The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie Review

Luis Buñuel’s 1972 iconic offering is a mysterious beast; mysterious in form, structure, narrative and an untenable enigma for anyone that dare try to explain it.

The premise of The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie revolves around the thwarted attempts of six bourgeois friends to dine together, repeatedly interrupted as they are by increasingly bizarre events that halt their efforts.

Interruptions storm and sneak into the scenes like sniggering children playing tricks, the mischievous directorial glint reminding character and audience that in this surrealist world plagued with non sequiturs that the ordinary rules of rationality and sense cannot be trusted.

This abstraction from logic grows as the film plays out; the absurd maturing from odd-but-possible situations in the beginning to paradoxical impossibilities by the end, such as a pubescent maid of fifty-two or a tea room without any beverages.

As the film progresses, Buñuel’s interruptions are liberated from the shackles of the dinner table and start to weave their way into every scene as they interfere with and dominate the characters’ futile plans.

Buñuel himself plays the puppet master with traditional linear narrative, shifting sequences and impeding events so that fragmentation and interruption become the constructive format.

There are threads of progressional narrative that form the basis of a casual storyline, but these feel more like they’re included for the benefit of the characters than the audience; foils to excaudate the surreal frame they find themselves in.

Another crucial role of these whimsical plots is to drive home Buñuel’s critique of bourgeois society that forms the overarching raised-eyebrow tone of his film.

Famously reproachful of both the upper classes and the church, both sectors of society find themselves as victims of Buñuel’s harsh analytical eye.

The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie acts as an allegory for the pointless, arbitrary telos of aristocratic life; even the ridiculous façade of decorum the “dinner party” commands isn’t allowed to play itself out, as though the act itself is too insignificant.

A recurring scene in which all six of the diners walk down a long, seemingly endless country road is a screamingly surreal metaphor for the directionless, entitled meander bourgeois life affords.

As the characters reveal the rife hypocrisy that dominates their behaviour, the format fractures further into a perturbing mishmash of conscious and unconscious action.

Reality battles dreams, dreams-within-dreams, memories and anecdotes that devolve into Sterne-esque sequences that unsettle both character and audience.

Crucially, it’s in these dreams that the characters’ true desires and fears are exposed. The rigid codes of decorum and indulgent snobbery of bourgeois lifestyle mask the characters’ raw, unadulterated desires, and it’s only when we’re granted insight into their subconscious that this charade is broken and the animus exposed.

For all their lofty pretensions, these six protagonists are haunted by fears of exposure and death’ the former stripping them of all their secrets and insecurities, while the latter highlights the aimless, hypocritical and immoral nature of the lives they’ve led.

Through all of this, Buñuel never forces his characters too far towards cruelty and immorality. They never become repulsive, and their behaviour is never shockingly underhand.

As an audience we never turn against them, but merely snigger at their buffoonery, tut at their haughtiness and mock their inability to complete a single dinner party.

Their uselessness underpins the aimless, stilted anti-narrative of the film, closing on the recurring country-road tableau.

Aimless and lost, Buñuel leaves the audience and characters in mystery; the central force around which his film tiptoes.

From a man who famously never explained any of his work, The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie hints that mystery is the only thing that gives life its purpose.

Seraphina Trent D’Arby

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Dates ‘n stuff

July 2012