Luis Buñuel’s caustic comedy of middle-class mores The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is arguably the Spanish surrealist’s most accessible late-period masterwork, consistently amusing in its champagne-dry wit, even if it’s never quite as trenchant in its autopsy of bourgeois complacency as, for instance, That Obscure Object of Desire.
Buñuel and scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière supply the film’s stellar cast (a veritable rogues’ gallery of French art-house cinema) with an inexhaustible menu of absurd situations to overcome if they ever hope to complete their quixotic quest: assemble in one place, at the same time, over a common repast. Terrorist plots, police raids, the military on maneuvers—everything conspires to work against them. Frustration and disruption prove their native condition. Consider this peripatetic posse, wandering aimlessly down the road to nowhere, “six characters in search of a decent meal” (to paraphrase Luigi Pirandello).
Simmering away just beneath the parlor comedy of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is another kind of film entirely: a somber work halfway to horror, haunted not by the fugitive phantoms of liberty, but by gory specters of murder, betrayal, even police brutality. What’s more, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is quite possibly Buñuel’s most violent film. Even if the portrayal isn’t exactly Peckinpah-grade graphic, one abruptly murderous act in particular still retains its ability to shock, especially given its almost offhand casualness.
Dead mothers feature prominently. In one scene, a melancholy soldier tells the ladies all about his unhappy childhood: the occasion when the ghost of his mother informed him that the man he thought was his father had in fact killed his real father in a duel. A shot that shows the ghastly ghostly images of the parents sitting hand-in-hand lingers hauntingly. Later on, an artillery soldier recounts a dream he recently had in which he wanders the byways of a shadowy afterlife (rendered uncannily artificial through flatly painted backdrops), encountering along the way departed friends, as well as his long-dead mother, still young and beautiful in his imagination. The scene’s sepulchral lighting recalls some of Goya’s more disturbing works (the so-called Black Paintings like Saturn Devouring His Son).
Buñuel’s emphasis on the implacable dream logic that drives The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’s forking-paths storyline isn’t what you would call unprecedented. His films have often incorporated dream imagery, leavening even the most melodramatic material with outbursts of oneiric intensity. But only a handful of them abandon traditional storytelling almost entirely, allowing their networked narratives to tumble into, even interrupt, one another with perfect impunity. Dreams nest within other dreams like so many Chinese puzzle boxes, while no dream belongs exclusively to a single dreamer, as though Buñuel were toying with the Jungian notion of the collective unconscious.
As filmmaking technology evolved, Buñuel changed along with it. On The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie he was provided, for the first time, with a video-playback monitor. The effect this had on the fluidity of his visual style is considerable. Throughout, the film employs sinuous, unobtrusive camerawork, laconic zooms, and even the odd crane shot. There’s an elaborate tracking shot that follows one of the characters across the living room, up the staircase, and along the hallway: a maneuver as complicated as anything that Max Ophüls ever attempted, only Buñuel never draws your attention to it.