The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Luis Buñuel, 1972

Having given birth to surrealist film with his debut, the silent short Un Chien Andalou, co directed by his close friend Salvador Dali, Buñuel would continue to make ever more comic and absurd films satirising the middle classes and the church for over another 40 years. Not losing any of his edge toward the end of his career 1972 would see the release of what is arguably his best work, and the film for which he won an Oscar, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

The premise of the film is simple, a group of friends representing various middle class establishments attempt to eat dinner together only to be interrupted in ever more bizarre ways. The first night they attempt to have their dinner party the guests simply arrive on the wrong night, however as the film progresses intrusions from everyone including the military and the police continue to make their simple goal impossible. The tone of the film is Kafkaesque, filmed and acted in a realist manner with ever more absurd obstacles holding the characters back without them ever questioning the validity of the challenges they have to face.

For Buñuel the middle class and it’s prejudices and hypocrisies have often been a target of his work and the dinner party, being the archetypal form of bourgeois entertainment is the perfect setting for him to attack. Most prominently there was The Exterminating Angel with its story of guests who attend a dinner party and are totally unable to leave, his best use however remains in the sequence from The Phantom of Liberty where the guest sit around the dining table on toilets, excusing themselves and retiring to a bathroom stall to eat their food. It’s an idea other directors have examined too with films such as Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe
 in which a group of rich men retire to a country manor with the intention of eating themselves to death.

The significance of the dinner party for Buñuel is that it is a time when manners and decorum are at the absolute forefront, the characters in the film are all trying their best to appear socially acceptable meanwhile they are all secretly involved in everything from adultery to drug smuggling. It’s all about exposing the hypocrisy of it all, that these people devoid of morals feel superior simply due to their understanding of social etiquette. For example in one scene whilst the guests chastise their chauffer for not sipping his Martini correctly the hosts have vacated their own party via a window to have sex in the bushes outside their home. The interruptions they face throughout their meal frequently reflect the true nature of the characters, as though despite their best attempts the elements of their personality they are attempting to repress simply cannot be restrained from entering the scene.

Tonally it rests in between Buñuel’s other great films- the significantly more incomprehensible Un Chien Andalou and the more realist Belle de Jour, finding the perfect balance between the two approaches. With surrealist film analysis of the underlying message all too often becomes the focus, in doing this it is easy to neglect discussing the film simply on an enjoyment level. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie 
is a very accessible film, and although it is obviously never aiming for belly laughs is still very much a comedy, a brilliant comic satire from one of the all time greats of European cinema.

words by pete bond.