The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie


One of the many pleasures of Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous version of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon (1975), set mainly in 18th century England, comes from observing the way that language can lay a civilizing veneer over the most unsavory activity. Whether Barry is being robbed at gunpoint by highwaymen or being cruelly rejected by the pillars of the society he has entered through marriage, the mode of discourse remains eloquently evasive, smoothing over the edges of the baser intent.

In Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), set in late-20th century France, soothing words of discretion still maintain among a certain class, so much so that when one Rafael Acosta (Fernando Rey), the distinguished ambassador of the South American Republic of Miranda, finds himself at a diplomatic reception where his home country is repeatedly insulted in no uncertain terms, the viewer may feel a genuine frisson of transgressive glee. Especially when Acosta’s customary poise dissolves to the point where he takes out a gun and shoots his host.

Discreet Charm is a plot reversal of Buñuel’s earlier The Exterminating Angel (1962), which featured a group of people at a dinner party who, for no apparent physical reason, found themselves unable to leave. This time our sextet of well-bred diners find themselves unable to commence. Something untoward always interrupts, like the unfortunate Acosta incident or the discovery at a restaurant that the recently deceased owner’s corpse is laid out in an adjoining room, or the sudden arrival of machine gun-toting terrorists. It’s enough to challenge one’s linguistic sangfroid.

The film is constructed as a series of vignettes, some of them dreams, dreams within dreams and people having other people’s dreams, with such Buñuelian digressions as the story of a vengeful bishop and a few shadowy nightmares to remind us of the Surrealists’ perennial appreciation of Poe.

Made when he was in his early 70s, it isn’t Buñuel’s best film — it lacks the bite and resonance of Los Olvidados (1950) or the aforementioned Angel — but it’s remarkably agile work for a septuagenarian malcontent, lightly comic and maliciously discreet.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at

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