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t was the actor Franco Nero who best expressed why the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel continues to leave an impression. “Buñuel always told me that the best thing was not to show things to the audience, but instead to trigger their imagination,” he told Film Comment in the fall of 1983.
In the interview, Nero recalled a pivotal scene in Tristana, a 1970 film in which he co-starred. In it, the eponymous heroine, played by Catherine Deneuve, stands, nude, next to an open window. She looks directly at a boy gawking at her naked body below in the square. Rather than regard her physique, though,
the camera curiously zeroes in on her face. Undoubtedly, the scene is provocative. But it becomes something else entirely because Buñuel doesn’t give us exactly what we think we're going to see.
Most of Buñuel’s best films have worked with this same sort of playful obliqueness. Ever-mischievious, he refused to cater to orthodoxies. In addition to flaunting visual and conceptual indirectness, much of his filmography was openly disdainful of the greed and unsaid hedonism of the bourgeoisie and other social subsects. His satirical jabs were usually overdressed — abstract and lovingly absurdist, daring us to look for more. Daring us to, as pointed out by Nero, be imaginative in our interpretations.
Buñuel’s career ebbed and flowed. In the earlier part of the 20th century, with the short, French, Salvador Dalí collaborations Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930) defining him, he was a leading surrealist. Someone who, in contrast to Nero’s musings, built much of their name off what they showed. Then, after the 1933 release of the 27-minute documentary film Land Without Bread, he took a 16-year filmmaking hiatus. Memorably, he even worked as a Spanish dubbing producer for Warner Bros. in the mid-1940s to pass the time. His directorial return, 1949’s The Great Madcap, was a Mexico-produced, mainstream comedy. And for the next decade, he’d mostly make public-friendly (but still sometimes uncanny) features for the country, intermittently working in France, too.
But it would not be until around the time he released the wicked Spanish-Mexican black comedy Viridiana, in 1961, that Buñuel would start making certifiable, consistently virtuosic masterworks, usually satires and sharp-witted fantasies. From then until his death in the summer of 1983 is what I’d like to consider — and what I think most consider — the golden age of Buñuel’s career.
Past 60, most filmmakers typically begin slowing down, if not retiring and reaping the benefits of their legacies. But in old age, Buñuel became more audacious, and more fully in command of whatever he considered the Buñuel touch.
Although he would only make four features in the 1970s, his last decade of filmmaking, Buñuel was particularly feisty during the period. The decade kicked off with the aforementioned Tristana, which was a dark comedy about idealization and obsession. Then it would continue with the upper-class-targeted burlesques The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974). His career concluded with That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), in which a young woman is played by two actresses for apparently no reason. “Why not?” we imagine Buñuel asking.
Of all the films Buñuel made in his career, though, it was The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie that was the most commercially successful. It was also one of his most decorated, winning distinguished prizes aplenty and ultimately receiving the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in March 1973.
It is certainly one of his most high-concept projects. It is spiritually linked to 1962’s The Exterminating Angel, an infamous farce that watched as dinner party guests enjoyed their meal only to find out afterward that they were, inexplicably, literally unable to leave their host’s home.
Comparably, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is also concerned with affluent, manicured people getting together for dinner. But here, a quintet of people — played by Delphine Seyrig, Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Stéphane Audran, and Bulle Ogier — keep finding their attempts to sit down and have a meal together thwarted. First because of a scheduling misunderstanding, then a restaurant emergency, then ….
Interruptions become increasingly complex. A cocaine trafficking scheme, a phalanx of soldiers deciding to crash the premises, and a plethora of acquaintances relaying stories of their pasts (which beckon in flashbacks) butt in. Toward the end, myriad nightmare scenarios that seem to be further extensions of reality turn out to simply be nightmares, abruptly ending when characters jerk awake in their silk-sheeted beds.
At the outset, the movie proves itself a daggerous treatise on the hypocrisies of the privileged. Wealth, despite the prepossessing homes, clothes, and ornaments it can afford you, does not make you superior. It can often make you appear bloodless, so ensnared in the trap of trying to live up to an image that you’d prefer to get caught up in the frivolities of a vain existence than face your neuroses, or even the problems of the world around you, head on. With The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Buñuel wonders what would happen if both incorporeal anxieties and prevalent real-world predicaments were able to obstruct the routines of the intentionally unbothered moneyed.
As stinging as the film can sometimes be, though, Buñuel is never unnecessarily unkind or astringent toward his characters. Such wasn’t uncommon for the writer-director. While no person was ever safe from being ridiculed in his features — religious figures, pretty young things, autonomous chambermaids, and others were targeted too — Buñuel always recognized the motivations and mindsets of his characters. He’d mock them and their often empty-headed desires, sure, but he never condescended to them. He’d understand them first, then go back and point out how detrimental their superficialities could be. But even then, he inherently knew that everyone — including himself — has the capacity to be a hypocrite. Maybe that’s why his movies so enduringly sting.
Next to his omnibus film The Phantom of Liberty, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is among Buñuel’s funniest movies, too. It’s so harebrained in so much of what it does, we have no choice but to sit back and snicker at how far Buñuel’s willing to go to get his parodic missives across. He was 72 when he made it, and yet it’s so animated, so vital. But such is the gift of his legacy: even at his most muddied, Buñuel was always interesting. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie happens to be one of his clearest, more accessible endeavors. A