Bunuel’s classic 1972 film has been re-released, and comes to the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge this week. Having recently re-watched it on DVD, I found it as strange and compelling as ever; it doesn’t seem to lose its potency, if anything I find it more intriguing as I get older. Even though on the surface it perhaps looks rather dated, it quickly draws you into its absurd, surreal world.
Dave Calhoun in Time Out only gives the film 3 stars, but says:-
…perhaps it has now slightly lost its special strangeness, but ‘The Discreet Charm’ remains both an amusing satire on polite society and a tricksy exercise in pulling the rug out from under our expectations. The story, which has an increasingly improvisatory feel, sees six bourgeois French folk move through various, aborted attempts to sit down for a meal, including a visit to a private home on the wrong day and a trip on the same night to a restaurant where the deceased patron is lying in state in the back room. It still has a compelling and mischievous energy to it.
Closer to my own assessment is Peter Bradshaw who gives the film 5 stars in The Guardian:-
Luis Buñuel’s surreal masterpiece from 1972, co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière, is stranger and more sensual than ever. The weirdness under the conventions throbs even more insistently and indiscreetly, now that those conventions themselves are historically distant…The surrealist and anthropologist in Buñuel was fascinated by the ritual of the dinner party: without a host, this social event resembles humanity frantically inventing intricate rules for itself in the absence of God… An exotic and brilliant hothouse flower of a film.
There’s an interesting piece by Ryan Gilbey about Jean-Claude Carrie (mentioned above and the subject of a BFI season this month) in The Guardian [no longer available], which gives an insight into how Bunuel and he collaborated on their scripts-
[Carrie] is a master of the cinematic enigma – it was Carrière who advised Michael Haneke to prune some explanatory material from The White Ribbon to intensify that picture’s enigmas. (It’s a nice in-joke that Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy features Carrière as the only character whose words can be taken at face value.)
Carrière was 32, and already an Oscar-winner…when he was chosen by Buñuel in 1963 to co-write Diary of a Chambermaid. “I realised I wanted to love his ideas so much that I was in danger of agreeing to everything,” he recalls. Trying to find a way to spruce up a dinner-table conversation scene, Buñuel suggested that the camera might follow a woman’s hand as she reaches below the table to feed a wild boar idling at her feet. “I said: ‘I love it! What an image!’ But Buñuel said: ‘How stupid. Don’t you realise that from this moment, the audience will wonder only what is going to happen with the wild boar? The rest of the scene no longer exists.'” He set you a trap. “I think he did,” Carrière smiles admiringly.
The partnership thrived. They would spend several months at a time in a hotel in Toledo, Spain, doing nothing except writing, eating, drinking and telling one another stories.
Out of these sessions came Discreet Charm, a film which Jonathan Rosenbaum describes as:-
Frightening, funny, profound, and mysterious.
David Jenkins in Little White Lies [no longer available], after pointing out what I find the most bizarre fact about the film:-
…that it picked up an Oscar for Best Foreign Film defies all plausibility…
…then goes on to bring out a particular contemporary relevance:-
The notion that this elite social clique must sit down to dinner as the world crumbles around them equates to a fairly blunt attack on privilege and decadence. Central to the glittering ensemble is moustache-twirling Buñuel regular Fernando Rey who plays the wily and corrupt ambassador to the fictitious Latin American Republic of Miranda.
His character not only lends the film a ripe political angle, but emphasises how canny an operator this man is when it comes to matters of exploration for personal financial gain: his diplomatic pouch is used for drugs and he keeps a constant vigil on the young terrorist who constantly loiters outside his office. And yet, maintaining something as basic as friendship proves to be an impossiblity, a luxury that has no place in his, or any of these characters’ pampered lives.
On paper, this film appears to be much more simple, direct and angry than it actually is. It’s still very harsh and bitterly funny, but there’s a dark, messy humanism at its core that makes it so special, so interesting and so worthy of re-release.
As we still chide bankers and businessmen for their uncultured extravagancies, unchecked crookedness and inability to see a world beyond the edges of a gaudy china dinner plate, the film feels more relevant than ever. Their priorities may be despicable, but we must remember that, like everyone in this world, these characters are ultimately trudging down a twilit country road to a tragic, unavoidable oblivion. Outside of Buñuel’s own magnificent oeuvre, there really is nothing like it.