Luis Buñuel is a filmmaker with few peers and a unique career trajectory. A hardcore Surrealist in 1920s Paris and a propagandist for Republican Spain during the Civil War, Buñuel found refuge in the Mexican film industry before making a triumphant, late-life return to France and the art cinema pantheon.
“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois” was Buñuel’s greatest commercial and critical success, capped with the 1972 Oscar for best foreign film. Given a new 4K digital restoration, it has been revived for a two-week run at Film Forum.
Buñuel, who died in 1983, intended “The Discreet Charm” as his last film (it was not), and it recapitulates certain career-long concerns. The movie is typically described as a comedy of frustration in which a sextet of well-heeled, super-civilized haute bourgeois (five French people and the ambassador from an imaginary South American country) repeatedly attempt and fail to sit down at dinner. As such, it elaborates on the thwarted desires that fuel two earlier masterpieces of his: “L’age d’Or,” made with Salvador Dalí in 1930, and Buñuel’s penultimate Mexican production, “The Exterminating Angel” (1962).
The movie is suavely irrational, predicated on interlocking dreams (and dreams within dreams), as well as assorted terrorists, gangsters and army officers, along with an extremely obliging bishop (Julien Bertheau). It is also an avant-garde sitcom. The men are ruling-class criminals — although the ambassador (Fernando Rey) is far craftier than his French buddies (Paul Frankeur and Jean-Pierre Cassel). The two older women (Delphine Seyrig and Stéphane Audran) are ferociously poised fashion police; the group’s youngest member (Bulle Ogier) is a bit of a wild card. Much of the humor relies on their inane observations and absurd sang-froid in a succession of increasingly awkward social situations. (Imagine a smart tearoom running out of tea!)
A few scenes of torture notwithstanding, American critics swooned for “The Discreet Charm.” Andrew Sarris called it “clearly the film of the year.” Vincent Canby’s New York Times review hailed it as “the unique creation of a director who, at 72, has never been more fully in control of his talents, as a filmmaker, a moralist, social critic and humorist.” While it is hard to disagree with this assessment, it’s possible to prefer Buñuel’s less digestible works — particularly “Viridiana” (1961), which sneaked past Spain’s fascist censors, and the low-budget Mexican films that were, of necessity, directed against the grain.
“The Discreet Charm” is not without its pleasures. Seyrig, Audran, and Ogier are magnificent farceurs. Buñuel might be shooting fish in a barrel, but French manners have seldom been so expertly ridiculed. A few of the movie’s pranks (an inconvenient death disrupts one dinner) still shock; others (Ogier parading around in Napoleon’s hat) remain laugh-out-loud funny. It’s fascinating to see Buñuel’s engagement with the Godard of “La Chinoise” and “Weekend” and even, in the casting of Rey, “The French Connection.”
And yet, while “The Discreet Charm” is not exactly complacent, neither is it unreconciled. For all its unpatriotic and anticlerical jibes, the movie is too expansively genial to be truly discomfiting. The Oscar is the tip-off, even if Buñuel did suggest that his producer had bribed the Academy to get it.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Through July 7 at Film Forum in Manhattan; filmforum.org.