conversation to the life of dreams. This playing with reality further heightens the absurdism of the piece and allows Bunuel to have great fun at the status the characters have. Bunuel wrote Discreet Charm with his regular collaborator, Jean-Claude Carriere.
The Bourgeois friends’ efforts to conduct a social occasion are always frustrated by the world encroaching on their plans. This occurs with first the death of the restaurant owner when they go out to eat, the risk taking sex of the hosts, the police arrests, the absence of coffee, tea and milk when they go to a café, and the final assassination of the friends. In fact Bunuel doesn’t allow these people to finish their meals uninterrupted by reality. In addition Bunuel inserts a number of dream sequences and flashbacks where the true nature of characters is revealed and some get their just desserts. Some of these dreams are marvellous particularly the dinner party where the Ambassador is constantly reminded of the human rights abuses and poverty of his country and ends up shooting his host.
Other actions of his bourgeois friends are frustrated also. The affair of the Ambassador and his friends’ wife is interrupted by the husband who even after finding his wife in his friends bedroom is still willing to wait in the car. Similarly, Bunuel never misses an opportunity to lampoon the church and the Bishop is called to offer last rites to the gardener whose job he has taken and learns this is the man who murdered his tyrannical parents. The Bishop forgives him, checks the coast is clear and then blows his head off!
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a savage indictment of those who live off the back of others disconnected and protected from the real world. It is consistently inventive playing with obscuring sound to make the audience listen harder and questioning reality, it’s central and final image is the Bourgeois friends on a road to nowhere walking to their next appointment. Whether this is towards judgement, meaninglessness or whatever is left unexplained. Bunuel’s film is a masterpiece copied by many, surpassed by none.
The Criterion package for the Discreet Charm is rather impressive being a two disc set and including an essay by novelist Carlos Fuentes and a piece from Bunuel himself in the inserted leaflet. The first disc includes the main feature and the film is presented anamorphically with a sharp transfer from a good print. The colours are well balanced but there are some hairs at the bottom of the frame occasionally. The sound is good solid mono with no distortion or hiss apparent, the English subtitles are excellent. The disc also includes a 24 minute piece showing Bunuel at home making dry Martinis much as one character does in the movie itself.
The second disc includes the documentary A Proposito de Bunuel which covers Bunuel’s work throughout his life. There is also a filmography.
Criterion deliver an excellent package for this marvellous film. There is no better way to see this movie so seek this out.