A vintage as dry as an aged martini, Luis Buñuel’s Academy Award-winning The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is not among the director’s most lucid critiques of bourgey foolishness, though it remains delectable as a series of wry goosings. Its memorable set pieces, like coal being heaped into the engine of a speeding locomotive, fuel a dream-like narrative that moves forward with a stunning comic fierceness. In many ways, the film is the antithesis of Exterminating Angel, the director’s 1962 masterwork about upper-class ghouls unable to leave a dinner party after they’ve filled their gullets. Here, six upper-class dolts are in constant motion as their attempts to stuff themselves are frustrated at every turn by a series of oddball disruptions and misunderstandings.
Fernando Rey stars as Don Rafael, the drug-dealing ambassador of a fictional Latin American country who lives in constant fear that he will be kidnapped and murdered by the guerilla terrorists outside his Mirandan embassy. His friends repeatedly convene at the home of Monsieur Senechal (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and his wife, Alice (Stéphan Audran), whose dinners are constantly thwarted. Guests seemingly get the time and day of a dinner date wrong and, later, a feast is invaded by army battalions and police forces. At a local restaurant, the recently deceased owner of the establishment is laid out in a room adjacent to the living room. And when the group is invited to dine at the home of a battalion commander, a curtain rises to reveal that they’re all part of a stage performance, and their gross embarrassment is matched only by the shock of having forgotten their lines. Buñuel literally sets the stage for a mockery of the rich’s almost tireless pursuit of gluttony.
Bishop Dufour (Julien Bertheau) enters the Senechal home while the couple is having sex in the garden. Dressed in their ex-gardener’s attire, the man introduces himself to the Senechals, who subsequently throw him out of their home. When he returns to the house dressed as a bishop, they welcome him with open arms. Meanwhile, Don Rafael is having an affair with Madame Thevenot (Delphine Seyrig), the wife of his close friend and associate (Paul Frankeur). After Monsieur Thevenot nearly catches them in the act, Don Rafael asks his friend for one moment alone with his wife because he wants to “show her the suricks.” Confused, the man waits for his wife downstairs. At which point we quickly learn that there is no such thing as suricks. Throughout these and other ridiculous transactions (Alice forgets that Dufour is a bishop when a local peasant looks for a man of the cloth to pray for a dying soul), Buñuel repeatedly takes on the gross presumptuousness of his characters—their unwillingness to admit defeat and to take things only at face value.
Both The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and 1974’s The Phantom of Liberty are radical comedic patchworks. Each film’s sketches, essentially war stories from the bourgeois front, have a way of slowly and devilishly peeling back the many layers of their respective characters’ realities in order to reveal the hypocritical notions of entitlement that possess them. While Don Rafael and his friends wait to eat at the Senechal home, the ambassador asks his chauffeur to have a dry martini with the group. After the manservant drinks and leaves, Don Rafael ridicules the unmannered way the man downed the ambassador’s elitist concoction (interestingly, the recipe for this particular martini is Buñuel’s own: a Buñuelino). “No system can give the masses the proper social graces,” says Don Rafael, oblivious to the fact that the Senechals have just climbed down the side of their house in order to have sex in the yard before greeting their guests for dinner.