To him, sex was something we take seriously when it involves ourselves and ribald when it involves others

To him, sex was something we take seriously when it involves ourselves and ribald when it involves others

The movie is broken into self-contained sequences, showing the bland surface of polite society and the lusts that lurk beneath. A couple expects guests for dinner. In the bedroom, they are overcome by lust. The guests arrive. Then they sneak back into the house, leaves and grass in their hair. Bourgeoisie manners, Bunuel believes, are the flimsiest facade for our animal natures. Another example: After soldiers open fire on dinner guests, a man escapes death by hiding under a table, but betrays himself by greedily reaching up for the meat still on his plate.

The film’s narrative flow is cheerfully shattered by Bunuel’s devices. As women have drinks in a garden cafe, a lieutenant walks over and begins a harrowing tale of childhood. We see his story in flashback. He finishes, bids them good day, and leaves. A dinner party develops strangely when the roast chickens are dropped by the servant and turn out to be stage props–and then the curtain goes up and the guests find themselves on stage before an audience. Dreams fold within dreams, not because the characters are confused, but because Bunuel is amusing himself by using such obvious tricks.

And consider the bishop (Julien Bertheau), who appears at the door in gardener’s clothes and is scornfully turned away, only to reappear in his clerical garb to “explain their website himself,” and be embraced

The movie is not savage or angry, but bemused and cynical. Bunuel was 72 when he directed it. “It belongs both to his old age and to his second childhood,” says A.O. Scott. Backed by the French producer Serge Silberman, he was free at last to indulge his fancies, and “Discreet Charm” is liberated from any commercial or narrative requirement. A few years later, with “That Obscure Object of Desire,” he actually had two actresses play the same role, without any explanation. All of these later films were written by Jean-Claude Carriere, who also helped on Bunuel’s autobiography, and who shared the master’s conviction that hypocrisy was the most entertaining target.

The year 2000 is Bunuel’s centenary. Rialto Pictures is marking the milestone with releases of restored prints not only of “Discreet Charm” (which also has new subtitles) but also “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1970), with Jeanne Moreau; “The Milky Way” (1970), with its pilgrims on a perplexing spiritual odyssey; “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977), and “The Phantom of Liberty” (1974), with its famous scene where dinner guests defecate in public but sneak off alone in order to eat–Bunuel wickedly suggests that the two activities are, in some fundamental way, equivalent.

Of all the things he found hilarious, Bunuel was perhaps most amused by fetishes. What’s more hilarious than someone saddled with a fetish that is absurd, inconvenient or not respectable? Consider the situation in “Tristana,” where the woman with one leg (Catherine Deneuve) cruelly and knowledgeably toys with the servant boy who is fascinated by her disability.

His films constitute one of the most distinctive bodies of work in the first century of films. Bunuel was cynical, but not depressed. We say one thing and do another, yes, but that doesn’t make us evil–only human and, from his point of view, funny. He has been called a cruel filmmaker, but the more I look at his films the more wisdom and acceptance I find. He sees that we are hypocrites, admits to being one himself and believes we were probably made that way.

Now they cannot make love in the bedroom because the wife “makes too much noise,” the husband complains, so they sneak out a window and passionately couple in the woods

From the first shots of “Discreet Charm,” we are aware of the way his characters carry themselves. They exude their status; they are sure of who they are, and wear their position in society like a costume. Fernando Rey’s little peacock of an ambassador, Stephane Audran’s rich hostess, Bulle Ogier’s bored and alcoholic sister–all act as if they’re playing roles. In Bunuel the clothes not only make the man, but are the man (especially true for a director with lifelong fetishes involving clothes and shoes).

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