The three films collected in Criterion’s new “Three Films by Luis Buñuel” Blu-ray box set were the great Mexican-Spanish director’s final features, and what remains refreshing and invigorating about them is how clearly they capture an artist with, as the saying goes today, no f*cks left to give. It’s not that Buñuel had ever ceded to the standards of polite society and its good taste – he had, after all, made his film debut with the short Un Chien Andalou, still notorious for its grisly imagery (including, most famously, an eyeball sliced with a razorblade). But in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, and That Obscure Object of Desire (which was discussed in this space last year), there are no signs of a provocateur mellowing in his old age, as so many do. Buñuel was going out with a bang.
Discreet Charm was the most financially and critically successful of those films, winning the Oscar for best foreign film of 1972 (and nabbing a screenplay nomination) and the prize for the year’s best film from the National Society of Film Critics. Viewed now, within this group of titles and the filmography as a whole, it stands as perhaps his quintessential work, the one that best summarizes the themes and worldview that would preoccupy him throughout his career.
The plot is somehow simple while simultaneously defying explanation. The bourgeoisie of the title are a group of friends, spouses, and lovers in the circle of Rafael Acosta (Fernando Rey), the ambassador to the Latin American republic of Miranda. The picture opens with the group arriving for a dinner party that isn’t going to happen – there was confusion about the date. So they head off to a restaurant instead, where they complain about the menu and the décor (“Cheap food, no customers, makes me nervous”) before discovering the corpse in the next room, laying in state. They hurry off; they’ll eat together some other time.
This is the rough outline of the rest of the film – these rich friends trying, and failing, to dine together, consistently interrupted by outside forces or their own incompetence, a kind of continuous coitus interruptus, but for food (though sex is frequently interrupted as well). It doesn’t take long to discover that, for all of their fancy airs and high incomes, these society types are just as animalistic as the rest of us, motivated by greed, drugs, and sex, and constantly in pursuit of one or the other, or all. (They are also, title notwithstanding, not terribly discreet about these activities.)
In the early scenes, the stifling of their bread-breaking is due to slights and overreactions; the longer the picture goes, the loopier the interruptions become (the filmmaker seems intent on topping himself, so the peculiarity has a sense of inevitability), turning into a series of dreams and fantasies, though none seem much stranger than what we’ve already accepted as “real life.” Any summary of the plot – such as it is – risks devolving into a series of spoiled jokes; the laughs come from the sheer surreal silliness, the unexpected turns of events, the circumstances that keep these people from the simple act of eating a meal or even drinking tea, over and over again. And then he turns the knife, so that the laughs render subsequent moments of genuine horror and viciousness all the more upsetting.
While he’s stacking up this narrative house of cards, Buñuel is simultaneously crafting one of his most technically accomplished works – he moves the camera with both precision and abandon – and one of his most formally playful. He takes great delight in building his nonsensical plot to points of exposition, and then slathering over those explanations with wild sound effects (airplanes flying over, passing sirens wailing, etc.), as if to kid us for bothering to care, to look for such fleeting logic. And he indulges in cheerful digressions, spinning off into extended flashbacks for fabulously unimportant characters we’ve met maybe thirty seconds earlier.
There’s a sense, in those moments, that he and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière may just be looking to escape from their protagonists – a phrase that hardly seems adequate for the main characters, since they’re so spectacularly loathsome. And it’s hard to blame them; the well-to-do are indicted with much here, but mostly, and most venomously, for being so frightfully dull. They have nothing interesting to say – it’s all scheduling and chit-chat and bullshit – and they say all of it as though they’re the most enlightening and entertaining people on the planet, rather than know-nothing blowhards. They’re not even interesting when they’re screwing each other’s wives and smuggling cocaine, and that takes some doing.
That may be why the film’s “eat le rich” spirit has aged so well, and lands so firmly at this particular moment in time, as our own wealthy politicians sneer at the idea of “handing out” $600 to their citizens, and plead moral offense when asked for more. Writing about the film in 2000, Roger Ebert noted, “It was released in a year when social unrest was at its height, the Vietnam War was in full flower, and the upper middle class was a fashionable target of disdain. How different to see it again in 2000, when affluence is once again praised and envied.” Twenty years later, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie again looks wildly of its time.