The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie: The Criterion Collection
For such an unconventional, experimental director, it's not surprising that Luis Buñuel was something of a vagabond. Generally regarded as one of the founding members of the early-20th-century Surrealist school of art, Buñuel co-created perhaps the most famous short film of all time, the incongruous, brutal 1928 Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog) with Salvador Dali (Buñuel described it simply as "a despairing, passionate call to murder"), but when the equally disturbing L'age d'or (The Golden Age) was banned by the French government after its 1930 release, and then his documentary Las Hurdes was banned by the Spanish Republican government, Buñuel would not make another film for 15 years, hanging on the edges of the European film industry until he emigrated to America in 1938 (the Germans at that time, like the French and Spanish, weren't too big on freedom of expression; they weren't too big on France or Spain either.) It was in Mexico and America that Buñuel continued his long, storied film career, starting with 1947's Los olvidados (The Forgotten Ones), later returning to Europe to create a rush of important works in the '60s and '70s, including El angel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel), Belle du jour, Cet obscur objet du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire), and one of his unqualified masterpieces, 1972's Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie). Essentially a series of dream-sequences enclosed within a larger dream of Rafael Acosta (Fernando Rey), an ambassador from the Latin American country of Miranda stationed in France, Le charme discret concerns six members of the upper class, including Acosta, who repeatedly attempt to dine together, only to have their meals repeatedly interrupted by unforeseen circumstances. At times it's for innocuous reasons, such as when guests arrive for a dinner party on the wrong night. Others are more unusual the proprietor of a restaurant has suddenly died; because of a lunch-rush, another restaurant has run out of everything but water; a military regiment on maneuvers drops by a household and there's not enough food to go around. Throughout, Buñuel weaves his dream-sequences, with every dinner ending in a seemingly more bizarre fashion until the final meal another abortive attempt to dine, and one that has a distinct note of finality to it.
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In-jokes are something Buñuel always delighted in to a degree, and Le charme discret has a few (Rey, as the Mirandan ambassador, is smuggling cocaine, a clear nod to his role as a heroin druglord in The French Connection a year earlier; Buñuel credits himself on the film for "sound effects," despite the fact that he was nearly deaf at the time). But Le charme discret has a clear target as well, the privileged classes that Buñuel held in disdain, and the function of eating is not a capricious centerpiece after all, wealthier people with more leisure time and acquired tastes are more inclined to indulge in lavish social dinners, where the main function of the Bourgeois (socializing, impressing others) is radically different from the activities of the working classes (productive labor). The desire to dine with others, as opposed to simply eating for sustenance, is Buñuel's pivoting metaphor for the Bourgeois classes, and with the various dream-sequences, social meals are always interrupted, being as fruitless and pointless as their own unexamined lives (a secondary metaphor, where all six charcters walk briskly down a country road but headed nowhere in particular, is frequently repeated). However, the actual events that disrupt the meals, while somewhat political (and Marxist) in tone, have a decidedly surreal, almost Dadaist bent. Among the most comic is the scene where one couple (Jean Pierre-Cassell, Stéphane Audran), with dinner guests waiting downstairs, decides to escape outside to have sex in the bushes. But more low-key events have more gravitas, as one meal turns out to be on a theater stage (with stage-prop food), or when a political dispute between Acosta and a military officer turns violent. Throughout, Buñuel tells the story will little flash and great subtlety. Hollywood has conditioned a lot of American viewers to expect a certain flourish with plot twists, be it brisk editing or a crescendo in the score, but Buñuel is less a showman and more an illusionist in Le charm discret. Like a close-up card magician, he smoothly moves from one bit of trickery to the next, letting his material do all of the talking.
Criterion's two-disc DVD release of The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a stellar package that will not disappoint any Buñuel fan, with a clean transfer from a recently restored print that has rich color and little in the way of damage it's remarkable, considering that this is a European film that's 30 years old. Audio is in the original mono (French, DD 1.0), with recently revised digital subtitles in English. The first disc also includes the original theatrical trailer (in French with subtitles) and "El naufrago de la calle de Providencia" ("The Castaway on the Street of Providence"), a 24-minute documentary from 1970 by longtime Buñuel friends Arturo Ripstein and Rafel Castanedo. But the chief feature that will delight Buñuel fans is on Disc Two, with A proposito de Buñuel (Speaking of Buñuel), a 98-minute documentary created for French television in 2000 that covers the entire course of the director's career. Filmography. Dual-DVD keep-case.