We gave it a B-
The great Spanish director Luis Bunuel was the cinema’s quintessential lapsed Catholic, and he loved flinging mud at official culture. So perhaps he would have appreciated it if I opened this review with a merciless declaration of art-bashing sin. I went to see the rerelease of his 1972 landmark, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a movie that I remember loving in college. To my great surprise, I discovered that it has not aged well. It seems pompous and scattershot now — a tweaking of privileged European smugness that unfolds with a playful daisy-chain logic but has the tone of a quaint, doddering lecture.
For about 45 minutes, it’s actually rather droll, as Bunuel’s middle-aged wolf pack of upper-crust French couples attempt to sit down to a civilized meal, only to find themselves thwarted, as if by cosmic conspiracy, at every juncture. The characters, like Fernando Rey’s ultra-urbane, dope-smuggling diplomat, have no texture or depth whatsoever, and that appears to be part of Bunuel’s elegantly derisive plan: These people are what they eat — or, in this case, what they don’t eat. (They’re nothing, and it doesn’t bother them.) But as the disruptions become more and more grandiose — at one point, dinner is interrupted by the army — the film grows repetitive and tiresome, like a Monty Python sketch that won’t stop chasing its tail. Even the climactic series of dreams within dreams seems cruder and less ingenious than it once did.
In Belle de Jour (1967), which enjoyed a triumphant rerelease a few years ago (that one, incidentally, does hold up), Bunuel, for all his mocking trickery, identified with the dazed erotic turmoil of his heroine. Here, we’re cued to applaud the fact that a legendary anarchist-surrealist is charmed by the vain, self-deluding classes he used to bait. The movie, in other words, unites Bunuel with his audience in indulging their mastery over the people on screen. How very early ’70s. How very bourgeois. B-