Reissued as the fourth in Rialto's laudable summer series, which has included pristine restored prints of Contempt, Nights Of Cabiria, and Grand Illusion, Luis Buñuel's 1972 film The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie has never looked worse, its drawing-room satire muted by a time in which shredding the upper class is a common affectation. That it's still a great film owes less to its satirical relevance than Buñuel's effortless command over the medium and the brilliance of his design, which mounts reality like a fresh rack of bowling pins. Reversing the premise he had devised a decade earlier for 1962's The Exterminating Angel—about a dinner party that eats and never leaves—Discreet Charm follows a dinner party that convenes on several occasions and never eats. As ambassador to a small South American republic, a post that's most useful for trafficking heroin with his associates, Buñuel regular Fernando Rey leads an amusingly transparent band of revelers from one aborted meal to the next. The miscues begin innocently enough, when the group gathers to dine at a country estate a day earlier than expected. Undaunted, they venture to a local restaurant, where they're appalled to find the proprietor's corpse laid out in an adjoining room. Their subsequent meetings grow increasingly surreal, disrupted at times by a theater audience, an army battalion, and a tearoom that's short on refreshments. But always aware that there were far more bourgeois in the arthouse seats than he could ever skewer on screen, Buñuel visits sharper cruelties on his audience, preying on their false assumptions of the truth by constantly pulling the rug out from under them. At this late point in his career, Buñuel's contempt for the elite had been softened by his own acknowledgment of privilege; in one scene, the hilariously snooty recipe offered for a dry martini is the director's own. So, if The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie no longer stings as social critique, it still works as a cinematic parlor trick, stacking flashbacks and dream sequences with the giddy surrealism of the endless car pile-up in Godard's Weekend. Moving from vicious satirist to merry prankster, Buñuel lost little vitality in the transition.
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