What is the meaning of the movie, Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie?

What is the meaning of the movie, Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie?

It freaked me out – what is the purpose of it , it was freaky to the extreme.

I think it would be a mistake to attribute one “meaning” because the film is intentionally (a) episodic, and so touches on a variety of themes and subjects, and (b) surreal, and so takes on various dreamlike states of being to tell the assorted stories. Bunuel was always quick to take shots at the church and the government, and DCotB is no exception, but the film also deals with lust and desire, death and regret, and the fulfillment of latent impulses (though the film’s also about people constantly getting together for meals but perpetually getting frustrated in their attempts to actually eat).

What did you like most about the film? What surprised you? What do you remember the most? What did you think was the most (and least) accessible of the vignettes?

To add to what ArchiveGuy said, I think a case can be made of a strong element of political satire, even though that aspect of its social criticism is mostly symbolic or suggestive, rather than explicit. Bunuel was a pro-Loyalist filmmaker during the Spanish Civil War, followed by a number of years of exile in the U.S. and Mexico. He returned to Spain to make Viridiana ['61], under the noses of the govt. censors, who understood its subversive intent only after its completion and then banned it. So by the time of DCotB, Bunuel, long an avowed atheist, had already had a history of run-ins with the Franco regime and the Catholic Church on the grounds of his antipathy to both.

The film itself is on its face a comedy of manners, in which the six bourgeois [for the purposes of the film, read: ruling class] friends gather for a dinner party, only to have their decorous designs foiled repeatedly – sometimes by dint of untoward or surreal circumstances beyond their control, but also because of their own social dysfunction. For all the pointed critiques of the Spanish establishment, the overall tone of the movie is that of a gently ironic mockery, as if to deflate the power, arrogance, and presumptions of Franco’s militarist regime and its supporters in the Spanish Catholic church and, socio-economically, the bourgeosie.

The first night, four guests arrive at the host couple’s home, only to discover that they’ve arrived a night early. Was this the fault of the guests or their hosts, who may have inadvertently supplied the wrong date? I don’t recall if this point was resolved one way or the other (and I don’t think it was), but either way it could be read as a satirical poke at a certain incompetence amongst the privileged.

Nevertheless, they determine a change of plans – they will all go out to eat instead. A fine idea! The hosting couple knows of just the right place… only it turns out the chef there has died. Why did he just drop dead? Why is his body still there, without being properly dealt with by the authorities? This incident could be interpreted as another dig at the efficiency (or lack of it) of Spanish civil society, as well as its casual disregard of the welfare of the working class, who lay down their lives, senselessly and without understanding, to serve the desires of the ruling class.

Well, nothing kills a mood like a dead chef. They split, agreeing to meet the next night for their previously planned dinner party. What ensues, in no particular order because I don’t remember it that clearly, includes the following:

– the dinner party is undone by the host couple’s screwing in their backyard, while the guests arrive, are served drinks, and gradually discover why their hosts are failing to greet them. Embarrassed by the spectacle, they discretely take their leave.

– the dinner party is revealed to be on a dramatic stage, with the friends, now pressed into service as stage actors in a packed theater, at a complete loss on how to act and what to say. Again, a picture of impotency, marked by their inability to articulate their identity and purpose when suddenly thrust (exposed) on the national stage. Bunuel seem to be saying here that Spain’s ruling class makes a poor showing in its attempts to justify their existence and privileges.

– the host couple hires the local priest (or higher-up church official, I don’t recall) as their gardener. They must be persuaded to do so by the man’s earnest entreaties to be hired in that capacity, as they hold a squeamish inhibition against seeing their cleric in that [commercial, socially subservient] position. Bunuel seems to be both indicting the Spanish Catholic Church for its subservience to the Franco-ists and mocking it for its resultant loss of dignity and stature.

– the dinner party, at another time and location, is gunned down by some uniformed military types [soldiers? officers? a particular branch or unit?] There may be a specific meaning or reference that’s understood by the Spanish audience of the time that’s all but lost now, but it’s probably just a general indictment of the Spanish army under Franco. This could be Bunuel’s warning to the Spanish bourgeosie that, as much as they may ally themselves to Franco, that the man himself may not reciprocate in his feelings or loyalties; that these privileged elites are, to a degree, expendable, should the regime require their sacrifice…

– repeated cutaway shots, devoid of context and breaking continuity with the adjacent episodes, of the party walking on a quiet country road. These bits are purely existentialist – why are they walking? where are they going? who knows? they never arrive at their destination – and also pure cinema – images presented for their own sake, as they not only aren’t story elements, they don’t make sense within the so-called narrative.
Excepting the last item, the above plot points may leave the impression that the nature of Bunuel’s satire and social critique are perhaps all pointed and direct, and that the film is entirely dedicated to advancing Bunuel’s disapproval, but that would be to ignore its nuanced view of its bourgeois characters, as well as short-change its episodic, surreal, deconstructed structure [as **ArchiveGuy **detailed]. It’s important to note that the bourgoisie as depicted here generally conduct themselves with an admirable deportment (even the exhibitionistic sex was handled tastefully, considering) and a remarkable sang-froid, even in the face of one outrageous misfortune after another – and even to the point where they tend to come across as not merely unflappable, but almost incapable of a normal emotional outburst. I think Bunuel was making a complicated point with that stylistic choice, suggesting both a (perhaps grudging) admiration for the sense of style and manners of this stratum of society, but also using that quality as the basis for his mocking parody of them.

I should’ve added here that the theme here is the ruling class’ hedonism, self-absorbtion and general sense of irresponsibility, but with Bunuel’s signature irreverence.

Really well put, Scrivener, though I’m obliged to add that I suspect at this point in his career, Bunuel was comfortable taking on larger targets than just those of his home country–after all, DCotB was made in France (and is in French), so while some incidents suggest a more direct commentary on Franco, many others seem just as pointed to European (and perhaps global) class divides and manners in general.

I have the Criterion release of this film but have yet to crack it open yet–either to revisit the film or any of the truly delectable-sounding extras.

I’ve always thought a wonderful (and criminally underappreciated) companion to this film is Angelopoulos’ The Traveling Players made just a few years later. It is also a surreal series of episodes, posing as historical allegory, centering around a wandering theatrical troupe who can never finish a performance without something intrusive occurring. But while Bunuel usually plays for laughs (even bitter ones), this Greek film is stoicly tragic. Maybe it’ll come out on Region 1 DVD…

You’re most generous, ArchiveGuy. By any reckoning, my forgetting the movie was in French (and probably set in France) is a pretty big oversight, Bunuel’s anti-Francoism notwithstanding. :o