Luis Buñuel’s filmmaking career began with Un chien andalou (1929), the foundation of his Surrealist mind frame and attachment to French film noir. After nearly thirty years spent in the United States and Mexico, he returned to France in the mid 1960s. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) is praised as being the most mature realization of his Surrealist lens and disorienting style of editing.
The film takes place on-location in France, following six friends as they attempt to break bread over what could be days, weeks, or months. Whether it be the intrusion of a calvary of soldiers awaiting firing exercises the next morning or a sexual thirst incapable of satisfaction after the meal, Buñuel reveals a breed of complications unique to the lascivious elite.
Audacious decisions made by the six protagonists contribute to a quick tempo in the film. Each character is pleasantly oblivious, at liberty to make decisions without considering the consequences. A latent paranoia infiltrates almost every scene in the film as a result. In the first scene, five of the six characters force themselves into a dark in for dinner, with no other customers in sight. They chatter wildly about how cheap, and thus disappointing, the food must be. An unmistakeable weeping sound comes from the back room, and the women shamelessly investigate. They discover the dead owner of the establishment awaiting the coroner, and immediately depart in a huff without dinner. From the beginning, Buñuel depicts a pushy, entitled population of upper class France that is not to be trusted.
Buñuel intermingles mind-bending interruptions, including red cockroaches and bomb sirens, to sustain tension. He depicts an effortlessly flawless existence riddled with uncomfortable scenarios. The three prime gentlemen in the film, named Francois, Henri, and Rafael respectively, are ambassadors to the fictional Republic of Miranda. In one of the several attempts at breaking bread, a military colonel approaches the gentlemen at his dinner party to assault them with questions about Miranda’s climbing homicide rate. Rafael’s brief, generalized rebuttals are comical in their nonchalance and unsatisfactory in content. Buñuel illustrates the willful indifference of his protagonists. They employ positions of power with no concept of their greater role in society. At their last attempt to dine they converse about a Nazi war criminal residing in Miranda, whom Rafael claims is “a perfect gentleman.” This prompts the response that such a scenario is not incompatible for “one can be poor and a thief, and rich and honest…” The lack of chagrin at this comment highlights the pure comedy of the film.
Dream sequences are another highlight of the film. They appear most frequently forty minutes into the film, and obscure all narrative assumptions. One such dream places the protagonists upon a stage. After an awkward ‘servant’ drops a silver platter of fake chicken, the light come up in the room and reveal the fourth wall to be a curtain. The audience is silent. Everyone but Henri slithers off stage. He mutters “I don’t know my lines!” to the audience as sweat pours from his hairline. The characters in The Discreet Charm uphold a facade of ease that mask self-doubt. They are haunted by subconscious fears that mock their money and status. Extravagant homes and wardrobes satisfy the thirsty eye in every scene. The true glory of this film, however, lies in the ruby blood streaming from Buñuel’s twisting knife. The incapacitated, clueless 1% is, per usual, the perfect subject for a comedy of errors.