Six friends, our not particularly discreet and only superficially charming bourgeoisie, repeatedly fail to have dinner together for increasingly strange reasons. First they show up at the host’s house only to find that they have the wrong day, and he is not there. They go out to eat at a restaurant, but quickly lose their appetites when they find a wake for the proprietor being held in an adjoining room. On another occasion they are interrupted by the army on manoeuvres, and on yet another occasion the curtains of the room draw back to reveal an audience – they are part of a stage play but none of them know the lines.
The theatre scene turns out to be part of a dream. Actually, a dream within a dream, as a couple of characters wake up as the film progresses. (I was going to say ‘as the story progresses’, but there’s not really a plot as such to speak of). There are dream sequences, and fantasies, and characters telling stories about their dreams, with no sign of a spinning top totem to reassure you that what you’re watching is real. Well, whatever reality is in this film anyway.
It seems a little redundant to say that The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is strange considering it is made by Buñuel, the godfather of surreal cinema. This is the most accessible of his works (it won the 1972 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film), but that does not guarantee you won’t be left slightly bemused by the end. Watch the bizarre trailer for a taster of the tone (though don’t get tricked into thinking that this is some sort of arty sex romp – they managed to shoehorn every grope into the trailer. But of course we don’t believe in European stereotypes.) Is it social satire, commenting on the inconsequential lives of the middle classes? Is it a Freudian analysis of dreams? Is it Buñuel playing with the audience’s need to find meaning in the art they consume? The potential for interpretation is great.
The special feature on the DVD, a half hour critical analysis by Peter William Evans, is incredibly interesting and definitely worth a watch, if only to reveal even more possibilities.
There is a scene repeated throughout the film of the group of six walking along a country road. We never find out why they are walking, or what their destination is. In the scene, and the film as a whole, there is no standard narrative, it’s just a series of events that lead ultimately to nothing. No answers are forthcoming. But, as in life, perhaps that’s what makes it interesting.
The newly restored The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie is back in cinemas on 29 June, and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on 16 July.