The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

“Colonel: Marijuana isn’t a drug. Look at what goes on in Vietnam. From the general down to the private, they all smoke.
Thévenot: As a result, once a week they bomb their own troops.
Colonel: If they bomb their own troops, they must have their reasons.”

‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’, directed by Luis Buñuel in 1972, is a surrealist satire that follows three upper-middle-class couples as they try to hold a series of dinner parties. At each attempt, something different prevents them from finally eating: the corpse of the restaurant manager in the kitchen, a company of soldiers, a café that runs out of tea, coffee and milk, the police, a group of armed terrorists. These characters are solipsistic to the point of parody, a depiction emphasised through the film as Buñuel begins to present dream scequences. At one stage a character is dreaming that another character is dreaming. The effect is like ‘Inception’ but with civil servants and diplomats and with dinner parties instead of heists and action sequences. Despite the lack of conventional plot and the mind-bending approach to reality this is a surprisingly accessible film. As with surrealist art, a key aspect of this is unlikely or ridiculous juxtapositions, but where Dali used textures and tactile transgressions, Buñuel uses the collisions of different social orders to create his tensions. A bishop becomes a gardener; a chauffeur is invited to join the party and then dismissed; soldiers smoke cannabis like hippies and then recount their dreams; diplomats behave undiplomatically. I couldn’t help feeling that this is what David Lynch would produce if he ever adapted one of G K Chesterton’s more absurdist paradoxes. The bones of ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ are clearly a critical satire on wealth and class, but the meat is Buñuel’s colourful and, at times, grotesque eye for detail. As with his much earlier collaboration with Dali, ‘Un Chien Andalou’ (notable for the famous eye-slashing scene), Buñuel does not shy away from shocking and visceral imagery. The dream sequences, complete with gory ghosts and eerie, uncanny effects, almost tip this movie into the horror genre.

Would I recommend it? Overall, I found this film far more enjoyable than I expected, but I’m struggling to find a potential double-bill for it. I haven’t seen it yet, but I understand Buñuel’s earlier film ‘The Exterminating Angel’ is the flipside of ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’, so go with that.


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