The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
In Luis Buñuel’s deliciously satiric masterpiece, an upper-class sextet sits down to a dinner that is continually delayed, their attempts to eat thwarted by vaudevillian events both actual and imagined, including terrorist attacks, military maneuvers, and ghostly apparitions. Stringing together a discontinuous, digressive series of absurdist set pieces, Buñuel and his screenwriting partner Jean-Claude Carrière send a cast of European-film greats—including Fernando Rey, Stéphane Audran, Delphine Seyrig, and Jean-Pierre Cassel—through a maze of desire deferred, frustrated, and interrupted. The Oscar-winning pinnacle of Buñuel’s late-career ascent as a feted maestro of the international art house, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is also one of his most gleefully radical assaults on the values of the ruling class.
The Criterion Collection regains the rights to Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and upgrades their DVD edition to Blu-ray, exclusively available in their new Three Films by Luis Buñuel box set. The film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on a dual-layer disc.
Unfortunately, it looks as though Criterion is using the same high-definition master that they used for their DVD edition from 2000 (sourced from a 35mm interpositive) and the end results are mixed. A once-over has been done, and that once-over has at the very least cleaned up just about all of the print flaws that remained: scratches, dirt, and other various marks that littered the DVD’s presentation are now mostly gone. Compression is also better, leading to a less noisy image with improved details. The film’s colour scheme is pretty drab, so the colours rarely pop, but they do look cleaner with better saturation, and black levels also show some improvements.
When all is said and done it does look better than the DVD, by a pretty wide margin, but disappointingly there are a lot of inherent problems to the master that stick out and are just hard to overlook. Artifacts litter the image, from edge-enhancement and mild jaggies in places to bad shimmering effects that even show up in the asphalt of the road the key characters travel down intermittently through the film. There are also slight digital jumps that pop up, the worst offender appearing just before Claude Piéplu’s Colonel slaps Fernando Rey’s Ambassador. These also appear in the DVD. Grain is also lackluster, looking clumpy in places and slightly filtered/processed in others. Screen grabs 5 and 6 highlight a few of these problems.
This presentation ends up being the outlier in the set thankfully: the other two presentations (for The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire) make use of older masters but their issues aren't as apparent. While again this does end up looking better than the DVD, it's still very much open to improvement. This ended up being a disappointing way to open the set.
NOTE: For articles on this site, screen grabs from Blu-rays are usually shrunk down from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and converted to JPG. For this article I'm leaving them full size (1920x1080) while still converting to JPG. Full size images can be seen by clicking the "Gallery" link. On most phones and tablets the images will be full screen.
The film’s French soundtrack is delivered in lossless 1.0 PCM. Range is pretty limited, but dialogue is clear and the soundtrack is clean, free of any severe problems.
Outside of a text feature, Criterion does port everything over from their previous 2-disc DVD edition for the film. The big feature yet again is the 99-minute Speaking of Buñuel, the 2000 documentary about the filmmaker directed by José Luis López-Linares. The film gathers together many that knew the director (from longtime friends to those that worked with him) along with academics to discuss the director’s life and work, from childhood to his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire. The format of the documentary is familiar, stepping through Buñuel’s life story step-by-step through interviews and archival footage (even archival interviews with the filmmaker himself), but it is nicely edited and moves at a good beat. It’s issue is that it does speed through everything, only focusing a small amount of time on a handful of films, Bourgeoisie only getting a brief mention (the short Simon of the Desert ends up receiving more time, though charmingly the documentary presents “new” interviews with the locals that appeared in that film).
The documentary is also available on other releases for Buñuel’s films (BFI’s L’age d’or has it) so chances are most Buñuel fans have seen it, but if one hasn’t by this point it’s still worth watching.
Also carried over is the 24-minute documentary The Castaway of Providence Street, which has been made up of footage of Buñuel at his home in Mexico City filmed by Arturo Ripstein through the 60’s and 70’s, mixed in with discussions with those that knew him. It ends up being a profile of the man himself and his ability to mix martinis (though Buñuel does talk about his work to a certain degree) that, while entertaining to an extent, does feel a little shallow on the surface. It's worth watching just for the footage of the director. This is also a shorter edit (the same as how it was shown on the DVD) that drops footage from his films.
This edition also adds on a couple of new features. The best one is a 52-minute episode around the film from a program called Once Upon a Time, a program Criterion has used for other releases (most recently for La dolce vita in their Fellini set). While the episodes usually provide thorough details about the making of the film through new and archival interviews along with behind-the-scenes footage, their key draw is that they also place a film in the context of the time in which it was made. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, though still relevant today, is very much a product of its time and the documentary does pick out the various situations and characters found in the film, relating them to the political and social scene of the late 60’s/early 70’s, from the basis of the fictional Republic of Miranda to the terrorists and the significance of the central meal that never happens. The May 68 protests also play into things. I think anyone coming out of the film for the first time feeling a bit lost will more than benefit from this.
To accompany that Criterion also includes a 14-minute segment from a 1972 episode of the French television program Pour le cinema, which visits the set of Discreet Charm. Buñuel does appear (though agreed to appear as long as he didn’t have to talk on-camera) while the television crew also gets interviews with the key members of the cast, Fernando Rey getting a lot in. The disc then closes with the film’s theatrical trailer.
Though I would have still loved to get a commentary or another academic addition (a feeling carried over from the DVD) the supplements do a better job this time around covering the film from a few angles, making this release a little more friendly to newcomers of the film and/or Buñuel’s work in general.
Though the supplements are good, improving over the previous edition, the presentation is a huge disappointment, Criterion simply reusing an older master that’s dated in a few areas.