Buñuel arranges The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie as a series of vignettes. Occasionally there will be a surreal bridging device—the cast walking in search of a meal on a highway in the country—sometimes it will turn out to be a dream, sometimes it will be another layer (a narrated flashback, a dream-in-a-dream), sometimes it will be more traditionally epical. Mostly in the first act.
The film opens with four people getting to a dinner party, only they’re a day early so they have to go out. But then it turns out fate’s against them having dinner that night. They’ll try again.
The initial dinner guests are Fernando Rey, playing the ambassador from the South American republic Miranda, Paul Frankeur as his friend, Delphine Seyrig as Frankeur’s wife, and Bulle Ogier as Seyrig’s sister. They go out to dinner with Stéphane Audran, who was expecting them for dinner the next night. Because it’ll turn out her husband, Jean-Pierre Cassel, is kind of flakey. Though everyone in Charm is flakey at one time or another, though only a few with any malice behind it.
In the first act we also learn Rey, Frankeur, and Cassel are coke traffickers. Rey brings it in via his ambassador bag—diplomatic immunity—selling to Frankeur and Cassel. The wives don’t appear to know anything about it. There’s a bunch of funny dialogue about ambassadors as smugglers. Charm is often very obviously, intentionally funny. Buñuel will occasionally break out the jokes–especially when introducing Julien Bertheau as the local bishop who moonlights as Audran and Cassel’s new gardener. Bertheau even becomes one of the dinner-seekers—tagging along to various events before his subplot goes its own way.
Because Charm’s also got a some very strong narrative arcs. The second act, after the film introduces the layering device (starting with a great narrated flashback from Christian Baltauss), slowly becomes about centering the narrative focus on Rey. He’s always kind of the lead—he’s sleeping with someone he shouldn’t be and he’s also a cocaine smuggler so he’s on edge; also there are revolutionaries from Miranda in Paris trying to assassinate him—but the process of making him protagonist and directing the narrative, even passively—takes Buñuel a while.
Every one of the dream sequence reveals in the film is a surprise. Even as the events become more absurd—eventually there’s a ghost and it makes perfect sense because ghosts are real in Charm—Buñuel never lessens the intensity of the scene. The drama is always very real. So we gradually come to understand Rey’s self-conscious about being a South American diplomat with these bourgeoisie white French people. There’s never a clarifying scene about whether or not he should be—Buñuel always leaves the judgment of the characters up to the audience; especially when it’s part of the story. Charm’s narrative distance and how Buñuel adjusts it throughout is stunning.
All the acting is excellent. Rey gets the biggest part, obviously, then probably Audran—who gets one more scene without her significant other than any of the other women—then actually Bertheau as the priest. Bertheau’s arc is one of the film’s standout successes. Because Buñuel introduces Bertheau as another angle giving insight into the main cast; he’s an observer too, one who’s socially acceptable to have out to dinner, unlike Milena Vutokic as Audran and Cassel’s maid; Vutokic gets a lot to do (and even gets one of the last big jokes) but she’s all reaction to the cast, she’s got nothing of her own, which ends up being part of the joke.
Ogier and Seyrig both get a couple really good spotlight scenes. Cassel’s always support, but getting more to do than Frankeur, which is kind of funny because from the introduction it seems like Frankeur’s going to be a scene-stealer, which raises a question about whether or not Charm is unpredictable. I mean. Ghosts exist so anything’s on the table, which affects plot anticipation.
Because even though all the dream reveals are surprises, they’re never “gotchas.” Discreet Charm is never about being fantastical; the film’s incredibly grounded. Otherwise a bunch of the jokes wouldn’t work and Buñuel makes sure they work. There’s one about Americans where it’s edited to wait for the laughs. Excellent editing throughout from Hélène Plemiannikov.
The other technicals are similarly strong. Edmond Richard’s photography is a lot less flashy than Plemiannikov’s editing, Pierre Guffroy’s production design, or Jacqueline Guyot’s costumes, but Charm’s photography is appropriately clinical in its presentation. The film never feels stagy, but it does have long scenes in single locations. There’s a personality to the photography’s lack of personality, especially as Buñuel even trades on how reliably the photography showcases the sets. It’s all wonderfully intentional.
While The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie sometimes takes darker turns, it’s always genial and well-mannered, which is just the perfect tone.
Charm’s a rare, strange delight.