The guests arrive at the Senechal home for a dinner party, only to discover that the invitation had been given for the following evening. This miscommunication proves to be the first in a series of unusual events that invariably prevent the Thevenots (Paul Frankeur and Delphine Seyrig), the Senechals (Jean-Pierre Cassel and Stephane Audran), Don Rafael (Fernando Rey), and Florence (Bulle Ogier) from enjoying a meal together. An alternate plan to dine at a local bistro is foiled when a funeral wake for the restaurant owner is held in an adjacent back room. Another dinner party is promptly canceled when the Senechals sneak away from the house for a moment of intimacy, and the guests mistakenly conclude that a raid on the house is imminent. The women meet for drinks, but are informed that the cafe is out of tea and coffee after an unusually busy day. A subsequent dinner party is also disrupted when the military unexpectedly turns up for training exercises at the Senechal estate. Even dreams provide little respite for their frustrated efforts to hold a dinner party, as the guests inexplicably find themselves seated on stage during the performance of a play, or creating an international crisis when the colonel (Claude Pieplu) insults the obscure Republic of Miranda, in front of the ambassador, Don Rafael.
Luis Buñuel creates an absurdly comic and wickedly incisive portrait of the meaningless social rituals and polite hypocrisy of the upper middle class in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. By interweaving exaggerated reality with lucid dream sequences, Buñuel blurs the distinction between civilized behavior and social indictment. As in The Exterminating Angel, the inability of the guests to enjoy a defining ritual associated with their class results, paradoxically, from an unwillingness to break from social tradition. In essence, the dinner party provides the means for validating social worth, and therefore, becomes an indispensable, self-perpetuating event for the guests. But like the repeated image of the weary guests walking on a deserted street, it is an endless and incomprehensible path that ultimately leads nowhere.
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