The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie [DVD]
Screenplay : Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1972
Stars : Fernando Rey (Ambassador Raphael Acosta), Delphine Seyrig (Mme. Simone Thevenot), Stéphane Audran (Mme. Alice Senechal), Bulle Ogier (Florence), Jean-Pierre Cassel (M. Henri Senechal), Paul Frankeur (M. Francois Thevenot), Julien Bertheau (Bishop Dufour), Claude Pieplu (Colonel), Michel Piccoli (Home Secretary), Paul Muni (Peasant Girl), Milena Vukotic (Ines)
Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is the kind of film that film critics and fans of Buñuel's distinct cinematic style love and most general audiences find confusing and inane. Critics and fans like it because, knowing Buñuel and his surrealistic sensibilities, they realize it is a big joke; thus, they are able to enjoy it without any precepts of reality or logic. Most audiences, who might watch the film because it looks interesting or they know it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1972, will be confounded by its sheer ridiculousness. Rest assured, this film is one long joke on the audience, and anyone who watches it with the notion that he might understand it completely is either ponderously full of himself or sadly mistaken.
Buñuel was 72 when he directed The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and at first glance it would appear that he had lost all his sensibilities to old age. But that would be simplistic, especially because Buñuel arguably produced his best work after he turned 60. Buñuel was one of the founding fathers and grand masters of surrealistic cinema. He was a harsh critic and satirist who usually took aim at high culture, the Catholic Church, and the military, all of which are skewered in one way or another in Discreet Charm.
However, Buñuel did not limit himself to surrealism. In fact, several of his films were made in the neorealistic style, and it is his experience with this aspect of filmmaking that makes his surrealism so . . . well, surreal. Buñuel's gift is his ability to take the most absurd, ridiculous subject matter, and film it with a completely straight face. It's farce draped in realism, and the results are hilarious for some and confounding for others.
Plot-wise, there's not much to speak of in Discreet Charm. Essentially, it's about a group of six charming members of the upper class who are attempting to have dinner together. But, every time they sit down to eat, something gets in the way. As the film progresses, the dining interruptions become stranger and stranger. For instance, the first time dinner is ruined because they got the time and date mixed up, and the hosts weren't prepared. When they try to consummate the meal at a nearby restaurant, they are repulsed to find that the manager has recently died and his body is sitting in the next room. This is the first hint that something isn't quite right. During the next few attempts, dinner is interrupted by an amusing sexual escapade that leads to a misunderstanding that the police are after them, a restaurant that has run out of every beverage except for water, and a group of military soldiers dropping by while conducting war exercises.
It isn't long before Buñuel drops all pretenses of reality and enters the characters' dream-worlds. He never gives the audience any clue as to when he is shifting from waking reality to a dreamscape, and one has to wonder if Buñuel thinks there is truly any difference. The dream sequences are among the film's most striking scenes, especially one involving the characters sitting down to dinner and suddenly realizing they are on a stage. There is another rather creepy sequence where a soldier recounts the story of how his mother's ghost instructed him to poison the man who claimed to be his father.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a difficult film to recommend to someone, unless that person is either already a fan of Buñuel or else he has an extremely open mind and enjoys experimental cinema that doesn't satisfy in the traditional sense. It is an exceptionally well-made film, acted with (dare I say it?) charm and comic flourish by the six principles and beautifully filmed by Edmond Richard (who collaborated with Buñuel on many of his films, including The Phantom of Liberty  and That Obscure Object of Desire ).
If it is to be enjoyed, Discreet Charm must be viewed with the knowledge that Buñuel is kidding. Seen in this light, it is often hilarious; at the very least, it is certainly entertaining, even if you don't really understand what's going on.
|The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: Criterion Collection Special Edition Two-Disc DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| El náufrago de la calle de Providencia (The Castaway on the Street of Providence) 24-minute documentary homage to Buñuel|
A propósito de Buñuel (Regarding Buñuel) 98-minute documentary on Buñuel's career
Original theatrical trailer
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|The first scene in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which is shot from the inside of a car driving at night, does not seem to bode well for the image quality on this disc. The black night sky is grayish and unstable, and grain is evident throughout the somewhat soft image. However, after this opening scene, the transfer is excellent for the rest of the film. Transferred from an interpositive made from the original camera negative, the anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1) image is vibrant and detailed, with good color saturation, natural-looking flesh tones, and sharp edges. Black levels, with the exception of the opening scene, are generally solid and deep. Grain is rarely evident, and there is a miniscule amount of damage in the form of nicks and scratches.|
|The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack is more than adequate--clear and crisp without any hissing or distortion. Dialogue is always clear and audible, and some of the surrealistic sequences that involve subtle sound effects are well-rendered.|
| The main supplements included on this two-disc special edition are a pair of documentaries. The first, El náufrago de la calle de Providencia (The Castaway on the Street of Providence), which is presented in full-frame, is a brief, 24-minute documentary homage compiled by Arturo Ripstein and Rafael Castanedo, long-time friends of Buñuel with whom he used to drink martinis and have long talks while they were living in Mexico. The majority of the footage was filmed during these evening get-togethers in 1970, and the documentary is composed largely of Buñuel's friends talking about him, as well as footage of Buñuel himself carefully making martinis, which to him was akin to a religious experience. The entire soundtrack is in Spanish with burned-in English subtitles (which are, by the way, filled with type-o's). |
The second documentary, A propósito de Buñuel (Regarding Buñuel), which is contained on the second disc and presented in nonanamorphic widescreen (1.66:1) and Dolby 2.0 stereo sound (predominantly Spanish and French with optional English subtitles), is feature-length (it runs roughly 98 minutes). Directed by Jose Luis López-Linares and Javier Rioyo, A propósito de Buñuel is an engaging examination of Buñuel's entire career, from birth to death. It feature on-camera interviews with several dozen people, including Buñuel's two sons, many of his closest friends, and numerous actors and writers with whom he worked. The film is interesting to both Buñuel novices and those who are familiar with his cinematic oeuvre, which spans 50 years and multiple countries. López-Linares and Rioyo follow Buñuel all over the world, from his initial collaborations with Spanish surrealists like Salvador Dali, to his brief work at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, to his extended career in Mexico (where he became a citizen), to his return to his native Spain. Although it does not cover in-depth every film Buñuel made (that would be quite a chore, considering that he directed 32 films), it does focus on Un chien andalou (1928), L'age d'or (1930), Las Hurdes (1932), Los olvidados (1950), Rehearsal for a Crime (1955), Virdiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel (1962), Simon of the Desert (1965), Tristana (1970), and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Overall, A propósito de Buñuel is a fascinating piece of work, and its inclusion here is like buying two films for the price of one DVD.
The two-disc set also contains an original theatrical trailer presented in anamorphic widescreen and a Buñuel filmography.
©1998, 2000 James Kendrick