The Spanish director Luis Buñuel spent much of his career working to subvert the various pieties of civilized society. From the image of a young man in a nun’s habit riding a bicycle in “Un Chien Andalou” (1929) to the sight of Catherine Deneuve having mud flung at her in “Belle de Jour” (1967), Buñuel shocked and mocked moviegoers who expected easily identifiable characters and conventional plots. Mercifully, he limned his filmic salvos with surrealist humor and absurd non sequiturs.
His 1972 movie “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” now enjoying a revival at the Film Forum, ridicules many of the same institutions and social hypocrisies as were targeted in his prior movies — a rigid class structure, the church, the military, etc. — but does so in the style of one of its protagonists: with gently aloof editing, affectionately smug declarations, and dreamy inconsequence.
It also features a veritable who’s who of great European actors and actresses of the 1960s and ’70s, including Fernando Rey (“The French Connection”), Delphine Seyrig (“Last Year at Marienbad”), Stéphene Audran (“Les Biches”), Jean-Pierre Cassel (“Army of Shadows”), and many more. If that’s not enough of an enticement to go see it or re-watch it, the movie also contains a bevy of hilarious set-pieces involving a group of friends trying to have a meal or refreshment, only to be thwarted each time by some inconvenience, such as a café having run out of tea. And coffee. And milk.
These scenes provide an opening for Buñuel to dissect the idea that the upper classes — for the “Bourgeoisie” in the title refers to the monied, somewhat cultured elite and not to the middle class or “petite bourgeoisie” — seek to maintain order and appearances at all costs. The six friends are always très polite, even when circumstances reach a level of incongruity that would make most “commoners” react more vehemently, such as visiting a friend’s apartment only to find one’s wife already there — in the bedroom. Only Bulle Ogier’s character, Florence, breaks the placid spell at times when she gets drunk and starts to behave in a déclassé manner.
Their constant attempts at a sumptuous repast reach a climax at the country home of Henry and Alice. As the opening pâté is being passed around the table, a full troop of cavalry soldiers walks in to announce that their drills in the local area will be starting a day earlier than had been planned. This leads to some pedestrian mentions of Vietnam and marijuana, and though these references may date the movie and shake it out of its illusory world of cocktails and pleasantries, the general air of mild amusement remains.
There are disturbing incidents as well, such as the attempted assassination of one of the main characters by a Communist rebel, and a flashback to a soldier’s remembrance of how he killed his father to avenge the death of his real father. Yet the movie’s final section resolves some of the more unusual set-pieces, as they turn out to be dreams — or dreams nested within dreams.
These become a bit tiresome as the movie winds down, even if they do bring up issues of police brutality, colonialism, and the economic disparity between the rich and the poor. As with “The Exterminating Angel,” Buñuel is not content with just ribbing the upper classes but wants to show that their economic privileges and sense of entitlement are directly connected to the ills of the world. It could come off as hectoring if it wasn’t so strangely entertaining.
One of my favorite motifs in “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” is how patient and encouraging everyone is when it comes to listening to a person’s sleeping dreams or sad stories. It’s as if they have nothing better to do than to revel in someone’s misery or obscure fantasy. Sounds a lot like the movies to me — and there’s Buñuel again showing us to be the empty souls that we are.