Luis Buñuel's sawn-off satire from 1972 shines brighter and harsher than it ever has before.
Aside from his iconic, laconic exploration of ungratifying sexual and social dalliances, Belle de Jour, 1972's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – re-released ahead of a BFI celebration of the life and work of French screenwriting luminary, Jean-Claude Carrière – is often considered one of Luis Buñuel's pop hits.
The mind-frazzling fact that it picked up an Oscar for Best Foreign Film defies all plausibility, as this puckish, sawn-off satire pushes the entitled classes through a fine soup strainer and fishes around in the murky slurry that remains.
Operating as an inverted riff on his classic 1962 film, The Exterminating Angel, in which guests at a dinner party find themselves psychologically trapped inside the plush confines of a mansion house, this sees a group of well-heeled socialites trying to have supper together and being constantly scuppered by a series of surreal mishaps, diversions and coincidences.
What begins as a simple mix-up of dates soon escalates into a couple being unavoidably waylaid by a bout of alfresco sex, and then later the group go to a tea house which has run out of every beverage except water. Intermingled with these Python-esque anti-sketches are the bizarre dreams and memories of our moneyed heroes, adding a jarring and audacious sheen of sincerity to the overwhelmingly dry proceedings.
The notion that this elite social clique must sit down to dinner as the world crumbles around them equates to a fairly blunt attack on privilege and decadence. Central to the glittering ensemble is moustache-twirling Buñuel regular Fernando Rey who plays the wily and corrupt ambassador to the fictitious Latin American Republic of Miranda.
His character not only lends the film a ripe political angle, but emphasises how canny an operator this man is when it comes to matters of exploration for personal financial gain: his diplomatic pouch is used for drugs and he keeps a constant vigil on the young terrorist who constantly loiters outside his office. And yet, maintaining something as basic as friendship proves to be an impossiblity, a luxury that has no place in his, or any of these characters' pampered lives.
As we await new punchlines to the same simple (but effective and profound) joke, Buñuel and Carrière cheekily usher the audience away from any unconcealed meanings and explanations. We weave in and out of the minds of the protagonists, entering dreams, entering dreams within dreams, getting tangled up in subconscious fantasies of fear, isolation and death.
On paper, this film appears to be much more simple, direct and angry than it actually is. It's still very harsh and bitterly funny, but there's a dark, messy humanism at its core that makes it so special, so interesting and so worthy of re-release.
As we still chide bankers and businessmen for their uncultured extravagancies, unchecked crookedness and inability to see a world beyond the edges of a gaudy china dinner plate, the film feels more relevant than ever. Their priorities may be despicable, but we must remember that, like everyone in this world, these characters are ultimately trudging down a twilit country road to a tragic, unavoidable oblivion. Outside of Buñuel's own magnificent oeuvre, there really is nothing like it.
Will Buñuel's Oscar-winning pop hit stand the test of time?
It really does. So, so nasty, but with unchartered depths and subtle shadings at every wild turn.
Manages to be totally surreal yet totally approachable. Quite amazing.