The story of Discreet Charm, if indeed it can be considered a story at all, is simple: Six friends find themselves endlessly frustrated in their attempts to have dinner together. As the film progresses, the impediments to this simple goal grow less and less realistic, and the structure becomes more and more involuted.
There is nothing really unbelievable about the opening sequence, which Buñuel in fact claims is closely based on something that happened to the film's producer: Two well-to-do couples -- Francois Thévenot (Paul Frankeur), his wife, Simone (Delphine Seyrig), Simone's sister Florence (Bulle Ogier), and Ambassador Acosta (Fernando Rey) -- arrive at the home of their friends Henri and Alice Sénéchal (Jean-Pierre Cassel and Stéphane Audran) for dinner. But there has been a mix-up on the date: Henri is out, and Alice is getting ready for bed.
The embarrassed guests convince Alice to accompany them to a local restaurant, but their odd experience when they get there kills everyone's appetite. They reschedule for the following Saturday. Meanwhile, we discover that the group's relationships are more than merely social: These wealthy, respectable men are in fact nonchalant partners in smuggling, protected by Acosta's diplomatic immunity.
Needless to say, another believable, if less likely, misunderstanding aborts Saturday's lunch as well. And so it goes, through several more engagements, each interrupted by circumstances more and more outrageous. After a while, people start behaving in patently absurd ways. A detachment of a few dozen soldiers, who have also mysteriously shown up at Sénéchal's house for dinner, is called away by urgent orders. "But first," the commander announces, "the corporal has a dream he'd like to tell us about."
Soon it becomes hard to tell whether any part of the film is real or just a dream of one character or another. An actor keeps reappearing in slightly different roles. Characters dream about each others' dreams. (One sequence is almost identical to the conclusion of the wonderful "flashback" episode of South Park. Could Parker and Stone have been watching Buñuel?)
Buñuel makes no effort to tidy things up by the end. One might guess that the whole film is itself the dream of someone who went to bed after eating too little ... or maybe too much -- a dieter's nightmare.
More than Belle du Jour, the 1967 film that was Buñuel's greatest commercial success and was revived to even greater success in 1995, Discreet Charm is an argument that Buñuel's talents only grew with time. He was 72 when he made it, 43 years into a career that began in 1929 with Un Chien Andalou, his famous surrealist collaboration with Salvador Dali -- yet another work that still has the power to shock and delight.
Buñuel's career divides up into several periods; as a Spaniard who was rabidly antifascist, antibourgeois, and anticlerical, he spent a lot of time on the move. Despite the notoriety of Un Chien Andalou and its follow-up, L'Age d'Or (1930), he didn't direct for the next 17 years except for his short pseudo-documentary, Land Without Bread (1932). He spent years in France, Spain, and Hollywood, dubbing foreign-language versions of American films for Paramount and Warner Brothers, never quite getting to do his own projects.
He finally settled in Mexico, where he made roughly one film a year from 1947 through the early '60s. Many of the Mexican films are more conventional, but Buñuel's surrealist tendencies started to show up as early as Los Olvidados (1950).
He was in his 60s at the start of the final phase of his career, which comprised a series of French productions in which his wicked humor and irreverent puckishness came to full flower. Discreet Charm could be seen as the crown jewel of that period, were it not for several other titles that match it for wit and inventiveness -- The Phantom of Liberty (1974) prime among them. This year is the celebration of Buñuel's centennial. One hopes that the current reissue of Discreet Charm will spur further releases of this great filmmaker's currently out-of-fashion work.