The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie [Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie]

Luis Buñuel
Release Year:
Length (mins):
France, Italy, Spain
Screening Date:
  • 18 Oct 2022
  • Categories:

    Satiric masterpiece from the Surrealist director Luis Buñel, the film is a plotless series of dreams centred around six middle-class people and their consistently interrupted attempts to have a meal together.

    Film Notes

    The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie review – strange, sensual and subversive.

    Luis Buñuel's brilliant hothouse flower of a film benefits from a little distance from the bourgeois conventions in question

    Luis Buñuel’s surreal masterpiece from 1972, co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière, is stranger and more sensual than ever. The weirdness under the conventions throbs even more insistently and indiscreetly, now that those conventions themselves are historically distant. We can see with hindsight how Buñuel’s subversion absorbed the various modish forms of agitprop and radical chic, and subverted those as well.

    The action revolves around some half-a-dozen well-to-do metropolitan sophisticates who are forever attempting to meet up for dinner parties and elegant soirees only to find the event ruined by an absent host, or some mysterious misunderstanding, or bizarre turn of events, and then one will awake to find it all to be a dream, yet the distinction between dream and waking does not become any clearer. The surrealist and anthropologist in Buñuel was fascinated by the ritual of the dinner party: without a host, this social event resembles humanity frantically inventing intricate rules for itself in the absence of God.

    It is still superbly disturbing when everyone assembles around a dinner table in an unfamiliar house and then, when one wall suddenly moves away, they discover themselves to be on stage in a blaze of unnatural light, inspected by an auditorium full of frowning theatregoers. “I don’t know my lines,” mutters Sénéchal (Jean-Pierre Cassel) to himself in a cold sweat. An exotic and brilliant hothouse flower of a film.

    , The Guardian, 28th June 2012.

    As in a dream things go fearfully wrong for the characters in Luis Buñuel's brilliant (and brilliantly titled) new comedy, "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," but the Ambassador of Miranda and his Parisian friends, the Sénéchals and the Thevenots, and Mrs. Thevenot's sister, Florence, always manage to cope gracefully. On second thought, Florence is not quite as consistent as the others.One martini and Florence is inclined to throw up—looking beautiful one minute and like a dead goose the next, her head dangling out the Ambassador's Cadillac window.For the most part, however, the Ambassador, the Sénéchals, the Thevenots and Florence survive a series of magnificently bewildering circumstances, employing the kind of elegance, self-interest, delicacy, intelligence, rudeness and short attention spans that Buñuel apparently finds to be the power, the curse and the appeal of the European upper middle class.The world of "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" is one of absolutely everything interrupted.For some peculiar reason, every time the friends sit down to dine, odd things happen. An Army arrives or, just as the food is being served, a curtain goes up and the friends find themselves on a stage playing to an audience. "I don't know my lines," M. Sénéchal (Jean-Pierre Cassel) says with wild-eyed, middle-of-the-night fright.When Mme. Thevenot (Delphine Seyrig) is at the flat of the Ambassador (Fernando Rey) for an afternoon tryst, her husband (Paul Frankeur) stops by—and you haven't seen such a flurry of garter belts and little white gloves in 40 years of moviegoing. Things get so bad that fate even conspires to interrupt (though not permanently) the very profitable heroin smuggling operation that the Ambassador conducts with the help of M. Sénéchal and M. Thevenot.One must, I suppose, talk about "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" rather gravely. It is, after all, Buñuel's 28th feature since "L'Age D'Or" in 1929 but, except for "The Exterminating Angel" and "Belle de Jour," he has never since employed the special freedom of Surrealism for such astonishing and lucid results.Several years ago, Buñuel said of "The Exterminating Angel" that "its images, like the images in a dream, do not reflect reality, but create it." A lot of "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" is made up of dreams—at times, of dreams within dreams, at other times, dreams that one person has dreamed that another dreamed. Sometimes they are just the dreams of a passer-by. You've never seen so many wish fulfillments. However, much of it is not a dream, and all of it is real — the unique creation of a director who, at 72, has never been more fully in control of his talents, as a filmmaker, a moralist, social critic and humorist.One must talk about these things; yet they tend to flatten the special exhilaration that "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" inspires when you see it. That exhilaration has to do with the awareness that you're watching a genius at work through any number of indications, some almost minuscule.Take, for example, the sort of small to-do that ensues when Mme. Sénéchal (Stéphane Audran) and Mme. Thevenot, with Florence (Bulle Ogier), go for afternoon tea at a fancy Paris hotel. Florence asks to change her seat. She can't stand looking at the cellist. "I hate cellos," she pouts. "Most orchestras have dropped them." Like others in her class, Florence is a woman in the thrall of cockeyed fashion.Or take the character of the clergyman (Julien Bertheau). "You've heard of the worker priests?" he asks the astonished Mme. Sénéchal as he applies for the job of gardener. "Well, I'm a worker bishop."In addition to being extraordinarily funny and perfectly acted, "The Discreet Charm" moves with the breathtaking speed and self-assurance that only a man of Buñuel's experience can achieve without resorting to awkward ellipsis. It was shown last night at the New York Film Festival and opens Sunday, Oct. 22 at the Little Carnegie. As I have not said in several years: Don't miss it.

    Vincent Canby, The New York Times, Oct. 14, 1972

    What you thought about The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie [Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie]

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    17 (34%) 12 (24%) 17 (34%) 2 (4%) 2 (4%)
    Total Number of Responses: 50
    Film Score (0-5): 3.80

    Collated Response Comments

    110 members and guests attended this screening.

    We received 50 responses giving a 46% response rate…thanks everyone. No sooner asked for than delivered.

    Here are all of your collated responses.

    An oddly enjoyable film – and a sharply edged satire. So these 4 all arrive at Alice and Henri's home for dinner. Alice, though, tells them they've arrived on the wrong night – and so begins an apparently unending series of failed attempts by the group to sit down together to eat. Buñuel's captures the politeness of how they show their upper middle-class outrage, but maintain the desire to chase all they want – whether sex, power, criminality and food. 50 years back against the Vietnam War, for example, it would have been an almost fashionable jab at the establishment. The weird and surreal frustrate a quest for dinner. Not only dream sequences, but dreams within dreams. The army, police, catholic church, politics all have a place, with all going to extraordinary lengths to protect their interests. Wasn't sure if it still worked, but still worth seeing. And they never do get to eat”.

    “Brilliant. The film resembles one long anxiety dream, the kind one experiences just before waking on a potentially fraught day. The supposed reality so unlikely it bleeds into the dreams so that they are barely distinguishable. Our middle-class friends with their petty concerns are buoyed through it all by their sense of order and politeness however lacking in morality their business or passions. At times it borders on farce, I would not have been surprised to see Brian Rix appear from a cupboard. Its age means that the social conventions of the group appear dated, irrelevant and oddly charming. The players are superb, despite their shared conventions each character is clearly delineated. Directed with tremendous pace and lightness of touch, if Bunuel really hated the bourgeoisie, he is lampooning them fairly gently. It made me want to dig out Godard's 'Weekend' for a comparison”.

    “I can't recall the scoring system but I'd give it 6/10. Thank you for showing this film which I wouldn't have sought out for myself and enjoyed more than I thought I would (until two thirds through when I started to get a bit bored). There were some clever things going on like the repetition of interrupted dinners, the scene in the theatre, the restaurant episode and the interlocking dream sequences. I also thought the colour was amazing. Maybe I need to watch it again to see if I missed the thing that would have enabled me to enjoy it more”.

    “Still very relevant and lots of humour despite its age. The arrogance, pretensions, duplicity (and I suspect corruption) of many of those in positions of authority or with wealth, apply just a much today as they did when Luis made this film”.

    “Why would we not be seeing more Bunuel? Discreet Charm is a bit like a re-make of Un Chien Andalou amplified and set in an upper middle-class setting. The dreams within dreams were certainly effective - I had a very curious dream that night, although I still can't work out where the flying dinosaur came from”.

    “I was able to entertain myself for a while by admiring the fabulous clothes, but even this wore thin and I was relieved when the film ended. Obviously it's vintage needs to be taken into account, but the casual sexism did jar (hand of older man on young woman's thigh etc) Just not my thing I guess, but I hope others enjoyed it”.

    “I found this to be playful and the "up ending" of polite conventions (like not shooting someone dead at a dinner party (!) or military personnel smoking weed whilst on duty (!)) made me giggle. The sequence when the dinner party find themselves on stage not knowing their lines (and running away) summed up the film brilliantly. The more I think about this film, the more I am convinced about the intelligence that created this reflection for us to gaze into”.

    “I love Bunuel and this did not disappoint. It is quite long and disjointed but fun, and exposes the ridiculous behaviour of the French around food”.

    “Memorable film”.

    “Saw this as a young man in the 1970s. Often walk down a country lane and remember this absurd ensemble. And "no tea and no coffee" comes back to me every time I'm told something basic is unavailable. How long could Buñuel have gone without allowing them to eat. My funniest moment is when the army group have to leave on manoeuvres but their urgent departure is delayed so they can listen to the private's latest dream. Mad and fantastically watchable”.

    “Re Discreet Charm etc - I would rate this very poor. I found it dated, over indulgent and life is too short to work out what it was all about”.

    “Thoroughly enjoyed it but not sure why?” “A good romp”.

    “Excellent film Society film – better than some of the ex-film festival stuff. Can we have more Tristana/Viridiana please?”

    “Please get aspect correct. It was incorrect this evening”.

    “Wonderfully off beat! Missed it sadly at the time so very grateful to catch up with it now! Thanks!”    “Weirdly wonderful!”

    “Exactly the kind of Film that the Film Society should put on”.

    “Amusing but got tedious as memes were repeated”.

    “Quite amazing”.

    “Amusing but very strange!”. “Interesting”. “Entertaining and interesting but not very comprehensible! Very of its time”.

    “Very amusing – I wish I understood it”. “Bizarre but not boring”.

    “So vivid imagination but bonkers”. “Lots of hidden meanings. I must try to find them”.

    “Loved seeing a French film but very bizarre! Ending???”

    “Not my taste”. “This film has not stood the test of time”.

    “So different, so French! I loved the view of life at that time but totally surreal!! Never finished a meal”.

    “Funny in parts but was left a little confused”.

    “Not sure! Need to go home and look it up!”

    “Bit disjointed. A lot of corruption in a disguised sort of way- “Bourgeoise”. I couldn’t really understand it…no music…an old film I suppose”

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