"The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"

Sex in the bushes and a pot-smoking military liven up Bu

Published March 15, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

"The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Starring Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Stéphane Audran, Bulle Ogier, Michel Piccoli
Home Vision/Criterion Collection; widescreen (original 1.66:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: New feature-length documentary on Buñuel's life and career, 1970 documentary on his life in Mexico, more

At three decades' distance, Luis Buñuel's masterful send-up of middle-class European existence -- which won the Oscar as Best Foreign Film, to the Academy's eternal credit -- seems more like Monty Python-style goofballing than radical avant-gardism. The sinister Latin American ambassador shooting out his window at toys, the pot-smoking military officers, the bishop who wants to be a gardener, the strange noises that interfere anytime anybody tries to talk politics, the married couple who escape their own dinner party to go have sex in the bushes, it's all good fun.

Still, what remains impressive about "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" is how supple and anarchic it is, how much in love with the liberating possibilities of his medium Buñuel is (and not in some Hitchcock-quoting-geek-boy way, either). More than anything "Discreet Charm" is old-fashioned farce, but it also moves gracefully in and out of thriller, melodrama and a sad, slightly morbid and deeply touching surrealism. Buñuel is often compared to Jean-Luc Godard and there are some good reasons for that. But in his peasant mysticism the Spaniard -- who once said that in his native region of Aragon the Middle Ages lasted until World War I -- actually brushes closer to the terrain of Ingmar Bergman. The troubling, death-haunted dreams that keep interrupting the narrative (such as it is) are not, after all, played for laughs. For Buñuel, it's the upscale, never-consummated dinner party presided over by the elegant Stephane Audran that is the dream world, trying and failing to keep a chaotic universe at bay.

As if a flawless transfer of this classic film weren't sufficient, this double-disc set includes "Speaking of Buñuel," a new Mexican feature-length documentary that paints a detailed and affectionate portrait of this bon vivant, old-school gentleman, martini aficionado, prankster and privately religious anti-Catholic. Just as enjoyable, if more scattered, is "The Castaway of the Calle de la Providencia," an informal 20-minute film portrait of Buñuel's life as an exile in the bohemian Mexico City of the 1960s. For any admirer of the great surrealist director, the chance to watch him not merely imbibe his favorite cocktail but actually mix it (a little vermouth and bitters, swirled with the ice and then poured out) will be precious indeed.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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