Luis Buñuel cheerfully abandoned a luminous creative grasp so vivid at the turn of the 1960s for the role of a cerebral court jester as the new decade was dawning and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is arguably the apex of this acid-tongued late period, at least for the jester. Having forged his name in sparkling surrealism in partnership to Salvador Dalí the man returned to this remarkable strand of filmmaking, I think informed by the sharp bitterness of co-penning on Dalton Trumbo’s equally uneven Johnny Got His Gun, and made one of his most spiny, complex and, ironically, overwhelmingly full features.
Discreet Charm thrives on denial of catharsis, and the joke is that its seemingly impossible goal is to sit down and enjoy a meal with friends. Even entrees inches from the mouths of our cast are snatched away by the confines of the frame semi-seconds from finally finding their mark, revealing Buñuel’s demure flirtations at their most playfully silly. The director himself is certainly having fun, tangling every line in an austere labyrinth of high-brow manners married to a saga of mad dream-sequences that underpin his purpose with baroque flash-bombs of histrionic humour, but perhaps Buñuel was a little too wrapped up in his screenplay and its giddily Spartan execution to realise he’d played out of his once perfectly surreal groove.
It’s a strong satire precisely because Buñuel constructs each of its deliciously absurd vignettes around the idea of meaninglessness. By the end characters are gleefully risking their lives for a scrap of meat and the reasons for uniting their cavalcade of senselessly oneiric decorum cheerfully escapes even the movie itself, knitting its devilish delineations together only in the ever-vague recurrence of our cast lost on an airstrip- possibly representing the collective conscious binding their dreams to a vacuous, dissatisfied reality they have to inject with their own dull ideas; and in realising how boring they are often thread stories out of their peers.
This 1972 dining odyssey is ten years the senior of his earlier The Exterminating Angel: A touched masterwork that, inversely, observed a ragged bunch of social uppers ghoulishly unable to escape their own party. Yet in spite of a decade’s cinematic maturity, I think Buñuel got a little too smart with his spiritual successor. It sprays out an architectural web of hooks, dreams and devious commentaries that make it clear every moving moment of the thing is composed with clockwork glee to piece another juicy satirical target; but I feel the ennui that was once its asset becomes just as hungry as anyone watching- and in the end swallows the film whole. Its comedy stands firm, but some of the all-too academic spark dies in digestion.
When it works, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie soars on the strength of its impenetrable internal logic: In no other story about a dinner party do the guests share knowledge of some crude, hilarious etiquette with what seems to be the movie itself… and respect its cosmic demand to move on, and on, without ever taking a bite if even the tiniest tack falls out of place. Thick with a cerebral network of narrative quips and storytelling faux-pas that are either politely swept under the tablecloth or become the blood that stains it, Buñuel’s uneven classic quite prophetically paved a byway towards the overblown surreality of his next, worst picture: The laughable Phantom of Liberty- but also the devilish subtleties of his incendiary swansong: That Obscure Object of Desire. Watch it for its best, but be prepared to leave a little on your plate.