LUIS BUNUEL’S THE DISCREET CHARM of the Bourgeoisie is a deliciously pungent concoction by the 72-year-old filmmaker and his young co-scenarist, Jean-Claude Carriere, that will set your spirits soaring and your mind aglow. Never before has this always fascinating artist been quite so tantalizing, so tongue-in-cheek and so deft in his examination of the inanities and near-surrealism of a society he has long viewed with fatalistic eye. He has, he guilefully leads you to suspect, assumed a tolerance of the fools that mortals be, but the suspicion lasts only for the duration of his intricate, intriguing film. In retrospect one sees his rages at the hypocrisies and brutalities that lie beneath the elegant coolness, the gentilities, the ripostes and the resiliencies that do indeed provide the bourgeoisie with that certain something he admits wryly to be their discreet charm.
His focal figures are the Ambassador of Miranda and five Parisian friends, the Senechals, a chic young couple with an attractive country house; the Thevenots, a more mature couple, and Florence, Mme. Thevenot’s younger sister. To celebrate a drug-smuggling coup by the Ambassador that has netted the three men a fortune, they are to dine at the Senechals’ home. The four arrive to find their hostess alone: they are a day early. They invite her to a nearby restaruant only to find, after they have ordered, that they are in the midst of a noisy wake for the manager who died a few hours earlier. But the charm of the bourgeoisie, of course, is its refusal to be discouraged by the trivia of life—and so Bunuel is off and running into realities, fantasies, dreams and escapades as the six attempt to consummate their dinner engagement.
Lunch at the Senechals instead? The guests arrive but their hosts, in a moment of pre-prandial lust, are off quite literally for a roll in the hay that somehow winds up with no lunch but the Senechals hiring the local prelate (there are, he notes, “working bishops” as well as working priests) as their gardener. Another dinner attempt is interrupted by army maneuvers; the next by a police raid; still another by a band of terrorists. Even the ladies’ attempt at a tea party is frustrated, as is Mme. Thevenot’s assignation with the Ambassador. And whether these are dreams or truths, undaunted, the six walk happily along their chosen road…
The flavoring for Bunuel’s brew is in the characters’ steadfastness and the beautifully disciplined vagaries of all they encounter. Never does composure falter or an amenity go unobserved, whether it is in the bishop’s dispensation of divine justice to the murderer of his parents, in the ladies’ courtesy to a sad lieutenant who pauses to tell them the horror story of his childhood, in a soldier’s recounting his dream of limbo or in the ghostly legend of the bloody police sergeant. The phantoms and the flesh leave the bourgeoisie undisturbed; rude awakenings bring only relief.
Fernando Rey, the brilliant veteran of