The film begins at night. Under the credits, there are views from a car in motion, before four people arrive at a stately home in the woods. There is a married couple, François (Paul Frankeur) and Simone (Delphine Seyrig) Thévenot. Simone’s sister, the flighty Florence (Bulle Ogier), has joined them for the evening, as has François’s colleague Rafael (Fernando Rey). Their hosts are another couple, the Sénéchals, Alice (Stéphane Audran) and Henri (Jean-Pierre Cassel). All seemingly ordinary and banal; all very middle-class. But Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) is a movie in which not even the simplest goal—in this case, six people’s sitting down together for a meal—can reach its fulfillment.
Something always interferes. Complications of every kind—crossed wires as to the date of the appointment, the glimpsing of a corpse in the back room of a restaurant, a soldier spontaneously telling an intense tale of his childhood at teatime—keep piling up, and the characters must move on, still in search of their elusive nourishment. The more this simple plot device repeats, the more it renders the proceedings patently absurd and dreamlike.
Meanwhile, as the polite facade of normality slowly cracks apart, other human desires, beyond the need for food, gradually assert themselves, taking over the narrative: acts of impulsive sex and equally impulsive murder, for instance. The film becomes increasingly outrageous, scandalous, even blasphemous, while, on its surface, remaining perfectly cool and in control. That combination was a Buñuel specialty, achieved with a renewed cheek and assurance here.
Discreet Charm boasts a wonderful, zigzagging structure, devised by Buñuel with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, his collaborator since Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) and all the way to his final work, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). The film is episodic, leaping freely from one vignette to another, like his The Milky Way (1969) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974), though this time Buñuel also maintains a somewhat tighter focus, restricting the film’s purview, at least nominally, to the comings and goings of its six central characters. Within this plot pattern, there is always room left open for surreal, wandering digressions. Anybody who walks into a scene is liable to take the story off in a new direction.
It is also a work stuffed with odd details—details that sometimes seem to escape the attention of its characters as much as they may flee the memory of spectators. One needs to rewatch Discreet Charm every few years to rediscover these delicious oddities, such as the fact that Alice, in the opening scene, heads out to a restaurant with only a fur coat covering her nightdress—and nobody else finds that the least bit strange. Or Florence’s excessive distaste for the somewhat obscene gesture of a cellist’s finger, shown in a close-up insert, vibrating a string (“Most orchestras have dropped them,” she imperiously states). Such touches help give the film its almost hallucinatory air: so many unexplained things just keep slipping in and out of our mental grasp.
“The very thinness of the line between storytelling and dream-telling in Buñuel is nowhere more apparent than in this film.”
The story goes that Buñuel, at age seventy, considered his great career complete with Tristana (1970). But a chance inspiration, and an opportunity provided by his regular French producer, Serge Silberman, led him to concoct the script for Discreet Charm with Carrière over the course of just several weeks. Buñuel seized the occasion to perfect something he had long strived for: a type of serene, hyper-elegant flow that first manifested itself in Belle de jour (1967). With Discreet Charm, he heightened the ironic emphasis on superficiality: the immaculately bourgeois design of clothes, cosmetics, and furniture (see the long list of accessory credits at the end of the movie). Carrière has testified to the manner in which he and the director free-associated the film together, using the “muscle” of the imagination, daring each other to go further than they ever had before.
One event, one mood, one genre so calmly transitions into another, without announcement or ostentation. Reality gradually becomes wild dream and then, in the blink of a cut, returns to banal reality. Crazy things keep happening, but, as British critic Raymond Durgnat remarked, they are “flanked by everything which is shallow and arbitrary in everyday sociability”—and hence grounded in mundanity.
Buñuel was, quite famously, a surrealist poet of the unconscious mind. But his special vision of the unconscious is rarely focused on individuals and their solitary, subjective experiences. Rather, he loved to stage interactions, group scenes, small communities. The totality of daily life is a shared dream for Buñuel—a very weird kind of dream, marvelous and banal in equal measure. And if there are actual dreams experienced by any character in particular, those personal visions become social the instant they are related to listeners—in one scene in Discreet Charm, the public recounting of dreams even becomes a military ritual. The very thinness of the line between storytelling and dream-telling in Buñuel is nowhere more apparent than in this film.
Discreet Charm thus creates a fluid continuum, where we pass from ordinary reality, via odd details, to an immersion in unconscious fantasy—sometimes literally in a fast zoom of the camera, as when the bishop (Julien Bertheau) lives out his dream of becoming a gardener by donning the appropriate outfit. This flexibly oneiric world tends to follow the viciously circular logic identified by French critic and scholar Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier: “Obstacles create frustration, frustration prompts dreams, and the dreams repeat the obstacles.”
Along these lines, Buñuel gives new meaning to the genre tag comedy of manners. Everything here begins with eating—the social ritual of sharing a meal. Hence all the discussion of wine, cooking, taste, flavor, and the proper way to behave “at table.” Except that, of course, Buñuel’s characters never get very far into actually swallowing or digesting anything. As in the equally black comedies of Swedish director Roy Andersson (who cites Buñuel among his major influences), it’s when the social codes of behavior are somehow jammed or suspended that the most remarkable things occur.
Buñuel’s fascination with the discreet charms of these bourgeois characters is twofold. On the one hand, ultrapolite, good-looking civilization hides, or even nurtures, impressive acts of savagery and criminality. A bishop commits murder, high-ranking government officials smuggle drugs and remain immune to the law, dissidents are cruelly tortured. This complicated interplay of normality and transgression is taken for granted by Buñuel as the status quo—just the way things are in the rotten modern world.
But he also delights in showing how, on the other hand, that balance can so easily come unstuck. Too many embarrassing or needling questions from a colonel (Claude Piéplu) to Don Rafael about the politics of Miranda (the country he represents as ambassador) lead to a deadly duel right in the midst of a reception. And discretion gives way to flagrant indiscretion whenever the most basic human appetites—hunger or lust—force their way into the foreground of a situation. A couple’s itch for amour fou leads to the abandonment of their assembled guests, while the compulsion to chomp on a decent piece of meat gives Rafael away just when he should be hiding from a terrorist’s machine gun.
The dream state is social in Discreet Charm but also historical and political. A running gag covers up the “incriminating” evidence of named names with outrageous sound effects, as if the film has already been worked over by government censors. More acutely, the film depicts no small amount of political violence. Buñuel became fascinated by the growing phenomenon of global terrorism in the seventies, both for its gestures of romantic anarchy (Buñuel’s own preferred rhetoric in his youth) and for its disturbing ambiguity: too often simply a mirror of the violence of the state itself, and corrupted from within by sabotage or plain human whimsy. Hence the dreams and nightmares of the bourgeoisie naturally include kidnappings, assassinations, torture—an entire theater of mass death writ large. In fact, death figures, in one way or another, in every single vignette of Discreet Charm. Silberman recalled: “For Buñuel—for many—death is an obsession.”
But these themes rarely seem to disturb the film’s composure. The artist who began from the in-your-face surrealist shocks of Un chien andalou (1929) progressively moved toward a slyly subtle, nearly “invisible” style that might have been at home in classical Hollywood, and Discreet Charm marks the apogee of this process of refinement in Buñuel’s career. The work of director of photography Edmond Richard (who had collaborated with Orson Welles during the sixties), and the way it is integrated with the director’s staging, is consistently astonishing. The film’s fluidity is clinched in a constant interweaving of foreground and background spaces, with the actors darting this way and that (keep a close eye on Milena Vukotic as the Sénéchals’ maid) as the camera reframes each new configuration of characters with a subtle pan or slight zoom (study the first meeting of everyone in the Sénéchal home). Each well-placed cut within a scene prepares the ground for a redrawn choreography of bodies.
“Buñuel begins, essentially, from stereotypes that he treats satirically or tenderly. But then the types, as it were, float.”
In her 2019 autobiography J’ai oublié (I’ve forgotten), Bulle Ogier recalls the joy of this shoot on which “we never stopped laughing”—while also noting that, like Jacques Rivette or Manoel de Oliveira, Don Luis (“no one ever addressed him as Luis”) could easily suspend a day or two of filming in order to mull over and work on a scene with the actors. Ogier describes the sequence of the six central characters walking endlessly “along a flat, country road” as one that was in neither the script nor the shooting schedule; “it came to his mind during filming.” Buñuel placed these shots at strategic intervals in the film, evoking a mininarrative that mirrors the larger structure: at first, twenty-nine minutes in, the characters stroll calmly in the sunshine; forty-four minutes later, the light is darker and the group behavior is harried, distracted; and at the very end, before the camera adopts a distant view, before the image blurs out and the credits roll, everyone seems somewhat troubled but ultimately resigned to their eternal lot of walking, walking—with no end in sight.
For Ogier, this sequence expresses a very particular aspect of Buñuel’s creativity. For, although these characters were “precisely delineated” on the page, Buñuel loved also to film the “more and less” of them. What does this mean? Buñuel’s approach is paradoxical. He begins, essentially, from stereotypes (the bishop, the politician, the servant, the farmer, etc.) that he treats satirically or tenderly. But then the types, as it were, float. These figures commit acts that would seem to be radically out of character (as when the bishop picks up a rifle and kills the man he has just absolved). Potential intrigues are hinted at but never flower into story lines—as with the unforgettable woman (Muni, a Buñuel regular) who declares her hatred for Jesus Christ, or Ogier’s own character of Florence, whose bouts of drunkenness and instability (her neuroses include, as she begins to tell us, “Euclid’s complex”) do not generate any specific melodrama.
Above all, the relationships between characters are never given to us all at once, in an opening exposition, as most directors would routinely do. It takes a good while for the film to definitively establish that Florence and Simone are sisters, that François and Simone are married, and that Rafael and Simone are having an affair. On this level, too, the characters float, are never entirely “there.”
And then there are the bodies, the presences and personalities of the actors themselves. Buñuel was a true connoisseur of knowing how and when to bring the actor more to the foreground than his or her fictive role. On that road to nowhere, we might feel we are watching the actors themselves searching for their characters—and for the resolution to their maddening, stop-start adventure.
This sinuously reflexive game finds its dizzy apotheosis in the brilliant scene in which the characters, sitting down to dinner, find that the chickens are plastic, that the soft drink is “Quasi-Cola,” that the hitherto unseen fourth wall is a parting curtain, and that they are now on a stage in front of an expectant audience, being prompted to speak lines they do not know.
More and less: the same fine, Buñuelian principle goes for the film as a whole, on the level of its themes and meanings. As his best critics have observed, Buñuel multiplies the clues and keys to interpretation—dead mother-figures, hints of an allegory of Spain, allusions to the Marquis de Sade—in order, finally, to cancel out any “single, knockdown, logically demonstrable meaning,” as Durgnat writes. With Discreet Charm and its routine frustration of meaning, Buñuel—who publicly savored the irony that he was an atheist who “thanked God,” and a bourgeois who roasted the bourgeoisie—was able to realize his flair for the paradoxical on-screen more fully, and with greater finesse, than he had before.
This could be taken as the sign of a new mellowness, a “late style” in the aging Buñuel; we seem to be far, now, from the corrosive anger of Viridiana (1961) or even Tristana. But don’t be fooled: Discreet Charm is a film that ceaselessly deconstructs itself while constructing itself. That’s why spectators have such a hard time keeping the film straight in their memory, and why it always repays another viewing to discover what may have cruised under one’s perceptual radar previously. In its uniquely dazzling and delightful way, Discreet Charm succeeds in being the type of impossible object that few artists can deliver: a kaleidoscopic film of open-ended episodes, details, and fragments that is nonetheless a spellbindingly unified whole.