The films of Luis Bunuel have that peculiar quality of somehow combining a cold, clinical hyper-realism, with the kind of surrealism that you’d need to be a well-read fan of the works of the likes of psychoanalytical pioneers Freud and Jung to fully understand.
This uncanny combination means that his films manage to be farcical without uttering a single joke. On top of that, Bunuel is a masterful tinkerer of the cinematic medium, rejecting a comfortable, satisfactory narrative to use cinema as a medium of psychological and philosophical exploration. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is in many ways a culmination of his talents, constantly interrupting our expectations of narrative in ways that, instead of confusing us, lull us into the film’s quirky allegory of the human condition.
This film is essentially about a group of distinctly bourgeois friends who go around to one of their houses for dinner. The trouble is that each time they try to have dinner together, they get interrupted by unexpected events, strangers wishing to tell them stories, or the whole get-together simply turns out to be a dream. True to Bunuel’s style – and the style of our own dreams – any sense of time is thrown out the window as each scene does not follow on from its predecessor.
As such, this film avoids a single narrative thread (foreshadowing the work of everyone’s favourite mainstream surrealist, David Lynch) and instead presents us with a series of scenarios shared by the same characters and the same beautifully-illustrated themes. Due to the characters never being able to eat, they’re always hungry, yet their pomposity and disinterest in the bigger picture – as represented by the presence of Rafael, an ambassador for a fictional Latin American country with an evidently notorious human rights record – suggests that their physical starvation is simply a stand-in for their spiritual void.
Perhaps Bunuel is a little bit guilty of placing all the film’s symbolism and dream scenes in the heads of men – with the women serving as their loyal (or not so loyal) accomplices – but this can be forgiven thanks to the sheer clarity with which he expresses universal human anxieties. In one of the scenes, all the guests sit down to dinner, when a curtain suddenly falls and they’re expected to deliver lines to the audience.
Stunned and embarrassed, they leave the stage to the sound of jeers from the audience, with the last remaining one still sitting at the table, sweatily uttering the words ‘I can’t remember my lines’; not only a perfect expression of the uncertainty we’re all subjected to at some point about our rightful ‘role’ in life, but also a little dig from Bunuel at the impotence of the protagonists when removed from their aloof comfort zone.
Many of the dreams and stories in the film, however, don’t relate directly to the titular bourgeois characters, but to the characters that surround them. There is the bishop-turned-gardener who, by chance, is sent to absolve a dying man who turns out to be the murderer of his parents; or the soldiers throughout the film whose dreams and traumatic childhood experiences we delve into (a reference perhaps, to the strong historical trauma caused by the Spanish dictatorship).
A couple of times, we even witness disfigured ghosts stepping in to propel the dreamscape that Bunuel has laid out for us. Bunuel offers no ultimate answers, but through his cinematically sublime images that disperse conventional narrative, he makes us question ideas of morality, guild, greed and purpose – a theme vividly illustrated by the recurrent image of the dinner guests dejectedly walking down an endless road through a field; a classic image of existential desolation.
Amidst all the strange and sometimes disturbing imagery however, there is a sardonic kind of humour running throughout the film. In the final scene, Rafael is hiding under the dinner table after all the other guests have been killed (remember, it’s just another dream, and therefore not a spoiler). Unable to control himself, his hand creeps out from under the table to grab a piece of roast meat, which the gunmen easily see and pounce upon. Not only is it hilarious, but it also makes us wonder, what sort of awful emptiness must this character be feeling to happily give his life away for the tiniest bit of nutrition? Of course, we never quite get the answer, but Bunuel once again proves himself a master at making us ask the fundamental – maybe unanswerable – questions.