The narrative concerns a group of upper middle class people attempting—despite continual interruptions—to dine together. The film received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and a nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
The film consists of several thematically linked scenes: five gatherings of a group of bourgeois friends, and the four dreams of different characters. The beginning of the film focuses on the gatherings, while the latter part focuses on the dreams, but both types of scenes are intertwined. There are also scenes involving other characters, such as two involving a Latin American female terrorist from the fictitious Republic of Miranda. The film's world is not logical: the bizarre events are accepted by the characters, even if they are impossible or contradictory.
The film begins with a bourgeois couple, the Thévenots (Frankeur and Seyrig), accompanying M. Thévenot's colleague Rafael Acosta (Rey) and Mme. Thévenot's sister Florence (Ogier), to the house of the Sénéchals, the hosts of a dinner party. Once they arrive, Alice Sénéchal (Audran) is surprised to see them and explains that she expected them the following evening and has no dinner prepared. The would-be guests then invite Mme Sénéchal to join them for dinner at a nearby inn. Finally arriving at the inn, the party finds it locked. They knock and are invited in, despite the waitress' seeming reluctance and an ominous mention of "new management". Inside, there are the sounds of wailing voices from an adjoining room but no diners (despite disconcertingly cheap prices). It is learned that the manager died a few hours earlier, and his former employees are holding vigil over his corpse, awaiting the coroner. The party hurriedly leaves.
In a short entr'acte, set in the Embassy of Miranda, the ambassador – Acosta – meets with Thévenot and Sénéchal to discuss the proceeds of a large cocaine deal. During the meeting, Acosta sees a young woman selling clockwork animal toys on the footpath outside the embassy. He shoots one of the toys, and the woman runs off. He explains that she is part of a terrorist group.
Two days later, the bourgeois friends attempt to have lunch at the Sénéchals, but Henri and his wife escape to the garden to have sex instead of joining them. One of the bourgeois friends takes this as a sign that perhaps the Sénéchals are aware the police are coming, and (fearing the discovery of the men's involvement in cocaine trafficking) left to avoid arrest. The party leaves again in panic.
When the Sénéchals return from their garden, after sneaking off to make love, their friends are gone, but they meet a bishop who had arrived shortly afterward. He, wearing their gardener's clothing, greets them, and they angrily throw him out. When he returns wearing his bishop's robes, they embrace him with deference, exposing their prejudice, snobbery, and hypocrisy. The bishop asks to work for them as their gardener. He explains to them about his childhood—about how his parents were murdered by arsenic poisoning, and the culprit was never apprehended. Later on in the film, he goes to bless a dying man, but when it turns out that man had killed the bishop's parents, the bishop first blesses him, then fires a shotgun, killing the man—thus closing the circle of hypocrisy.
Then the women visit a tea house, which turns out to have run out of all beverages—tea, coffee, milk, and herbal tea, although it finally turns out they do have water. While they are waiting, a soldier tells them about his childhood and how, after the death of his mother, his education was taken over by his cold-hearted father. The soldier's mother (as a ghost) informs him that the man is not his real father, but in fact killed the soldier's father during a duel over his mother. Following his ghost mother's request, the soldier poisons and kills the culprit.
Various other aborted meals ensue, with interruptions including the arrival of a group of French army officers who join the dinner, or the revelation that a French colonel's dining room is in fact a stage set in a theatrical performance, during a dream sequence. Ghosts make frequent appearances in what seemed to be disconcerting dream sequences.
Buñuel plays tricks on his characters, luring them toward fine dinners that they expect, and then repeatedly frustrating them in inventive ways. They bristle, and politely express their outrage, but they never stop trying; they relentlessly expect and pursue all that they desire, as though it were their natural right to have others serve and pamper them. He exposes their sense of entitlement, their hypocrisy, and their corruption. In the dream sequences, he explores their intense fears—not just of public humiliation, but of being caught by police and of being mowed down by guns. At least one character's dream sequence is later revealed to be nested, or embedded, in another character's dream sequence. As the dreams-within-dreams unfold, it appears that Buñuel is also playing tricks on his audience, as we try to make sense of the story.
A recurring scene throughout the film, wherein the six people are walking silently and purposefully on a long, isolated country road toward a mysterious destination, is also in the final sequence.
After having announced that Tristana (1970) would be his last film, because he felt he was repeating himself, Luis Buñuel met with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and discussed the topic of repetition. Shortly afterwards, Buñuel met with film producer Serge Silberman, who told him an anecdote about having forgotten about a dinner party and being surprised to find six hungry friends show up at his front door. Buñuel was suddenly inspired, and Silberman agreed to give him a $2,000 advance to write a new script with Carrière, combining Silberman's anecdote with the idea of repetition. Buñuel and Carrière wrote the first draft in three weeks and finished the fifth draft by the Summer of 1971, originally titled Bourgeois Enchantment. Silberman was finally able to raise the money for the film in April 1972, and Buñuel began pre-production.
Buñuel cast many actors whom he had worked with in the past, such as Fernando Rey and Michel Piccoli, and catered their roles to their personalities. He had more difficulty casting the female leads and allowed actresses Delphine Seyrig and Stéphane Audran to choose which parts they would like to play, before changing the script to better suit the actresses. Jean-Pierre Cassel auditioned for his role and was surprised when Buñuel cast him after simply glancing at him once.
Filming began on May 15, 1972, and lasted for two months with an $800,000 budget. In his usual shooting style, Buñuel shot few takes and often edited the film in camera and during production. Buñuel and Silberman had a longrunning and humorous argument as to whether Buñuel took one day or one and a half days to edit his films.
On the advice of Silberman, Buñuel used video playback monitors on the set for the first time in his career, resulting in a vastly different style than any of his previous films, including zooms and travelling shots instead of his usual close-ups and static camera framing. It also resulted in Buñuel's being more comfortable on set, and in limiting his already minimal direction to technical and physical instructions. This frustrated Cassel, who had never worked with Buñuel before, until Rey explained that this was Buñuel's usual style and that since they were playing aristocrats their movements and physical appearance were more important than their inner motivation.
Buñuel once joked that whenever he needed an extra scene he simply filmed one of his own dreams. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie includes three of Buñuel's recurring dreams: a dream of being on stage and forgetting his lines, a dream of meeting his dead cousin in the street and following him into a house full of cobwebs, and a dream of waking up to see his dead parents staring at him.
The film was a box office hit in both Europe and the US, and critically praised. Robert Benayoun said that it was "perhaps [Buñuel's] most direct and most 'public' film". Vincent Canby wrote in his 1972 review of the film, “In addition to being extraordinarily funny and perfectly acted, The Discreet Charm moves with the breathtaking speed and self-assurance that only a man of Buñuel’s experience can achieve without resorting to awkward ellipsis.” Buñuel later said that he was disappointed with the analysis that most film critics made of the film. He also disliked the film's promotional poster, depicting a pair of lips with legs and a derby hat.
Buñuel and Silberman travelled to the US in late 1972 to promote the film. Buñuel did not attend his own press screening in Los Angeles and told a reporter at Newsweek that his favorite characters in the film were the cockroaches. While visiting LA, Buñuel, Carrière and Silberman were invited to a lunch party by Buñuel's old friend George Cukor, and other guests included Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, George Stevens, Rouben Mamoulian, John Ford, William Wyler, Robert Mulligan and Robert Wise (resulting in a famous photograph of the directors together, other than an ailing Ford). Fritz Lang was unable to attend, but Buñuel visited him the following day and received an autographed photo from Lang, one of his favorite directors.
Sensing that he had a special film, Silberman decided not to wait until May to premiere it at the Cannes Film Festival and instead released it in the fall of 1972 specifically to make it eligible for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Buñuel was famously indifferent to awards and jokingly told a reporter that he had already paid $25,000 in order to win the Oscar. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie did win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and Silberman accepted on Buñuel's behalf at the ceremony. At the Academy's request, Buñuel posed for a photograph while holding the Oscar, but while wearing a wig and oversized sunglasses.
In October 2014, Stephen Sondheim revealed that he and playwright David Ives were working on a new musical with a plot inspired by both The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Luis Buñuel's film The Exterminating Angel (1962).