Six people sit down for dinner and never get around to actually eating.
The narrative matter of Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is the desire of the Sénéchals, the Thevenots and their closest friends to dine agreeably together. That project should offer no great difficulty to members of the class which these couples represent so elegantly, but alas it never occurs. In a first draft of this notice I had cited the succession of contretemps which prevent it; it is an entertaining catalogue, which I was reluctant to drop, but it would be an injustice to Buñuel to rob him of his surprises.
However, there are two general points to be made about these variations on frustration, the first and obvious one being that they could occur only in a dream. The dreamer is the Ambassador from Miranda, a close friend of both couples; indeed, he is a business associate of Sénéchal and Thevenot—they are engaged in smuggling cocaine via the Mirandan diplomatic pouch—and the lover of Madame Thevenot. And the Ambassador, who serves his country’s military dictatorship with implacable good manners supported by a quick resort to firearms (at least while dreaming), is a virtuoso dreamer in the sense that he incorporates into his own dream subsidiary dreams which his subconscious invents for his friends, and on one occasion a dream by M. Thevenot which subsumes a dream by M. Sénéchal. If that sounds excessively mazelike for satiric comedy, I must assure you that, such is Buñuel’s wizard command of cinematic juxtapositions, the proceedings are delightfully clear, as well as light and witty.
The other generalization is that the episodes within this ever shifting cat’s cradle of restless sleep, while prodigiously varied and stunningly unpredictable, remain in one area of human concern: they all deal, one way or another, with unexpected violence, sudden death, abrupt loss of identity. And, of course, the dreamed of and dreaming dreamers never enjoy the meal for which they so obsessively plan. The bourgeoisie know that the crust beneath their feet is thin; it is their discreet charm that they do not allow the knowledge to disrupt their exterior life of graceful behavior displayed in splendid surroundings.
By setting his film in the surreal world of dreaming, Buñuel casts himself as a jester rather than an Old Testament prophet, crying “Woe, woe.” Awake, this assemblage might have been too much for the old man’s equanimity; while they sleep, it is enough that he skip about them, poking them keenly with his rattle. Surrealism is nothing new to the screen, or to Buñuel, but what is at least unusual is that it comes here unembellished by vapors or bizarre disruptions of the natural order. Continuity and probability go by the board, but there is no experimentation with the geometry of experience. That decision, to stay real within fancy, gives the picture both its lucidity and its bite.
Buñuel is rather severe with his bourgeoisie—his text abounds with cuts that evoke barks of laughter from the alert in the audience—but he does give them credit for courage and thorough schooling in the discipline of their class. They can be rude, but not to one another; they are selfish, but indulgent of each other’s self-concern, and if they ever ride the tumbrils you may be sure that they will be dressed for the occasion. I think myself that the Spanish director is a little too fair to his French establishmentarians. I don’t get about in their limousines, but it would surprise me if they were typically that loyal to the dressage of their society.
I wonder also if the dope smuggling was a good strategy for the purpose of the picture. For one thing, it introduces a strategy of real danger into what Buñuel otherwise clearly intended to be the hellish boredom of lives spent waiting for dinner to be served. For another, it makes evasion easy. One may say, “Yes, the maid looks very much like our Yvonne, the drawing room drapes are certainly familiar, and those are the very words and gestures with which we greet our friends; but we do not gather behind locked doors to share out pounds of contraband, and we do not whisper ‘police?’ when the doorbell sounds. That Spaniard is more impudent than informed.” And it would be true, I think; the bourgeoisie, as a class, is not engaged that immediately in the life of crime.
But then neither were many bourgeois gentlemen as extravagantly gullible as M. Jourdain, yet Molière blew a gale of laughter through the salons from which their occupants never entirely recovered. I hear that The Discreet Charm has aroused a good deal of indignation in some sectors of M. Pompidou’s Paris, so probably Buñuel needs no correction from me.
In any case, we others, who do not possess the variety of charm under examination and who have never employed a “worker bishop” to tend our gardens (the director’s current allusion to his standing feud with the Church) can laugh in relative security that we ourselves are not what’s so funny.
I should mention the principals, who give this film the polish and sparkle that are possible only when intelligent actors are employed in congenial work: the Sénéchals are Jean-Pierre Cassel and Stéphane Audran; the Thevenots are Paul Frankeur and Delphine Seyrig; Fernando Rey plays the Ambassador and Julien Bertheau the Bishop.