Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, France/Italy/Spain, Luis Bunuel)

The winner of the 1972 Academy Award for Best Film in a Foreign Language, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a typical surrealist satire from Luis Bunuel. Whilst it's targets are just the same as they always were - the middle classes, the army, the church, politicians and so on, the approach of the satire is more subtle though no less effective.

A number of guests arrive at a dinner party. They discover that they were expected the next day. This is the first of a chain of events in which the guests find themselves unable to eat dinner anywhere. In many ways, this is an inverted version of Bunuel's earlier 'The Exterminating Angel' (1962), in which a number of dinner party guests find themselves unable to actually leave (which in itself had parallels with the Czech film of the time - 'The Party and the Guests'). The dinner party and its social significance is clearly of interest to Bunuel. It provides him with the scope to skewer the values and aspirations of middle class society.

The circumstances in which the guests fail to eat become increasingly absurd, starting from a mix up over the day they agreed to meet, to the guests being gunned down by terrorists or finding themselves on stage in the performance of a play. Bunuel dispenses with logic and conventional rules concerning narrative. Scenarios are revealed as dreams by individual protagonists, therefore they are always unpredictable and anything is in the realms of possibility.

As mentioned, it's not just the middle classes and their vanity adultery, social pretences and shallowness that is being satirised. There's also the clergy as represented by the priest who dons gardener's clothing and is shown shooting the man who apparently killed his parents after giving him absolution. You have Don Rafael, one of the guests who is ambassador of a fictional South American country named Miranda, which is suggested to be a corrupt and repressive country with a widening gap between rich and poor, which also home to ex-Nazis, who Don Rafel describe as "perfect gentlemen".

Made during what might be seen as his most productive period in the ten years or so in which he made 'The Exterminating Angel', 'Belle du Jour', 'Viridiana' and 'Tristiana', this is a biting and wicked satire that is very much effective because of its surrealism and absurdity rather than relying on heavy handed sermonising. 4/5

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