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THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig, Bullee Ogier, Stephanie Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel
Director:  Luis Buñuel
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.66:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  101 Minutes
Release Date:  December 19, 2000

Film ****

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is perhaps the greatest comedy of manners ever made.  It takes a look at how much a simple event like sitting down to dinner has become such a cultural high point in middle and upper class society, and makes fun of it by showing us a delightful troupe of self-important, hollow socialites who constantly get together for their big dinner engagements…yet never eat.

Luis Buñuel was one of the first filmmakers to embrace the trend of surrealism in art prevalent in the 1920’s, and that sense of playfulness with the boundaries of real and unreal permeated most of his comedic films.  The Exterminating Angel, made a decade earlier, was about a dinner party where, inexplicably, nobody can leave.  In Discreet Charm, the dinners never get underway, interrupted by everything imaginable.  It starts simply enough by a few guests who show up a day early for the event—then, when they go out to eat, they find that in the room adjacent to their dining area, the owner of the restaurant has died and the family and crew are holding service for him!

Later attempts to dine are disrupted by military maneuvers, a political argument, invading police, and so on, including my favorite moment:  just as the guests realize the chickens being served to them are fake, a curtain goes up, and they find themselves on stage in front of an audience!  How does Buñuel achieve these images?  By constantly toying with us…some of what we see may be imagined, but we don’t know right away.  Later, and no earlier than he is ready to, he lets us in on the jokes.

Buñuel had a flair for criticizing and exposing societal hypocrisies for all they were worth, and at age 72, he was in top form with this movie.  He gives us, for example, a bishop who likes to dress down and work as a gardener.  When he first shows up in yard clothes at the home where the dinner party is to be, he is forcibly shown the door!  A moment later, when he returns in clergy uniform, he is welcomed and respected.  This notion plays throughout the film…notice how whenever he is playing gardener, the socialites bark orders at him, despite calling him “Your Grace”.  The bishop also has one of my favorite lines, after complaining how tired he is from the walk:  “I had a car, but I sold it...for the poor.”

By constantly forcing dinner further and further away from these characters, Buñuel cheerfully shows us how empty and dull their lives really are.  Without food as a crutch for conversation and interaction, what is left?  At one point, waiting dinner guests involve themselves in making the perfect martini, and even invite the chauffeur in for a taste, just to make fun of the fact that the servant classes don’t know how to properly drink one.  While this is going on, the hosts are having a little fun on their own.  Overcome by lust, they start to indulge themselves, but the husband insists they can’t make love in their own bedroom because his wife makes “too much noise”.  The sneak away to the garden and later return rumpled and with grass in their hair.

At another gathering, a military operation interrupts.  The house is overrun by friendly troops, who later sit with the dinner guests and chat it up about marijuana, among other things.  While arguing the merits of the drug, one of the soldiers points out that everyone was smoking it in Vietnam.  A lady replies, “As a result, once a week, they bomb their own troops.”  “If they bomb their own troops,” the fellow answers, “they must have their reasons.”  The military exercises eventually continue outside, complete with loud explosions.  One of the hosts mutters he only hopes they don’t hit the house again.

Yet another time, the ladies gather in a café for a meal, only to be thwarted by a waiter who constantly returns to inform them they are out of tea, then coffee, then milk.  By the time they finally agree to order water, their appetites are interrupted by a young soldier who briefly sits with them and volunteers his bizarre childhood story; one where the ghost of his mother instructs him to kill his father for the sake of revenge.  Wow.

But Buñuel has plenty more surprises in store, centering around the fact that not everything we see unfolding is always really happening.  It’s not confusing at all, trust me…in fact, these blurred moments produce some of the film’s biggest laughs.

Finally, the picture culminates at one final dinner party.  “I’m STARVED!” one of the guests exclaims (and we chuckle and wonder…have these people not eaten at ALL, even in off-camera moments, because of these constant interruptions?).  At long last, they sit down and they dine, and enjoy their mundane conversations about horoscopes and lamb.  And, given the nature of the film up to that point, there really is only one way the film could end from there.  Or, correction…two ways.  And Buñuel gives us both.  You’ll see.

Video ***1/2

Outstanding!  I’ve never seen this film look so good.  The images are incredibly sharp and detailed, from the tiniest flowers on bushes to the intricate deep focused interiors, where even background items are not “obscure objects” (couldn’t resist), and show distinction and separation.  The colors are absolutely beautiful and completely natural looking throughout.  The palate is wide, but well-contained, creating Buñuel’s rich visual texture to go along with his biting humor.  There really are only two minor complaints, which are barely worth mentioning:  there’s a tiny bit of noticeable haze in the opening moments, and one later overhead shot of the dinner guests walking along a dirt road shows some print wear.  That’s it.  The rest of the print is in almost pristine condition…and there were times when I sat and TRIED to find spots or dirt.  Absolutely remarkable for a film nearly 30 years old.  Overall, I would rank this disc as the best looking transfer I’ve seen for a film from the 1970’s.

Audio ***

This is a lively sounding mono soundtrack…much fuller than you’d normally expect for a single channel of audio, with good dynamic range and terrific clarity unmarred by noise or other distractions.  Though mostly a dialogue oriented piece and in French, I found the soundtrack to be more than serviceable, particularly when the spoken words were interrupted by intrusive gunfire or explosions. 

Features ***

The features of this double disc set consist mainly of bonus programs.  On disc one, you get the original trailer plus a 24 minute documentary The Castaway on the Street of Providence, which features interviews with many of Buñuel’s associates and home movie footage of him at one of his favorite pastimes:  mixing drinks.  Disc two contains a full length film, the 98 minute 2000 movie Speaking of Buñuel, which includes many interviews, photographs, and a detailed look at some of his works, film footage included.  There is also a filmography.

Summary:

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a comic masterpiece, and a crowning achievement in the career of one of the world’s most significant filmmakers, Luis Buñuel.  It’s filled with satire, sarcasm, and plenty of pins to deflate the upper crust and their empty rituals.  With this gorgeous transfer and informative features, this double disc set from Criterion is definitely one no cinema lover should be without.