Luis Bunuel’s first film An Andalausian Dog, co-directed by Salvador Dali, attacked the social and conventional taste of the bourgeoisie in an extreme manner. Bunuel called cinema “a desperate and passionate appeal to murder.” An Andalusian Dog had some severe scenes and sequences which validated this notion of his.
More than forty years after An Andalusian Dog, Bunuel had a story to tell: a group of people wanting to have dinner but never quite managing to. The group constantly arrives for dinner, sometimes even sits down to eat but never gets around having the dinner; they arrive at the wrong night, or they are alarmed by a restaurant owner’s corpse, or their attempts foiled by a military intervention of sorts. This film was slyly named The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and turned out to be every bit as subversive as An Andalusian Dog, although much subtler.
Dinner is the central theme for everything that a “civilized” middle class bourgeoisie stands for. It is a social ritual, a way of displaying wealth and manners. The central joke in the film is how the narration connects this dinner with the dark secrets beneath the surface of the European aristocracy: adultery, drug dealing, cheating, etc. The central characters belong to the strata of military, politicians, and the rich. They are extremely well-mannered and polished and they drink martini. A bishop makes a generous appearance to serve the purpose of humiliating the church.
The deceptive people can only escape their overpopulated, promiscuous present in a lonely dream. Dreams fold within dreams amusingly. In one of the dream sequences, we see the group sitting down for dinner and curiously a curtain rises before them, and they realize that they are on a stage. To their humiliation they do not recall their lines, and the audience boos them.
The film is a surrealistic political film where the bourgeoisie protagonists are left to confront the ghosts of their own creation. Bunuel keeps comparing the first world of France with the imaginary third world country Miranda. The ambassador of this country, Rafael, is one of the protagonists. He is a well-mannered, immaculately first-worldly-dressed martini-whirling man; he is a privileged member of a “good society.” Rafael is not shown to do anything worthwhile for his native land. In fact, he is portrayed to be as first world as his French comrades, implying he is a member of an elite French knowing section of people in his own country. Rafael is involved in drug-dealing with two other male members of the group. Rafael is constantly haunted by revolutionaries, but the ambassador keeps outwitting the student revolutionaries who are driven by a singular, romantic ambition of murdering the ambassador.
The Senechal family estate is the most frequent setting of the film. Most of the absurdities of the film take place at this estate. At one point, French troops take over the house for military maneuvering. Soldiers open fire at the guests; a man escapes death by hiding under the table but betrays himself by reaching out for the food still on his plate. The film ends with a scene of all the protagonists dressed for dinner wandering on an empty country road, seemingly in search of a dinner.
Bunuel has been called a cruel filmmaker. The dig in the ribs in this film is sly, and often painful. All through the film, he keeps reminding us that civilization was only skin deep. Forty years previously, the surreally frenzied screen was Bunuel’s weapon of choice, it was now manifest in the cognitive power of viewers.