Film / Video Reviews
Feb 12, 2002, 06:42

THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE directed by Luis Bunuel; Realto Pictures, 1972

Guess who's coming to dinner? In Luis Bunuel's surrealist comedy The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, everyone and everything is invited: social-climbers and terrorists; caviar and guns; manners and murder. They're all the same

The 1972 Oscar-winning film, just reissued to commemorate the centennial of the Spanish filmmaker's birth, is set around a dinner table. On Bunuel's plate, however, dinner is less a setting than a ritual that gives a primordial function—eating—a facade of civility. The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie sticks a fork in civility and heads straight for the gut. It's a surrealist game of dominos whereby every action leads to a bizarre dream, a brutal act, a dark passion and a primal urge.

On the surface, it tells the story of six erudite friends who gather for an evening of fine wine and dining. The meal, however, is elusive. Dinner gets botched when the host, Henri Senechal (Jean-Pierre Cassel) fails to show up. A second attempt is aborted when the guests head to a restaurant only to find the manager in the next room, dead. A third attempt is subverted when Henri and his wife, the vapid Alice (Stephane Audran), opt instead for a romp in the bushes.

In between the grumbling bellies and innocuous table-talk, Bunuel's guests are anything but civil. The strutting ambassador, deftly played by Fernando Rey, represents a totalitarian regime in a fictional banana republic. He uses his diplomatic pouch to smuggle dope and his revolver to liquidate enemies. Henri and Francois Thevenot (Paul Frankeur), are his dealers. Of course, no one discusses business around the table; it wouldn't be proper. It would also bore the women—Alice, Simone Thevenot (Delphine Seyrig), and Florence (Bulle Ogier)—who would rather compare caviars and get tipsy.

With most directors, 101 minutes with a bunch of pompous boors would be as exciting as a salad bar stocked with nothing but lettuce. With Bunuel, it isn't. Like any good surrealist, the Spanish iconoclast detonates din-din with dream sequences that shock the foundations of modern society: law, order, religion, democracy.

In one, a French battalion crashes the bash for military maneuvers (thus sabotaging yet another stab at steak). In another, a soldier relays a story about how he murdered his father by putting arsenic in his bedtime milk. Then there's the one about the bishop who doubles as the Senchals' gardener. He is summoned to absolve a death bound man of his sins only to discover that years ago the man murdered the bishop's parents.

In each scene, Bunuel places all things cherished in a new light—the darkest. And while the trick is nothing new for Bunuel—he began creating shocking images as far back as the 1920s with Salvador Dali—The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie marks a watershed for the iconoclast. By 1972, at the age of 72, Bunuel had come to embrace laughter as both subversive weapon and comedy.

Bon appetit!

-John Petkovic

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