Those who appear to have everything — money, comfort, and success — can easily be looked at through eyes of jealousy of the rest of society. However, these kinds of people are potential targets for becoming lost due to their lack of further ambitions once all has been obtained. In his 1972 film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, director Luis Bunuel paints a group of the middle class as aimless, ignorant individuals utterly lacking in change, through his narrative and character structure, the bourgeoisie’s animalistic desires, the surrealism and recurrence of various dreams, and a scene on a road that is repeated again and again.
Bunuel gives the film an odd structure that deviates from the normal manner of writing a screenplay but actually glorifies and brings closer to light his running theme about the middle class. There is typically a three-act structure to screenplays, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, as well as plot points that take the audience in different directions in the story. Also, character development is a must in traditional storytelling, with at least a couple of the main characters having changed by the end of the film. Bunuel pushes traditions aside and instead offers a film where there is no apparent three-act structure and almost nobody changes.
The story at its core focuses on six members of the middle class — Don Rafael, M. Thevenot, Mme. Thevenot, M. Senechal, Alice Senechal, and Florence — who consistently attempt to eat dinner together. Unfortunately, they keep getting interrupted one way or another. This running joke is funny in and of itself, but the typical director might essentially move on with his story by the second act, taking the plot in a new direction as to keep a fear of repetition from cropping up. The story is given distractions, like the soldier telling of his unhappy childhood, and the narrative pushes forward with much interest and suspense due to the audience’s anticipation as to when or if the group will ever have a real meal together by the end.
However, Bunuel goes entirely against a typical structure and shapes the story to be like the characters themselves — rambling and purposeless. Since the characters don’t learn from their mistakes and never sincerely change at all, the plot rightfully supports their attitudes in never fully resolving character and story arcs. In fact the only character who changes is the bishop. He changes into the kind of person he really wants to be, in this case a gardener, then accidentally finds the killer of his parents and shoots the culprit dead. The bishop is a wildly ironic and challenging character who evolves, ever so slightly, from a devout religious man to a vengeful sinner. Bunuel presents a character here who can really think for himself and feel desire for change. On completely the other end of the spectrum is the character of the female cook, who looks no older than 25 but replies that she is 52 when asked her age. She is basically stuck in time, merely taking orders from M. and Alice Senechal, never being able to think for herself.
Throughout the film, the main group members only seem to be concerned with animalistic urges — eating, drinking, and having sex — even though at the same time these very concerns are treated almost apathetically. The individuals keep trying to eat meals together, but the missions always end abruptly in one way or another. The true natures of their characters are revealed when they seem to care neither about getting to eat nor about the odd intrusions preventing them from eating. For example, a waiter tells the three women — Mme. Thevenot, Alice, and Florence — that there is no tea. Later he reveals that there is no coffee or milk. The three women, instead of storming out of the restaurant in outrage or demanding to speak to a manager, brush off the matter as being merely annoying. They actually treat this improbable circumstance with complete compliance, when a riot in protest is easily warranted. Therefore, Bunuel implies that the main characters are meeting not to eat but for the social implications.
However, the discussions they have seem to only be about eating and drinking. They talk about the correct way to drink a dry whisky and at one point even get the lower-class driver to demonstrate the wrong way to gulp down the alcohol. In a later scene, discussion of astrology immediately switches over to lima beans, then back to astrology and quickly over to more food topics again. Their chatter is inane, specifically geared toward the act of talking in and of itself, with no specific attempt or desire to seriously connect with someone on a truly realistic or emotional level. The only real passion that comes out of these people is sexual passion, another completely animalistic trait that proves it takes lust to get any of these six individuals truly excited. This is not to say that the acquaintances are joyless; they just don’t know any better. They are so completely set in their ways that nothing outside of their own little boxes fazes them. It doesn’t even come as a shock to the audience that when everyone is shot and killed in the end, the sole survivor Don Rafael, just before he too is shot, munches on some food underneath the dinner table. He doesn’t care about anything at that moment except his own animalistic urges.
In the following moment, however, Don awakens to find he has dreamed the whole murder scene (and quite possibly all the events of the entire movie), further confirming that Bunuel uses dreams not only to keep the audience off-balance but also to show that the middle class is essentially frivolous enough to be intermixing with others’ lives. The main group follows a repetitious path, interest themselves only with the basic human needs like food and sex, and lack a sense of complete independence. They kind of rely on each other even though not a lot of human connection is occurring to begin with. Bunuel plays with this notion of intermixing in others’ lives by having one man dream another man’s dream. It’s typical in films to find dream sequences, but dream sequences upon other dream sequences in which one is waking up as a person in another person’s dream is rare and unusual. There is also undoubtedly some deliciously devious manipulation geared toward the audience straight from the source — Bunuel — who enjoys doing all in his power to keep his film from following a basic narrative structure.
There are other surreal moments in the film, including a flashback of a soldier’s childhood where he sees his dead mother, and a scene involving a police chief who dreams another member of his team has shot various prisoners. Bunuel is playing here with supporting characters, those who shouldn’t intrude as much into the main plot as they actually do, and therefore stealing time from the rather mindless bourgeoisie who don’t take the time to demand individual attention. He uses dreams not only for his own personal reasons to make the film more surreal but also to give the characters surreal qualities as well. Since the audience doesn’t get to know any one character extraordinarily well, the dreams serve as further barriers that keep the audience from getting too close to any of the characters. When something is possibly revealed about a character’s motivations or intentions, Bunuel then cuts to one of the characters waking up, making everything beforehand, or at least the previous scene, seem somewhat irrelevant.
In the final awakening from a dream at the end of the film, Don walks into his kitchen, takes out a platter of food, and chows down with ferocious intensity. Two previous ideas come back to the forefront in looking at the manner in which Don eats his food. First, he approaches the meal not in the sort of proper bourgeoisie way but like a ravenous animal — he eats without manners and as if there will be no tomorrow. He is being moved purely by his animal-like senses, and the hypocrisy of the polite social manner of eating disappears. Second, Don isn’t sitting around a formal dinner table with the other members of the group eating — he is alone. An audience member would almost expect some kind of fulfilling moment in the end where the six people finally sit down for that dinner we have all been waiting for. Instead, we get Don eating completely alone. The one time someone gets to eat is in the time he is by himself, away from the absurd chatter and lack of interaction with the others.
The image in the film that best illustrates the six individuals as aimless and disconnected is the rather simple and beautiful group of shots of them walking down a seemingly never-ending road that has neither a beginning nor an end in sight. The people don’t talk to each other and rarely try to make a connection. When there is some kind of connection, it’s typically just a brief moment of holding hands and brushing an object up against another person. There are three moments in the film where these shots occur, so clearly Bunuel is trying to get across this theme of detachment though the striking images. He brings across the thematic elements through the cinematography and editing of the scenes. The camera never gets too close nor completely focuses on any one of the six characters. Generally the camera is tracking with the people, not really trying to capture emotion but just detail them walking. The camera is always at a distance, typically showing vastly wide shots of the group as well as the area. Even when Bunuel goes a little closer on the faces, it appears as if the camera has been zoomed in a ridiculous amount (with the large depth of field clearly visible), as if the camera is still at a great distance despite the medium close-ups on the bodies.
The editing of the scene is even more interesting in that there is no linear continuity to the shots. In almost every follow-up shot to the one before of the group walking, the people are in a different order from left to right. For example, in one shot Mme Thevenot is waving around some kind of tree branch, and then, in the next cut, she is suddenly holding hands with Alice, no tree branch to be found. Bunuel edits the shots without any kind of formal continuity in order to show the disconnection between the six people. They’re all in their own little worlds, traipsing to that next place no one really knows will be, with all the time they need to get there. The final shot of the film goes out of focus while credits begin to roll, as if to show the audience that these characters will remain walking back and forth on this road, forever lost in their petty lives.
Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie demonstrates through various structural, thematic, and visual methods the manner in which a bourgeoisie class can become a group of mindless thinkers whose desire is only to eat, drink, and have sex. Until these people have the courage to go outside their safe zones and become more ambitious and unpredictable, they will forever remain in that never-ending cycle of meeting each other for a meal but never getting to enjoy the food.