WWhat if an entire movie was based on characters sitting at the table for dinner, but the meal never arrived? This is the crazy premise of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a crazy masterpiece by one of cinema’s greatest madmen: the iconoclastic Spanish-Mexican author Luis Buñuel. He is best known for his sensationally weird and surreal productions that beam in from different planes of existence, telling stories that make sense, until suddenly they don’t at all.
Buñuel’s 1929 short Un Chien Andalou, which he co-wrote with the Spanish artist Salvador Dalí, is perhaps his most famous work, notorious for its grotesque close-up of an eyeball. But The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which was released in 1972 and won an Academy Award for best foreign language film, is his most financially successful and one of his most critically acclaimed films. The movie is less of a story from then a scattered series of incidents involving a handful of hungry socialites, including François (Paul Frankeur), Simone (Delphine Seyrig), and Rafael Acosta (Fernando Rey), an ambassador from a South American country.
Their dinner plans never materialize for a variety of reasons, ranging from simple misunderstandings to otherworldly surprises. After arriving at Alice and Henri Sénéchal’s (Stéphane Audran and Jean-Pierre Cassel) house on the wrong day, it is decided to move into a nearby inn. The group sits down and considers what to order – the hare pate is discussed and whether they will have red wine or martinis. But after hearing the sound of crying coming from the next room where the owner is lying dead on a bed, they lose their appetite and cancel dinner.
Another attempt at a meal is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a group of army men – led by a joint-smoking colonel, because why not – who eat all the food. Later still (this is my favorite) they sit at a table, everything finally looks like it’s coming together, two roast chickens on a tray. But they discover… the chickens are made of plastic! Then a red curtain goes up and the diners are revealed to be on a stage in front of a large audience. It seems that for some reason or maybe no reason at all, they are now performers in a theater production.
Trying to rationalize what exactly is going on requires a certain amount of logic and a path to clear meaning. Buñuel’s most famous films have a curious relationship with realism, often perpetuating the moment-to-moment rhythms we associate with reality, then omitting rational or expected outcomes, or simply refusing to explain anything essential. Another of his great films, 1962’s The Exterminating Angel, has the opposite premise of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: Characters attending a dinner party just can’t leave. The door isn’t locked, so they could theoretically run away – and yet they can’t. We don’t know why. It does not matter.
The label ‘dreamy’ is often used in the discussion of his work, as are other authors such as David Lynch whose films have hallucinogenic properties. However, Buñuel differs greatly from a visually hallucinogenic director like Lynch, in that his films are often decidedly satirical and political, and sometimes – as in Discreet Charm – dripping with condemnation for the rottenness of modern society. This includes (but is not limited to) the follies and prejudices of the bourgeoisie. The wonderfully strange Discreet Charm belongs to a canon that criticizes the middle class by focusing on their recreational indulgences, many of which curiously include “game” in their titles – e.g. The Rules of the Game, The Game, Game Night, The dinner game.
At the risk of engaging in a foolish quest for meaning, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie perhaps uses a craving for food to make it clear that people are always hungry for something, but never satisfied. Or perhaps the film explores a fear among middle- and upper-class people: that the aristocratic positions that grant them privileges will one day fail, forcing them to share their caviar, champagne, and loot.
I like to think that “Buñuellian” also, to some extent, means Baudrillardian, the filmmaker who satirizes a human world of strange simulations that not only distort reality, but also divide people and perpetuate injustice. “In a world as badly made as ours,” Buñuel once said, “there is only one way: rebellion.” And what a way to rebel: by making some of the strangest and most interesting satires ever made – ever seen and, truly, never forgotten.