The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie - A dinner that charts civilisation's decline

Buñuel's The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie has been newly restored. It's still unsettling, says Geoffrey Macnab

It isn't much of a starting point for a movie – a group of people want to have dinner together but never quite manage to.

Nonetheless, Luis Buñuel's film on this seemingly whimsical subject, The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (1972) (due to be re-released next month) won an Academy Award in 1973. It was warmly received by critics and audiences alike – a novel experience for a director whose work usually caused controversy and was often banned. In the year that Marlon Brando refused to pick up his Oscar for The Godfather (sending Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather on stage on his behalf), Buñuel's triumph passed without much comment. The Oscar was accepted by his French producer Serge Silberman, whose English wasn't very good and whose speech was extremely brief.

The only minor hint of scandal had come before the ceremony, when Mexican journalists asked Buñuel if he thought he had any chance of winning. "Of course," he told them. "I've already paid the $25,000 they wanted. Americans may have their weaknesses but they do keep their promises." As Buñuel recounts in his autobiography, My Last Breath, this was a joke but wasn't interpreted as such. The formidable Silberman was furious that his director was seemingly trying to bribe his way to Oscar glory.

Silberman unwittingly played a key creative role in The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie. At a time when Buñuel and his screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière were struggling with the script for a new feature and close to abandoning it, Silberman happened to mention that he had run in to some Brazilian friends by chance on the streets of Paris. He'd invited these friends to dinner but had forgotten to tell his wife. She was sitting in her dressing gown watching TV when these guests turned up, expecting a dinner party.

In Buñuel's film, when the guests arrive on the wrong day, their hostess Mme Sénéchal (Stéphane Audran) joins them as they troop off to a nearby restaurant. They're about to eat but notice the waiters are very upset. The proprietor has just died and his corpse has been laid out beside the kitchen. The restaurant staff promise them an excellent dinner but they're wary about eating in the presence of death. The next time they assemble for dinner, Mme Sénéchal and her husband (Jean-Pierre Cassel) are upstairs trying to have sex. While the guests have martinis downstairs, the amorous couple (wary about making too much noise) clamber out of the window of their own house and head into the bushes. By the time they're returned, their guests have fled.

More than 40 years before, when Buñuel and Salvador Dali had made their surrealistic masterpiece Un Chien Andalou (1928), their assault on bourgeois notions of good taste and proper cinematic storytelling was strident in the extreme. Buñuel called cinema "a desperate and passionate appeal to murder". He and Dali filled their film with startling images of razor blade slicing through an eye, a hand crawling with ants, a woman being mown down by a car and priests being dragged across the floor trussed to grand pianos.

The Discreet Charm is much subtler and more understated but remains every bit as subversive. The themes are surprisingly similar. Sex, torture, murder and anti-clericalism again feature prominently.

The protagonists, who come from the diplomatic class, are refined, immaculately well-mannered types who drink martini (Buñuel's own tipple of choice) and savour fine wines and food. They also deal in drugs, commit adultery, patronise their servants in a loathsome manner and speak highly about the refinement of Nazi war criminals they meet. At one stage, we see them sitting down to dinner only for curtains to open behind them. To their evident humiliation, they realise they are on stage. The audience boos them because they don't know their lines. Throughout The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, Buñuel is keen to remind us at every opportunity that civilisation is, indeed, only skin deep.

The most haunting sequence, reprised several times, shows the protagonists, all dressed for dinner, wandering down an empty country road. We don't know where they've come from or where they are going.

The newly restored 'The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie' is out on 29 June

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