The discreet charm of Luis Buñuel is that he kind of likes the targets of his satirical volleys, even as he mercilessly skewers their pretensions and their monstrous moral crimes. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (France, 1972), his sly, dry, deadpan masterpiece of upper class hypocrisy, it all comes together perfectly.
Spanish star Fernando Rey heads a classy French cast as the gleefully corrupt ambassador to France from the fictional South American regime of Miranda (when a Nazi war criminal in hiding is captured, Rey remarks: “I can assure you, he’s a real gentleman”). Paul Frankeur plays his business partner and friend, glamorous Delphine Seyrig is the status obsessed wife, Bulle Ogier is her kittenish lush of a sister, and Jean-Pierre Cassel and Stéphane Audran are the eternally frustrated dinner party hosts. Drawn together by drug smuggling and a shared contempt for social inferiors, they spend endless hours in small talk and hypocritical self-delusion, but for the life of them cannot get through a single dinner date without the most absurd complication shattering their evening.
To explain the plot would be futile and unnecessary. Scenes follow one another as dreams within dreams, stories arbitrarily interrupt the narrative as surreal asides, and insane twists send the narrative into comic situations worthy of Monty Python. All through, the upper class dilettantes maintain their composure with cool assurance. Bunuel doesn’t direct for punchlines and his cast plays it all straight, giving a deadpan dryness to the whole affair.
Buñuel was over 70 when he directed the film and he shows an astounding assurance and an elegance unseen in previous films. But old age didn’t mellow the old satirist, it just gave him the confidence to embrace, even trumpet his contradictions. His bourgeois hypocrites may be classist, criminal, and just plain soulless, but he doesn’t play them for clowns or fools. Perhaps that makes them even more monstrous, but Bunuel treasures their dignity and their doggedness even as he deflates their precious social decorum over and over and over again.
It won the Academy Award of best foreign language film and BAFTAs for actor Stéphane Audran and the original screenplay by Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, and earned best picture and best director awards from the National Society of Film Critics.
Rated PG, in French with subtitles
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The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
The Criterion Collection release includes the documentary A Proposito De Bunuel, directed by Jose Luis Lopez Linares and Javier Rioyo, and based on Bunuel’s autobiography, the featurette “El Naufrago De La Calle De La Providencia” (aka “The Survivor on the Street of Providence”) (1970), a portrait of Bunuel by longtime friends Arturo Ripstein and Rafael Castanedo, and Bunuel’s recipe for the perfect martini.