40 years old this year, Louis Buñuel’s most widely-recognised film has aged like a fine, robust wine. This is cinema for the ages, a late-period work from a master director who never compromised. Delightful 70s aesthetic trappings aside, it hasn’t dated too much and its resonance as a satire is maybe stronger than ever – testament to a singular, focused filmmaker with an absurdist’s eye for the human condition who chose his artistic collaborators (working here with writer Jean-Claude Carrière) with mercurial brilliance.
It takes some cojones to make a 102 minute film about a bunch of smug, rich people attempting – and failing – to have dinner, never mind one that see-saws constantly between fantasy and reality and uses a bizarre, seemingly unstructured dream-like narrative, but this is Buñuel; the brilliant Spanish surrealist who excelled at such constructs. As the cosseted group move from venue to venue they are continually interrupted by various incongruous events: a funeral, a drugs bust, a soldiers mother in ghost form (ghosts abound here), frequent sexual interludes, a group of stoned French military officers, a young revolutionary. Do these figures exist? What do they mean? Each vignette peels back various layers, revealing our entitled and wealthy protagonist’s fantasies, fears and desires. If you aren’t familiar with Buñuel and this all sounds horribly arty and distanced it really isn’t. He’s a buff’s director for sure, but even his most demanding works are great entertainment as well as nourishing brain food. They’re also more often than not very funny.
This is no exception. Part of the director’s later French period, Discreet is more reserved and restrained than the mad masterpieces he began his career with (with former friend and collaborator Salvador Dali) and less confrontational and outright terrifying than his mexican works like The Exterminating Angel. But, even at this stage, age had not mellowed the man nor clouded his unique vision. There’s lots going on under and over the surface about political and sexual morality, class and wealth but, as was always the case, no easy answers are offered or conclusions drawn. “People always want an explanation of everything”, the director once said. He spent a lifetime making art that stubbornly refused to give one.
In the hands of lesser talent this could be a plotless, aimless mess. Buñuel and Carrière maintain a tone of continuity, despite the frequent interruption. A transfixing high-calibre cast of European superstars keep things watchable throughout the baffling dream-within-dream narrative, including the magisterial Fernando Rey as Rafael Acosta – exuding silky, reptilian charm as the ambassador of the fictional Republic of Miranda. Typically of Euro cinema almost all the women are implacable, cool, highly desirable and mysterious creatures of incredible beauty and elegance – even when called upon to do the most outlandish or humiliating things.
Discreet is one of Bunuel’s less visually flamboyant works but Studio Canal’s luminous transfer is excellent (a digital print is also touring the UK throughout July). Extras are minimal on the disc – an original trailer and a scholarly talking heads dissection of the film and director.
After watching this, I posed the following question on twitter: Almodovar aside, what contemporary European directors can match the nerve and wit of Buñuel? I got some interesting and varied responses, including fellow countryman Álex de la Iglesia, Dominik Moll and deadpan Fin Aki Kaurismaki (funny and clever but emotionally very different). Fine filmmakers – but I guess the answer is there really isn’t anyone quite like Louis. If you’re unfamiliar with his work this is a great place to start – as earlier films are arguably wilder and richer than this one. Endlessly watchable, often baffling, this may feature protagonists whose search for sophisticated dining remains fruitless but, for the viewer, it’s the kind of cinematic meal after which everything else seems like very thin gruel indeed.