FILM / Dining out on the story

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The Independent Culture
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (no cert) - Luis Bunuel (Fr)

Masala (18) - Srinivas Krishna (Can)

Daydream Believer (15) - Kathy Mueller (Aus)

We are now, as film buffs can hardly have failed to note, in the very depths of the dog days, although if it is any consolation, American audiences are scarcely faring better: most of the studios' big, blockbuster guns were fired there before the Fourth of July. And, however grim things seem here, they could be worse: we have been spared Mom and Dad Save the World, so far anyway.

Not all is gloom: in the wake of last month's successful revival of Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour, comes another of his great late films, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. It was made in 1972 - as you are reminded, not only by the ubiquitous flares and sideburns, but also by the general mood: the revolutionary rumblings of the late Sixties have subsided, but are still audible; the privileged classes are snugly, if anxiously, back in place.

The shaggy-dog story, sometimes described as six characters in search of a hot dinner, concerns the repeated and doomed attempts of a group of friends to break bread together. Each time, the mouth-watering menus (this is not a film to see on an empty stomach) are thwarted. At first it is a silly misunderstanding that could happen to anyone (and did, to the film's producer, Serge Silberman): either the hostess or the guests have mistaken the date, so that they arrive to an unlaid and empty table. But, from then on, the contretemps become more and more incredible: the army arrives, or a group of terrorists, or else the police. Some episodes turn out to be dreams; by the end, as Fernando Rey wakes up (again) and finally sinks his teeth into a solitary snack from the fridge, you wonder if the whole thing has unfurled in his fevered imagination.

Rey is the ambassador for a tinpot banana dictatorship which is the constant butt of everyone else's exquisitely-mannered insults; he and the other two men in the film use his diplomatic bag to import cocaine; the three women are models of brittle condescension. But, though Bunuel says his favourite characters in the film are the cockroaches, he is also cunning enough to make his baddies curiously likeable: their nightmares betoken a stubborn humanity. And, for all his satirical intent, he is as much a bon vivant as they are: it is a source of especial pride for him that he managed to slip into the script his personal recipe for a dry martini.

The characters' inner life is shown with a peculiar directness - one of the film's pleasures is the gap between the plot's escalation into absurdity and the deadpan visual mise-en-scene (although special attention should be paid to the highly un-realistic use of sound, attributed to one L Bunuel). Here's an example: the six are invited by a colonel to yet another supper interruptus and, even as he's telling them the address, Bunuel cuts briskly to the house number and street plaque; in seconds we're there. It's a no-nonsense scene transition, which sneakily masks the fact that what follows is a dream - no, a dream-within-a-dream.

Many of the visual tropes of the surrealist movement, to which Bunuel was an early subscriber, have been effortlessly integrated into the mainstream culture - Magritte is the main victim. But advertising agencies and book jacket designers have proved remarkably impervious to the charms of the eye-slicing shot from Bunuel's first film Un Chien Andalou. His late work, though, is remarkable for its formal simplicity - his off-centre view of the world doesn't need to announce itself with vainglorious directorial flourishes; it is not a fashion-statement but a state of mind.

It is probably mean to measure Masala, a first film from the Indian-Canadian director Srinivas Krishna, against one of the masters of world cinema, but Krishna is trying for an anarchic, outrageous mood that invites the comparison. For all the narrative complexities of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, you always have a clear sense of the situations and the relationships between the characters. Masala, a black farce about an Indian family living in Toronto, has lots of good ideas and images, but no sense of how to weave them into a story (ominously, the director says that his 'experience is too fragmented and somehow too inclusive to be contained in a genre'). It often leaves you confused about what is actually going on - the myriad subplots roam over plans to control the world sari trade, the dissemination of Sikh propaganda on toilet rolls, the struggle for possession of a rare stamp and the government's campaign for a bland 'multi-cultural' society.

It is a neat notion to cast Saeed Jaffrey as a camp Lord Krishna, a mischievous, not to say downright randy deity who sows havoc in the family's lives (the film caused a scandal in Toronto's Hindi community) and to slip in a couple of candy-coloured song and dance numbers sending up the Hindi musical. But that device is suddenly abandoned, and you're never sure whether the film is suggesting that the community should cleave to its cultural roots, or else that its attachment to the motherland (one family dies on a flight to India) is the source of its bad luck. Some bright performances - Jaffrey is also showcased in two of the other leading roles - can't lift this above the level of a patchy curio.

The other new release, Daydream Believer, is so bad it beggars description. An Australian 'comedy' involving a stud farm and a male strip joint, a nutty failed actress (Miranda Otto) and an English impresario (Martin Kemp), it is of no interest whatever unless you are heavily into horses or Spandau Ballet.

See facing page for details.

(Photograph omitted)