Six guests sit for a dinner party, as a waiter brings two plump roast chickens to the table. He clumsily drops them on the floor, but quickly picks them up and places them correctly. It doesn’t really matter, though, because they’re made of plastic.
Spotlights suddenly illuminate the room, and a curtain opens to reveal that the diners are onstage to a hostile audience of theatregoers. As they’re taunted, one diner nervously mutters to himself “I don’t know my lines!”
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a 1972 French film directed by Luis Buñuel, the key pioneer of surrealist cinema. It is certainly not a film bounded by the normal logic of cinema, so it doesn’t have much of a discernible plot, but the basic narrative follows a group of six wealthy, upper-class friends as they attempt to dine together – despite continuous interruptions, by increasingly bizarre events.
These include disruptions by a group of pot-smoking French army officers, the diners’ arrests and assassinations, and confusion over alfresco sex, and cocaine smuggling. The film constantly blurs the line between dreams and reality, as, unexpectedly, sequences are revealed to be the characters’ interlinked nightmares.
Yet throughout The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the characters quite readily accept these strange situations as they continue on their quest to hold a dinner party. And the surreal set-pieces are connected throughout by Buñuel’s biting satire, which attacks the self-serving and pointless ways of wealthy society.
The friends are more concerned with the proper etiquette of martini drinking than the ethics of drug trafficking, and the characters’ nightmares eloquently expose the fears of the bourgeoisie – who worry, above all else, about their public humiliation, if they’re exposed for their corruption. Buñuel also satirises the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church with a Bishop forgiving a man’s sins, but then dishing out a murderous revenge.
Whether or not it makes any sense, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a brilliant film. The impeccable cast deliver straight-faced performances despite the absurdity unfolding around them, and the film’s wonderfully offbeat tone makes for hilarious and entertaining viewing.
In fact, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a surprisingly accessible watch, that would readily appeal to fans of Monty Python. Even if it isn’t for everyone, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a truly unique work, from one the most innovative directors in film history.
Written by John Martin
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is released for the first time on Blu-ray, and also on DVD, on 16th July to celebrate the film’s 40th Anniversary!