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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:
THE DISCREET CHARM
OF THE BOURGEOISIE


The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
The Criterion Collection
1972 / Color / 1:78
Starring Fernando Rey, Stephane Audran, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Georges Duking, Michel Piccoli
Cinematography Edmond Richard
Art director Pierre Guffroy
Film Editor Helene Plemiannikov
Writing credits Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carriere
Produced by Serge Silberman
Directed by Luis Buñuel

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

By now, the cinema world is so overflowing with David Lynch imitators and Quentin Tarantino imitators, that the idea of 'disturbing', 'surreal', or generally 'twisted' movies is neither shocking or even truly disturbing anymore. New independent films with edgy content and socially extreme attitudes are so numerous, they're middle of the road (Time for them all to discover square delights like Friendly Persuasion?). So then it is even more mysterious that the master of subversive cinema art, has a catalog of movies that shocked when they were new, remained scandalous, and haven't dated ní sólo dia.

Luis Buñuel, of all the 'art film directors' we studied in film school, is probably the one least understood by the general public and film aesthetes. Sure, we were all shown Un Chien Andalou in World Cinema 101, but besides noting its Dali-like imagery, can any of us claim to have really understood it? This deluxe Criterion release of one of Buñuel's later, more mellow masterpieces, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, is not only an excellent way to see Buñuel at his most subversively droll, but its extras comprise a practical primer lesson in understanding Don Luis.

Synopsis:

A group of well-to-do friends orbiting around Don Rafael (Fernando Rey), the charming ambassador from the revolution-prone South American country of Miranda, cannot seem to consummate the simple task of sitting down to dinner, no matter how hard they try. Table dates are interrupted by the clergy, military maneuvers, unexpected deaths, and unexplained food scarcities. Other dates are ruined when Don Rafael suspects that the police are setting a trap for, for he's been using his Mirandan diplomatic pouches to smuggle drugs into France. As days drag on with more and more meals that simply don't come off, the studied manners and affected insincerities of the little group grow more transparent, especially when the fabric of the film itself begins to break down into episodic, Kafka-like vignettes. Flashbacks are related in dreams, which are themselves episodes remembered from nightmares. The ambassador is involved in an adulterous relationship with his best friend's wife, and sexually harasses a would-be Mirandan assassin before turning her over to an assassination squad. A monsignor who moonlights as a gardener gives last rites to a man who admits he murdered his confessor's parents. And the ultimate aborted meal turns out to be a bizarre trap: the guests are shocked when a curtain pulls back, revealing an entire theater audience waiting for them to perform!


Quietly subversive, wickedly perverse (in a totally PG-rated intellectual way), Luis Buñuel manipulates his captive bourgeiois characters with complete control in this celebrated film. More 'theater of the absurd' than surreal, Discreet nevertheless abounds with situations that twist reality in subtle ways. Complacent, superior, dismissive, and hypocritical, Buñuel's victims use bright smiles, empty words, and just plain denial, in fruitless attempts to ignore the humilities and inconveniences thrown in their path. Don Rafael finds himself at a party where both guests and host alike corner him with unthinkably direct questions: "Is it true that there is corruption in your government's ambassadorial ranks?" He tries to flee but cannot. A clique of fashionable ladies, trapped in a cafe mysteriously without coffee, tea, or indeed anything at all to serve, is approached by a handsome lieutenant, a stranger who tells them a horribly personal story of childhood abuse and murder. Because of his manners, station and looks, they accept his appalling story with smiles and niceties, a veritable wall of 'proper behavior.'

Buñuel's style remains soberly matter-of-fact, quietly recording events. When bloody ghosts and other weird phantoms intrude on the scenes, it is with such directness that they seem equally mirage-like to the audience and characters alike. Discreet is not a movie for viewers who want pat explanations for all they see ... Buñuel clearly delighted in creating disturbing moments for which he had no rational explanation.

What does all this mean? Criterion's 2-DVD set of Discreet includes two very interesting documentaries. One, El naufrago de la calle de Providencia, is a 24 -minute collage of interviews with Buñuel associates and friends, including author Carlos Fuentes, that is amusing ("Salvador Dali was completely asexual ... when it came to sex, he was like that table there") and intriguing. In home movies, Buñuel is shown fussily preparing a martini drink just with a petty intensity comparable to the people he lampoons in the main feature. áñ

The second docu, the feature-length A proposito de Buñuel is simply excellent, the first and only truly useful work on Luis Buñuel that Savant has seen. To begin to understand Buñuel, there needs to be a lot of background covered first, about Spain at the turn of the century, about Unamuno and the rest of the wave of artists before the Residencia clan of Buñuel, Dali, and Federico Garcia Lorca; about the Spanish Civil war. In exile from Franco Spain, Buñuel worked for a New York museum and started a second career in Mexico, where his critics called his work entirely un-Mexican, yet the best Mexican films ever made. Polished, witty and exacting, the docu interviews many of Buñuel's producers and actors. We discover that the leading lady of Ensayo de un Crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz) was a depressive who claimed to be delaying her suicide to do Luis the courtesy of finishing his film. When it was done, she followed through with her plan. The vicious villain of Los Olvidados, the punk hoolum who murders the 'innocent' boy protagonist, is discussed by the actor who played him, seemingly from a hospital bed. And an actress who worked on Luis' Spanish comeback film, the supremely wicked Viridiana, recalls the pathetic and truly unpleasant 'actors' Luis recruited to fill out his table of vagrant disciples. At the end of the docu Savant felt he finally had a handle on this great, great director.


Criterion's DVD of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie has a sparkling Hi-definition transfer and is 16:9 enhanced. The docus are flat and contain some older, grainy 16mm passages, but also a nice selection of pristine film clips, mostly not indentified by name. There is also a trailer and a Buñuel filmography.


Savage and sophisticated, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is movie fare for art film connoiseurs, it is true. But anyone interested in satire with a real bite, created by a master of cinema, could do far worse than giving this funny, scary, befuddling farce an honest looksee.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound:Excellent
Supplements: two documentaries, including a 98 minute feature, A proposito de Buñuel; trailer, filmography.
Packaging: Double-thickness keep case
Reviewed: December 25, 2000





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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