"The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"

A restored version of Luis Bu

Published May 16, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Most moviegoers resent having tricks played on them. And yet you'd have to be very stingy not to feel flattered at being the object of the tricks Luis Buquel plays in his 1972 "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie." Made when he was 72 and now being rereleased in a restored version under the auspices of Rialto Pictures (which has already brought us the glorious restorations of "Contempt," "Nights of Cabiria" and "Grand Illusion"), "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" gives us Buquel the anarchist in the relaxed guise of a host executing one subversive parlor trick after another.

As Buquel makes us fall for the same trick again and again and again, you're tempted to chuckle and protest like an overpampered guest: "All this for us, Don Luis! Please, you outdo yourself!" Buquel's sleight of hand is exquisite, the tone perfectly controlled, the pacing not hurried by so much as a beat at any moment. This has to be one of the most completely realized comedies ever made, and, in its odd way, one of the most civilized.

"Discreet Charm" doesn't have the ferocity or cruelty of earlier Buquel films like "Los Olvidados" or "Belle de Jour." And yet it's not really a mellowing, either. Posing as a surreal drawing-room comedy, "Discreet Charm" (written by Buquel and Jean-Claude Carrihre) contains all of the Spanish director's most cherished old hates -- the church, the military, the police, governments and especially the bourgeoisie. The defining moment of Frangois Truffaut's films might be the line "People are wonderful" from "Stolen Kisses." If you tried to sum up Buquel with a similar maxim, it could very well be "People are appalling." Imagine that said with more amusement than distaste, and you're close to imagining the spirit of this film.

The plot, or what passes for it, concerns six well-to-do friends attempting to get together for dinner. On that slim contrivance, Buquel hangs non sequiturs, interruptions, farcical complications, dream sequences and dream sequences within dream sequences. "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" is really an elaborate demonstration of the gullibility of movie audiences. In one scene, a haunted-looking young lieutenant approaches the women of Buquel's sextet as they try to have afternoon tea. He tells them the story of his tragic boyhood. Without warning, Buquel plunges us into the most melodramatic of Gothic flashbacks, all dark, echoing corridors and disfigured apparitions. It's peerlessly creepy, and it hooks you. But just when we've become thoroughly engrossed, Buquel yanks us back to reality as the young officer finishes his tale and bids his somewhat baffled listeners goodbye. Buquel casually dashes our desire to find out what happened next, making a joke of it, and we know that the lieutenant won't turn up later to figure in the plot as he might in a conventional "well-made" novel or movie.

There is something akin to the parodistic work of the young Brian De Palma going on here, with European finesse instead of American trash-pop energy. De Palma's early horror films worked on an audience's vulnerability. Buquel takes aim at our susceptibility, our predilection for ghost stories and melodramas. And like De Palma, Buquel rubs some people the wrong way.

"The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" was the director's greatest popular success when it came out in 1972, winning glowing reviews and even an Oscar for best foreign film. And yet it makes people angry. I first saw it a few years after it came out in a small repertory cinema that opened in my suburban hometown, and I can still recall the palpable mixture of baffled resentment coming from the audience as the director frustrated one narrative thread after another. They had come for an edifying evening, a foreign comedy, and here was this strange movie pulling the wool over their eyes at every turn. I saw it again in college in the early '80s with some friends, who were immediately drawn into each grisly tall tale Buquel served up. And they didn't take kindly to the way he made each one evaporate, saying, "Fooled you!"

To enjoy "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" you have to be willing to laugh at how movies turn us all into easy prey. Buquel isn't judging us harshly for that, merely teasing us. And it's not as if he doesn't provide another kind of pleasure for the narrative satisfactions he denies. His title refers to the way his characters maintain their perfect manners in one outrageous situation after another. But he himself shows a discreet charm here. This film displays the highly sophisticated control of only a handful of other comedies in the history of movies: "Trouble in Paradise," "Kind Hearts and Coronets," "Smiles of a Summer Night," "Shampoo." It's not like any of them. But they all share a tone so perfectly controlled that laughs arise not merely from jokes but from nuances of phrasing, behavior and movement.

The acting, in the submerged stylization essential to drawing-room comedy, is flawless. As the drug-smuggling diplomat from a Latin American country, the great Fernando Rey displays the suave self-satisfaction of the wholly corrupt. On some level he's revolting, and yet he's such an image of politesse that you can't hate him. And the women are amazing: Stephane Audran, who at one moment seems a butterfly carried away by the charm of her guests, at others positively drooping with boredom and routine; Bulle Ogier, a bundle of neurotic ticks seemingly held together by her designer clothes; and the delightful Delphine Seyrig, with her crooked smile, turning her usual effortless charm to a thoroughly unspontaneous sunniness that has been bred in the bone.

You can't hate any of them. To do so, to borrow a line Burt Lancaster once spoke, would be like hating the desert because there's no water in it. All of them are thoroughly what they are, pure in their corruption, sincere in their insincerity, beautifully mannered in their appalling self-centeredness. Buquel greets them with the closest thing in him to tenderness. Observing them affords Buquel the satisfactions of seeing an old well-known enemy who hasn't changed a whit in decades. On some level these bourgeoisie are comforting, not least because they allow this unrepentant old atheist to prove that Jesus was wrong: It's the rich who are always with us.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------