The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

French title: Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie

France/Spain/Italy, 105 minutes, colour, English subtitles

Director: Luis Buñuel
Producer: Serge Silberman
Writers: Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière
Cinematography: Edmond Richard
Music: Galaxie Musique
Editor: Hélène Pemiannikov

Don Raphaël Acosta: Fernando Rey
Alice Sénéchal: Stéphane Audran
Henri Sénéchal: Jean-Pierre Cassel
François Thévenot: Paul Frankeur
Madame Thévenot: Delphine Seyrig
Florence: Bulle Ogier
Monsigneur Dufor: Julien Bertheau
Ines: Milena Vukotic
Colonel: Claude Piéplu
Revolutionary: Maria Gabriella Maione
Peasant: Muni
Delecluze: François Maistre
Minister: Michel Piccoli

Winner of the US Oscar for best foreign film 1973

The low-key, realistic opening of this Luis Buñuel movie - guests on their way to a party - suggests cinematic realism but gradually viewers realise that all is not what it seems.

The realisation dawns that what they see is actually a dream. Not only that, much of the film is a dream within a dream or even a dream within a dream within a dream.

Buñuel, who was in his early seventies when he made the film, employs black comedy to satirise his favourite targets - the bourgeoisie, the church and the army.

Gone are the shocking images of Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L'Age D'Or (1930). Instead, the director provides a cultured, witty and civilised night out at the movies.

Set in France, the film is about the struggle of six outwardly respectable upper middle-class friends to have dinner together. They inhabit a world of champagne, chauffeurs and caviar but are totally corrupt.

At the film's opening, they find they have arrived for dinner on the wrong night and the hostess is in her nightgown preparing to go to bed. (This was suggested by a real-life incident involving the film's producer Serge Silberman).

As the film progresses, the reasons for the lack of food become ever more surreal. A delicious looking roast turkey turns out to be made of rubber while the whisky is non-alcoholic cola.

A curtain is drawn to reveal the guests are on a stage watched by an angry audience. Meanwhile the maid, who does not look a day over 30, says she is too old to marry at 52.

Total strangers arrive and relate a series of distressing dreams, which hint at the characters' deep sense of guilt about their lives. Even the police have bad dreams, relating to their torture of suspects, cue some suitably blood-spattered ghosts.

The film's main character is the impeccably mannered and charming Don Raphaël Acosta, the Ambassador to France of the fictitious Latin American Republic of Miranda.

He is played superbly by the Spanish actor Fernando Rey, a regular in Buñuel's latterday films.

Don Raphaël is smuggling cocaine into France in his diplomatic bag while his two French friends Henri Thévenot (Paul Frankeur) and François Sénéchal (Jean-Pierre Cassel) are implicated in the plot. Don Raphaël is also secretly carrying on with Madame Thévenot (Delphine Seyrig, who in 1961 starred in another classic 'dream' movie, Alain Resnais' Last Year in Marienbad).

The players also include Stéphane Audran, the cool, blonde, elegant actress famed for her many roles for the French director Claude Chabrol, as Madame Sénéchal.

The Sénéchals try to make love in the grounds of their mansion but - like the lovers in L'Age D'Or - keep getting interrupted.
This reflects Buñuel's belief in the impossibility of two people ever becoming one flesh. He wrote in his autobiography that his personal sexual dreams invariably ended with the woman becoming somehow impenetrable. (This contrasted with Salvador Dalí, who claimed to have achieved almost mystical sexual union with his wife Gala.)

The dastardly Don Raphaël, meanwhile, also tries his luck with a beautiful young Latin American revolutionary (Maria Gabriella Maione) who has come to assassinate him. When she rejects his advances, he coolly arranges for his heavies to take her for a ride.

Later, he is involved in a political row with a Frenchman who has revealed some awkward home truths about corruption and state-sponsored violence in the Republic of Miranda. Don Raphaël pulls out a gun and coldly shoots him. This, again, turns out to be a dream but worse is to come when Don Raphaël's deepest fear is realised as a group of terrorists invade the dinner party.

This leads to a memorable shot of the by now incredibly hungry Don Raphaël reaching out from his hiding place under the dinner table to grab a piece of food.

Buñuel also introduces Monsigneur Dufor, a 'worker-bishop', who takes a job as gardener in the Sénéchal household. (This is a satire on Catholic worker-priests who minister to the working classes). In true Buñuel fashion, he too turns out to be a baddie, shooting a peasant who has come to him for absolution!

Then there is the recurring dream image of the six main characters walking endlessly down a country road in search of their dinner. This could be the film's final shot but appears at various points throughout the movie, a key symbol of their predicament.

In the end it is impossible to tell what is reality and what is not. That, of course, is what Surrealism is all about.

Discreet Charm ends with the characters still hungry. Happily, this was not true in real life. Stéphane Audran, an excellent cook, brought huge quantities of home-cooked food on to the set for Buñuel and the actors. In true bourgeois fashion, they all had a jolly good dinner.

For further reading on Buñuel's career, try his excellent autobiography, My Last Sigh (1983).

"Give me two hours a day of activity and I'll take the other 22 in dreams." - Buñuel