The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie: 50 years of Buñuel’s masterpiece

In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1972, Luis Buñuel uses surrealism to construct an anarchic and corrosive comedy.

I can’t understand the obsession some have with giving a rational explanation to often free images. People always want an explanation of everything. It is the consequence of centuries of bourgeois education. And for everything for which they cannot find explanations, they ultimately have recourse to God. But what is it for? Then they will have to explain God.

The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie: an image from the film

Four people show up at Alice Sénéchal’s villa (Stéphane Audran) following the invitation to dinner from her husband Henri (Jean-Pierre Cassel); however, the latter is away on business, while Alice claims that the invitation was for the following evening and she has nothing to offer her friends. It is a trivial misunderstanding to open The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, the spring that triggers the first of a long series of unforeseen events and setbacks: a desolate restaurant where a wake is being held for the owner, who died suddenly in the afternoon; a refined bistro which, due to the unusually high turnout, can no longer offer its customers either tea or coffee; a military company that knocks on the Senechal’s door one day early, while their guests have just sat down at the table.

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The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie: Bulle Ogier, Stéphane Audran and Delphine Seyrig

Luis Buñuel’s masterpiece hinges precisely on this mechanism: a chain of failed acts, the incessantly frustrated wait for a meal that seems destined never to be consumed. Again a paradoxical presupposition, similar to the expedient at the root of The exterminating angel, of ten years earlier, but whose absurdity appears less blatant and extreme here: you never breathe an authentic drama in the microcosm of the film, characterized on the contrary by composure of the characters and their almost unscratchable formalism. Even when Simone Thévenot (Delphine Seyrig) visits her lover, the South American Ambassador Rafaël Acosta (Fernando Rey), and is surprised here by her husband François (Paul Frankeur), the suspicion of adultery is in no way apparent from the interactions of the trio, resolved with yet another worldly appointment.

The “mad bourgeois” by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière

Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie

The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie: an image of Stéphane Audran

Set between the lounges and clubs of Paris, The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie it landed in French cinemas on September 15, 1972, attracting one and a half million spectators to theaters; a month later it made its debut in the United States, where the reception was enthusiastic and the film won the Oscar for best foreign film. At the origins of this very fortunate work there is the fourth collaboration between Luis Buñuel and the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrièreinaugurated in 1964 with The diary of a waitress to continue in 1967 with the famous Bella di Giorno and in 1969 with La Via Lattea: a partnership marked by the progressive abandonment of the traditional dramaturgical structure to instead turn towards a composite story, consisting of an accumulation of situations, fragments, subplots and “dead ends”, in an ideal circularity that invariably brings us back to the starting point together with the small group of protagonists.

The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie

The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie: an image of the protagonists of the film

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The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie: Maria Gabriella Maione and Fernando Rey

Elegant, smiling, lovers of good food: from Rafaël Acosta di Fernando Rey, ambassador of the phantom Republic of Miranda, who is not upset by the fact that he is the target of a cell of red terrorists, to the spouses Sénéchal, played by Stéphane Audran and Jean-Pierre Cassel, who run to ‘break through’ in the garden of their villa while friends have an aperitif in the living room. All respectful of etiquette and the rules of etiquette, committed to adhering as much as possible to the bourgeois model of life, but basically empty, bored, devoid of passions and true convictions; “I would also be a socialist if the socialists believed in God“, is Don Rafaël’s seraphic reply to the rhetoric of the young terrorist who tried to attack him. What emerges, in particular, is the classism inherent in a vision of the world based on relationships of subordination and on a parasitism elected to modus vivendi.

Beautiful by day: the scandalous Golden Lion by Buñuel and Deneuve

A masterpiece between reality, dream, non-sense and politics

Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie Blu Ray X05

The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie: an image of Julien Bertheau

Yet, Buñuel’s film is the furthest away from a pamphlet: his anti-bourgeois satire never assumes preaching or moralizing tones, does not aim to support any specific thesis and, above all, does not allow itself to be caged in the rigid limits of an allegorical apparatus. What makes The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie one of the most vital, fluid and amusing titles of the entire Buñuelian production is precisely the extraordinary sense of freedom that runs through it, the joyful inventiveness of a narrative open to digressions and small non-sense, until it leads to a game of Chinese boxes in which the plane of reality is intertwined with that of the dream. And it is here that the Spanish director gives full vent to the dreamlike and surrealist matrix of his cinema, between supernatural apparitions (the ghost hidden in the wardrobe) and found by textbook (the dining room that turns into a stage, with forced diners acting in front of an audience).

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The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie: Fernando Rey, Jean-Pierre Cassel and Paul Frankeur

Charme Discret Ogier Etc

The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie: an image from the film

It is interesting to reflect on how these aspects have contributed to the popularity of The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, which half a century later proves to have passed the test of time very well; but also the political subtext of the film, although often disguised or kept in the background, retains a strength and efficacy that transcend the context and the age of belonging. Buñuel’s irony, on the other hand, is never really ‘harmless’, and in this case he does not fail to address the links between the hegemony of the bourgeois class, with its privileges cloaked in hypocrisy, and the complicity of institutions such as the army and the Church, embodied by the complacent Bishop Dufour (Julien Bertheau): also, in their own way, gears of a system of power with which Buñuel, exiled from Spain due to the Franco regime, would never stop doing the accounts, even with a smile (or a grin?) on his lips.

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The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie: 50 years of Buñuel’s masterpiece