The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

discreet charm

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (‘Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie’) is a 1972 surrealist film directed by Luis Buñuel and written by Jean-Claude Carrière in collaboration with the director. The narrative concerns a group of upper-middle-class people attempting — despite continual interruptions — to dine together.

The film consists of several thematically linked scenes: five gatherings of a group of bourgeois friends, and the four dreams of different characters. The beginning of the film focuses on the gatherings, while the latter part focuses on the dreams, but both types of scenes are intertwined. There are also scenes involving other characters, such as two involving a Latin American female terrorist from the fictitious Republic of Miranda. The film’s world is not logical: the bizarre events are accepted by the characters, even if they are impossible or contradictory.

The film begins with a bourgeois couple, the Thévenots, accompanying M. Thévenot’s colleague Rafael Acosta and Mme. Thévenot’s sister Florence, to the house of the Sénéchals, the hosts of a dinner party. Once they arrive, Alice Sénéchal is surprised to see them and explains that she expected them the following evening and has no dinner prepared. The would-be guests invite Mme Sénéchal to join them for dinner at a nearby inn. Finally arriving at the inn, the party find it locked. They knock and are invited in, despite the waitress’ seeming reluctance and an ominous mention of ‘new management.’ Inside, there are no diners (despite disconcertingly cheap prices) and the sound of wailing voices from an adjoining room. It is learned that the manager died a few hours earlier and his former employees are holding vigil over his corpse, awaiting the coroner. The party hurriedly leave.

Two days later, the bourgeois friends attempt to have lunch at the Sénéchals, but their would-be hosts escape to the garden to have sex instead of joining them. One of the bourgeois friends takes this as a sign that perhaps the Sénéchals are aware the police are coming (fearing the discovery of the men’s involvement in cocaine trafficking) and were leaving to avoid arrest. The party leaves again in panic.

Then the women visit a tea house, which turns out to have run out of all beverages – tea, coffee, milk, although it finally turns out that they do have water. While they are waiting, a soldier tells them about his childhood and how, after the death of his mother, his education was taken over by his cold-hearted father. The soldier’s mother (as a ghost) informs him that the man is not his real father, but in fact killed the soldier’s father during a duel over his mother. Following his ghost mother’s request, the soldier poisons and kills the culprit.

When the Senechals return from their garden after sneaking off to make love, their friends are gone but they meet a bishop who had arrived shortly after. He greets them in their gardener’s clothing, and they angrily throw him out. When he returns in his bishop’s robes, they embrace him with deference, exposing their prejudice, snobbery, and hypocrisy. The bishop asks to work for them as their gardener. He explains to them about his childhood – about how his parents were murdered by arsenic poisoning, and the culprit was never apprehended. Later on in the film, he goes to bless a dying man, but when it turns out that the man had killed the bishop’s parents, he first blesses him, then fires a shotgun, killing the man – thus closing the circle of hypocrisy.

Various other aborted dinners ensue, with interruptions including the arrival of a group of French army officers who join the dinner, or the revelation that a French colonel’s dining room is in fact a stage set in a theatrical performance, during a dream sequence. Ghosts make frequent appearances in what seemed to be disconcerting dream sequences.

Buñuel plays tricks on his characters, luring them toward fine dinners that they expect, and then repeatedly frustrating them in inventive ways. They bristle, and politely express their outrage, but they never stop trying; they relentlessly expect and pursue all that they desire, as though it were their natural right to have others serve and pamper them. He exposes their sense of entitlement, their hypocrisy, and their corruption. In the dream sequences, he explores their intense fears – not just of public humiliation, but of being caught by police, and mowed down by guns. At least one character’s dream sequence is later revealed to be nested, or embedded, in another character’s dream sequence. As the dreams-within-dreams unfold, it appears that Buñuel is also playing tricks on his audience, as we try to make sense of the story.

After having announced that ‘Tristana’ would be his last film due to feeling like he was repeating himself in his films, Buñuel met with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and discussed the topic of repetition. Shortly afterwards he met with film producer Serge Silberman, who told him an anecdote about having forgotten about a dinner party and being surprised to find six hungry friends show up at his front door. Buñuel was suddenly inspired and Silberman agreed to give him a $2,000 advance to write a new script with Carrière, combining Silberman’s anecdote with the idea of repetition. Buñuel and Carrière wrote the first draft in three weeks and finished the fifth draft by the summer of 1971, with the title originally being ‘Bourgeois Enchantment.’

Buñuel cast many actors whom he had worked with in the past, such as Fernando Rey and Michel Piccoli, and catered their roles to their personalities. He had more difficulty casting the female leads and allowed actresses Delphine Seyrig and Stéphane Audran to choose which parts they would like to play, before changing the script to better suit the actresses. Jean-Pierre Cassel auditioned for his role and was surprised when Buñuel cast him after simply glancing at him once.

In his usual shooting style, Buñuel shot few takes and often edited the film in camera and during production. Buñuel and Silberman had a long running and humorous argument as to whether Buñuel took one day or one and a half days to edit his films. On the advice of Silberman, Buñuel used video playback monitors on the set for the first time in his career, resulting in a vastly different style than any of his previous films, including zooms and travelling shots instead of his usual close-ups and static camera framing. It also resulted in Buñuel being more comfortable on set, and in limiting his already minimal direction to technical and physical instructions.

This frustrated Cassel, who had never worked with Buñuel before, until Rey explained that this was Buñuel’s usual style and that since they were playing aristocrats their movements and physical appearance was more important than their inner motivation. Buñuel once joked that whenever he needed an extra scene he simply filmed one of his own dreams. The final film includes three of Buñuel’s recurring dreams: a dream of being on stage and forgetting his lines, a dream of meeting his dead cousin in the street and following him into a house full of cobwebs, and a dream of waking up to see his dead parents staring at him.

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