When this film landed on the door mat I really did not know what to expect. If you have read any of my other reviews you will understand I am “Mr Mainstream”, concentrating on major and popular releases and leaving the more art house and specialist movies to my esteemed colleagues. Having said all of that, I am a voracious viewer of anything different and looked forward to getting my teeth into something entirely different. Released on its 40thanniversary, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a satirical, farce like film built around the simple premise of a group of the French social elite trying to meet for a dinner party. For a huge variety of increasingly surreal reasons, it seems they are feted to never achieve this outwardly basic task. To give you a full synopsis would entirely spoil your viewing pleasure of this movie. There is nothing predictable or formulaic about the storyline and the stylised cinematic presentation will keep you hooked.
Veteran Spanish director Luis Bunel was 72 when he made this movie. Widely accredited as the founding father of surrealist cinema, with previous outings pairing him up with Salvador Dali! Pre-civil war Spain was no place for such an outspoken political satirist, so he emigrated first to America and then to Mexico. Returning in his later years to Europe, this film is considered one of his finest, earning an Oscar in 1972 for best foreign film and a BAFTA for Best Screenplay.
Unless your knowledge of French Cinema is particularly good, the cast will on the whole mean very little to you. Bunel’s way was always to pick his cast based upon specific roles he and his co-writers and producers had created. The actors were required to play these parts, not to impart their own character upon them. This does sometimes make the performances a little 2 dimensional and there are a few weak characters within the film whom although not exactly letting the side down, do make identification as the French elite a little tricky at times. The central core of actors are the 3 couples who are trying to get together for the dinner party. They are supported by a fairly large number of secondary characters, ranging from a corpse to various policemen and marijuana smoking cavalry officers. Suffice to say, an eclectic bunch!
As with all the best surrealist artworks, outwardly this movie starts really quite normally. The typically French landscape with beautiful rural houses, apartment blocks that could only belong in Paris and a selection of cars that evoke the era perfectly all seek to present an atmosphere of normality. This could almost be a lunchtime cinema crime thriller in the style of “Murder She Wrote”. Then of course it all starts to go a bit strange. The local restaurant where the owner has died and is laid out in mourning in a room adjoining the dining room is just for starters. Prepare yourself for some very strange dream sequences, odd monologues and any number of totally unrelated tangents to the main story. The only slightly predictable aspect of the movie is the sexual tension between some of the central characters. That being said, it does not detract from the appeal of the movie. The sex is hinted at rather than being shoved in your face, so to speak!
There are few dream sequences, some obvious, some less so, leaving you trying to work out what might possibly be real and what will be revealed as something played out in the minds of the cast. Although billed as a comedy, don’t expect too many belly laughs. The humour is subtle and not all of it comes across in translation as well as it might. There is very little physical humour, it comes from the interaction between the characters and the situations they are presented with. From the elderly Catholic Bishop becoming both gardener and avenging killer to the troubled cavalry officer recounting his murderous childhood, this is not usual comedic material, but the humour is there for the taking.
A little slow in places, this does at least give you a chance to catch your breath. The subtitles rattle in and out at quite a speed at times, with some dialogue obviously missing. Fortunately a smattering of schoolboy French will fill in most of the gaps, but there are a few head scratching moments! There is an English (and German) dialogue track, but it feels more authentic in the native French. What does come across is the care with which the film was shot. Modern editing techniques can make directors lazy with shot and scene transitions, preferring simple cuts and fades to some of the more creative options used in days gone by. Tricky set-pieces like pulling out of an area of action and then zooming into another part of the shot and pull focuses with a zoom through the window picking up on a 2ndshot all show that the film was well mapped out beforehand and that a confident director trusted his Cameraman to deliver the shots he required.
Without doubt a film to watch late in the evening, the fug of a good wine and possibly some of the illicit chemicals so prevalent in the story will help to soften one’s senses and allow some of the stranger aspects of the movie to wash over you. Not however something you would want to watch with someone who always asks “So what’s going on now then?” By the time you have explained it, the story will have moved on and they will be utterly lost again! Buy yourself a black roll neck pullover, a beret and possibly a pipe, sit back with a large glass of claret and enjoy this movie as you would a Dali masterpiece.
Even if you think you have no interest in foreign language films or French cinema, give this movie a try. The surrealist humour is worth digging out and the skill of the filmmaker really comes to the fore.
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