May 15, 2009
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
Grade: 83/100

Director: Luis Buñuel
Stars: Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig

What it's about. A humorous but plotless soufflé of nonsense involving six inseparable socialites: Fernando Rey, an ambassador to France from a non-existent South American country; Bulle Ogier, an attractive hedonist; Stéphane Audran, also attractive and the wife of Jean-Pierre Cassel; Paul Frankeur, a somewhat short and stout bureaucrat; and his moderately attractive wife, Delphine Seyrig. Also here and there is a bishop turned gardner, Julien Bertheau, and an unpredictable colonel, Claude Piéplu.

How others will see it. Although relatively obscure today, this surreal and sarcastic film resonated worldwide in 1972. It won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and, surprisingly, Audran won Best Actress at BAFTA, the British version of the Oscars.

This is one older movie not for the classic American movie fan. The sole familiar face is that of Fernando Ray, the dapper drugpin villain from the two French Connection films.

In fact, according to the user ratings, older viewers are the audience least likely to enjoy The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. There, females under 18 give it an 8.4 out of 10, while women over 40 give it a 4.8. Presumably, they "get it," but prefer a story that makes sense. Fortunately for them, there are some 20,000 such movies out there, counting only those available on cable movie channels.

Younger viewers are encouraged by the presence of eye candy. Ogier is actually hot, Audran is very nearly so, and then there are the two cameos of the 'terrorist' woman, Maria Gabriella Maione.

How I felt about it. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie reminded me of Belle de jour (1967), another French film in which it was difficult to tell which scenes are relevant to the plot, and which are merely fantasies or dreams in the mind of one of the characters. It then came as little surprise that both films were by the same director, Buñuel.

With Belle de jour, the story was sufficiently linear that it mattered whether or not a particular scene was fact or fantasy. With The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, it is obvious early on that the film is a satire, and thus it simply doesn't matter what preposterous fix our characters are in. Even when they are massacred by terrorists (Buñuel was apparently fascinated with gunplay at the time, given the number of shootings here), there's no need to worry. The only thing inarguably real about this movie are its three lead couples, who invariably greet each other like long separated best friends, even if they last got together two days ago.

If The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a satire, what is it a satire of? For the answer, we need look no further than its title. It is a comedy of manners. The social politeness engrained within the script and characters is the language of the upper class. That politeness is always present, although it is often faked, strained, or even insulting. Buñuel delights in ridiculing the members of the upper class, who are just as screwed up as anyone else. They merely dress better, look better, and have (generally) better manners.

It is a shame that among classical pseudo-surrealistic directors, Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman receive all the acclaim, when Buñuel made better movies. But as the French say, c'est la vie.