The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie

The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you think you're awake only to realise, gradually, that nothing quite makes sense? Where, realising that, you wake up - or think you have - only to find that you're in another layer of dream? Perhaps you have found yourself longing to carry out some basic function but not quite able to manage it. The protagonists in Buñuel's The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie want to have dinner but increasingly absurd events get in the way.

A decade on from Exterminating Angel, which saw a dinner party unable to reach its end, this film reversed that conceit to make similar comments on class and social fixation. The sins of the would-be diners are writ large: greed, avarice, presumptuousness, willful ignorance and hypocrisy - yet despite this they are often likeable. The pity we feel for them stems from a sense that they are unaware of their own potential freedom. They play out their given social roles, as officers and ambassadors and hostesses, with a mannered conviction that borders on obsession. Even when, at one stage, a curtain rises and they discover their dining table is positioned on a stage, they do not comprehend that they may be mere actors following somebody else's script.

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Trapped in their polite routines, the diners are often a source of comedy - anybody who expects art films to be try and dull will find this an eye-opener. Yet they are also tragic, when even in rebellion they cannot break the spell. Sex, drugs, even murder are merely further manifestations of their desperate mediocrity, offering no relief from the crushing boredom that none of them truly dares to mention. A priest dresses up as a gardener to expose hypocrisy, yet the priest too proves to be a hypocrite. The director's cruel wit asks questions of the viewer as well as the characters; perhaps he even implicates himself. It's darkly hilarious but if you don't feel uncomfortable you may be missing something important. Perhaps the deadliest thing about it is the pleasure it brings. It is delicious like Eve's apple, and with understanding comes guilt.

Buñuel was, of course, one of the great masters of surrealism and aside from the film's playful structure there are numerous other devices here to intrigue and puzzle the viewer. His distanced directorial style conceals a wealth of symbolism. The relevance of objects and even people sometimes remains tantalisingly oblique, sometimes becomes apparent only at the last minute, keeping viewers on their toes; similarly, hidden themes emerge in apparently vapid conversation, revealing truths that may remain invisible to the speakers. Underlying it all is their earnest sense of entitlement. Perhaps it isn't dinner that matters so much as their belief that they deserve dinner - a token of their class, granting them a status relevant only to those without freedom, condemning them to despair.

All this is Buñuel's dream. At the end, the screen goes blank. Perhaps curtains close, and we are in a cinema. Are you awake now?

Reviewed on: 30 Jun 2012
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A group of friends are repeatedly frustrated in their attempts to have dinner.
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Director: Luis Buñuel

Writer: Luis Buñuel, Jean-Claude Carrière

Starring: Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Paul Frankeur, Bulle Ogier, Stéphane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel

Year: 1972

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

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