The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Okay, as long as I am safely concealed by a pseudonym, I'll ask: what

in the world is this film about? I saw this Luis Bunuel comedy when

it was new, in the early 70's, and I figured I was just too young and

naive then to make much sense of it.

Here's how Netflix bills it:

In Luis Bunuel's deliciously satiric, Oscar-winning masterpiece, an

upper-class sextet sits down to dinner but never eats, their attempts

continually thwarted by a vaudevillian mixture of events both actual

and imagined. Perhaps his greatest film, Bunuel's absurdist view of

the upper class is a timeless satire about consumerism and class

privilege in a late capitalist world.

I rented this film and watched it again last night, and guess

what–thirty years' increase in maturity and experience have not cured

my inability to make something of this movie. Sure, I got the part

about life's being constantly and unpredictably interrupted by death,

but what (I am asking) the heck?

So let's see an interpretation that not only tells me what it means

(or doesn't mean) but, in the best lit-class expository-theme fashion,

actually proves its points by reference to the particulars of the film

I just saw. Or is this just a variant of the emperor's new

clothes–nobody actually wants to admit that there's nothing there?

One thought on “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

  1. Apteryx:

    You're not alone in your confusion. 😉

    Before I begin this analysis I will quote from the indispenable Roger

    Ebert as

    a sort of caveat.

    From his review of the film at the Chicago Sun-Time (

    ) :

    "All movies toy with us, but the best ones have the nerve to admit


    Most movies pretend their stories are real and that we must take them

    seriously. Comedies are allowed to break the rules. Most of the films

    of Luis

    Bunuel are comedies in one way or another, but he doesn't go for gags

    and punch lines; his comedy is more like a dig in the ribs, sly and


    As this quote implies, part of the films humor is at the expense of


    viewer. This is especially true if you happen to be a member of the

    class that

    it skewers.

    As you know, the film centers around a party of guests who are


    trying to have dinner. There plans are foiled again and again by


    absurd occurences. First they show up on the wrong night, then they

    discover a

    dead body, then they are interrupted by military manuevers. It even

    goes so

    far as to have a curtain raise and expose an audience watching the


    eat. What is going on here? Why don't they just give up and go home?


    they crazy?

    Important to "getting" the movie is the word discreet. (

    defines discreet as:

    1.Marked by, exercising, or showing prudence and wise self-restraint

    in speech and behavior; circumspect.

    2.Free from ostentation or pretension; modest.

    -Note that "discreet" is quite different from "discrete"

    ( )-

    As you can tell the film's characters are anything but discreet.

    Bunuel's characters have no sense of restraint or prudence, no

    discretion. They

    are so arrogant, have such a sense of a entitlement, that they will

    let nothing stop their dinner. Not corpses, not the military, not

    fundamental shifts in the nature of reality. Their dogged pursuit of

    something as banal as a dinner

    party in the face of the dangerous and absurd is used to highlioght


    absurdity of their lifestyle. That's just the basics. Not too far

    into the

    film you become pretty certain that they'll never actually get to eat.

    It is

    from this setting that Bunuel gets to work, using specific characters


    situations as digs at the specific institutions.

    Consider the character of Raphael, the ambassador to the Republic of


    who is the closest the film has to a main character. The man is a

    diplomat and

    ostensibly a servant of his government, but is in reality a drug

    smuggler mixed

    up with terrorists.

    Consider the priest who likes to slum in people's gardens. In

    addition to

    being as clueless as Marie Antionette, he shoots a man while granting


    absolution! I think there may be a point about the hypocrisy of the

    church in

    here somewhere.

    In this fashion each of the six principal characters is representative

    of some

    shortcoming of the bouegeoisie as a whole. This is especially true for


    female characters, both of whom politely smile vacantly in the face of


    horror. Some of the films events are almost literal metaphors for the


    complacency of the upper middle class. How else can you interpret

    people who

    care more about a stupid dinner party than violence on a global scale?

    He uses device to highlight the bourgeoisie's hypocrisy, moral vacany,

    and just

    plain cluelessness. Such are the "discreet charms" of the


    Again, Ebert:

    "The joke in _The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie_ is the way


    interrupts the meals with the secrets that lurk beneath the surface

    of his

    decaying European aristocracy: witlessness, adultery, drug dealing,


    military coups, perversion and the paralysis of boredom. His central

    characters are politicians, the military and the rich, but in a

    generous mood

    he throws in a supporting character to make fun of the church–a

    bishop whose

    fetish is to dress up as a gardener and work as a servant in the

    gardens of

    the wealthy."

    There are also a lot of stupid jokes, too. As I said, Bunuel is

    having fun,

    and often, with you. He's a surrealist, which some interpret as


    license to hold one's audience in contempt. This is especially true

    for Bunuel

    in this film: who is going to see surrealist comedies about the

    bourgeoisie but the bourgeoisie themselves?

    It's not hard to also imagine Bunuel being aware of the


    praise that people would heap upon his film and considering that also

    a target

    of his satire.

    So, a basic rundown of the film's themes:

    -The bourgeoisie are corrupt

    -The bourgeosie are hypocrites

    -They are stupid

    -They are so concerned with pretense and propriety that they are

    frozen in

    their reactions

    -They are incapable of rising above their own self interest

    -And above all, they are too ignorant to appreciate any of this

    I'm afraid that the film doesn't go much deeper than that. If you

    agree with

    Bunuel's social viewpoint you will probably like this film on some

    level. It

    seems that much of the accolades come for the skill with which Bunuel


    his point. I am told that the English subtitles in some versions

    don't fully

    capture the searing wit of the original French, but I don't speak

    French and

    cannot confirm this.

    The Emperor is wearing clothes, just not too many. Let's say a

    bathrobe, or

    more appropriately, a silk smoking jacket. And that's not necessarily

    a bad

    thing if you happen to be a smoking jacket afficianado.

    hope this helps,


    Search Strategy:

    "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"




    Various Reviews of "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"


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