The Ambassador Don Rafael Acosta (Fernando Rey) and his three fellow dinner guests step out of his chauffeur-driven limousine and walk up to the door of the country house of the Sénéchals, where they have been invited for dinner. Or at least Don Rafael thought they were, but when Mrs Sénéchal (Stéphane Audran) comes down the stairs after her maid has answered the door, she tells them that they were supposed to arrive tomorrow night instead, and besides, her husband (Jean-Pierre Cassel) is out at a business meeting. Now what are they going to do?
How about eating out? Nope, that's not going to work either, as these six characters are in a Luis Buñuel movie, and as he was the father of cinematic surrealism they cannot expect things to go smoothly for them. For us, however, the strangeness goes down very smoothly indeed, perhaps a little too smoothly as where his previous films had enjoyed a fire in their bellies about the injustices of the world, with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie there was far more a sense of an ageing master craftsman ending his years with doodles and noodles on the earlier themes and imagery that had made him renowned across the world.
There's something far too stately about this film where it should have been arresting, and the humour never raises itself above mildly amusing when the sight of, say, Fernando Rey shooting a terrorist's toy dog with a rifle from the window of his office should have been hilarious. It could be the matter of fact quality to all this, or it could be the way that if everything we see here is the result of dreaming, then you begin to wonder why we should regard it with any degree of gravity. Over and over again Buñuel uses that trick that every schoolchild is told to avoid: the old "and then I woke up and it was all a dream" ending to each passage, and it isn't any better here than it is as a well-worn cliché elsewhere.
So if there is about as much meat in this as there is in those elusive meals the characters are forever pursuing (the plot, such as it is, revolves around the frustration of the characters' pleasure), why the great reputation as Luis Buñuel's last, proper classic? It's possibly because he and co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière pussyfoot so much around the actual meanings of the oddities on show that they're open to so many interpretations, therefore if you wish to take the cue from the title (which only came after the film had been completed) it's an attack on the bourgeoisie, a favourite target of intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals the world over.
Then again it could be sending up the hypocrisy of the church, the pigheadedness of the authorities, or simply spoofing the type of person who gets drunk at dinner parties, and so on. There are entertainments to be gained with this, if only to see where the meandering plot will wander next, but it feels too much like a sketch when more bite and lucidity would have been to far greater benefit. It's fair enough to see motifs surfacing, whether they be humorous like the recurring denial of the guests' needs, social and nutritional, or more high-falutin' as you can view it all as an illustration of how you can't always get what you want, or in fact ever get what you want, but it's disappointingly vague and after a while it looks like they shot whatever popped into their minds that day. It's diverting enough, but seems too much like it was made to be polite dinner party conversation fodder rather than anything more substantial.