Friday, August 29, 2014

Lessons from Criterion:
"Belle de jour" by Luis Buñuel

Few faces in the movies have contemporized storytelling standards as swiftly as Catherine Deneuve’s. When she is brought into the early scenes of Luis Buñuel’s “Belle de jour” – the movie that would ultimately announce her as a force of reckoning in European cinema – her expression is one of vacancy interlaced with ambiguous yearning, as if frozen in a moment of lost inspiration. Before dialogue punctuates those gazes, audiences are immediately drawn to her distinctive features; sharp and porcelain, they clearly do not assent to the same standards of early Hollywood starlets. The eyes are not glossed over by traditional values, either, but seemingly searching for something different, something forbidden. But of what, exactly? Are they paralyzed by the grind of a maddening routine? Are they stirred to discomfort by the unnerving finality of a marriage? Though incessantly voracious, her expressions do not draw obvious attention to the unrest in any of those around her, because that is part of her elaborate game. As the simple but calculatingly elusive Séverine, Deneuve creates a character that fills the space with a sense of wild destiny. She is not a pawn in a screenplay of emotional chess moves, but a firm hand moving around all the pieces in a game she slyly rewrites the rules for. Imagining her now, in a generation of female empowerment, is like witnessing the birth of a standard in the face of an accidental archetype.

If that face continues to insist itself on us, then the movie it emerges from, “Belle de jour,” gallops brazenly through our thoughts as one of those most fascinating lessons in eroticism ever made – interesting in the sense that it deals with ideas and characters through a serious conviction without obligating them to some sort of misplaced (or primitive) social context. That this all transpired in 1967 certainly adds weight to our frame of reference; under the guidance of a director well-accustomed to more progressive themes in his movies, it arrived in a film climate when genuine awareness of the human mind’s darkest reaches were just beginning to infiltrate the obscure art-house multiplexes. Well before the onslaught of the 1970s – and just a hair shy of the arrival of “Bonnie & Clyde,” which essentially reinvented the mainstream wheel – the notion of any film of that period dealing with a subject seen as blatantly perverse was shocking, an impulse that belonged nowhere but the underground doldrums of pornography.

Those who subscribed to such a philosophy likely based all their judgments on fear. When one sees Buñuel’s film, it is easy to make knee-jerk assumptions; because it is a portrait of a woman’s shady sexual desires, we are perhaps trained by modern sensibility to anticipate visual vulgarity and objectification. But there is not a single shot in the movie to justify that foresight. At the opening of the picture, we first meet Séverine and her husband Pierre – newlyweds, no doubt – being carried along in a carriage somewhere in the country. As they exchange loving gazes and romanticized platitudes, the content of their interaction takes on the form of something mysteriously suggestive, and the scene evolves beyond a simple trek through the wilderness: Pierre insults her honor, disbands the carriage, and then instructs his two servants to strip her of her clothes and then rape her. Somehow, someway, the startling implications are not matched here by an exercise in gratuitous images. The movie teases us with pornographic intentions, but always remains true to the interest of restraint.

The plot: Séverine is the beautiful and quiet housewife of a doctor, whose rising talent keeps him away from home on long days, and thus leaves her in a growing furrow of complacence.  Her daily slog usually involves long walks and excessively quiet evenings at home away from social stimulation, inspiring no sense of excitement. Her mind wanders often to questionable fantasies and memories – of precisely which, it is never clarified, but they bleed into one another because there is no point in a distinction. As we sense the unrest, we also see a marriage trod along in monotonous passages. She and Pierre sleep in separate beds. Their proclamations of love are the stuff of falsified greeting card formalities. When she interjects herself into conversations with others, he rests on ambivalence, and never quite notices her momentary insecurities. Then, when a close girlfriend analyses Pierre’s buddy Husson in a moment of compelling dialogue, it serves to address a commonality between all the men within the film: “He is rich and idle. Those are his two main illnesses.”

When gossip reaches her ear of a disturbing new trend amongst the housewives of Paris, it inspires a ripple of intrigue in otherwise deadened eyes. Apparently, while husbands are away at work, local women are spending their quiet afternoons selling themselves in upscale brothels throughout the city, mostly as a way of bringing in a few extra dollars to otherwise tightened households (“the red lights are gone,” a taxi driver suggests, “but there is no lack of business”). Her curiosity brings her into contact with a beautiful but aged Madame named Anais (the regal Geneviève Page), whose working relationship with her employees seems stirred from motherly intentions (with thinly veiled homosexual undertones close behind). But Séverine does not need money like the others, nor does she desire it. So why is there a sudden spike in her interest for something so devious? Why is she stirred to such a thought if her outward demeanor indicates certain fear of intimacy with her own husband? If we are to use the opening fantasy sequence as a launching point for hunches, then it is clear that this is a woman in possession of masochistic fetishes seeking some kind of outlet. There is an early encounter with a jolly Frenchman in which she attempts to flee out of fear and her mood transitions to pleasure only when Anais forces her back down the hallway, unaccepting of such rudeness towards clients. “I see you need a firm hand,” her new boss says. Yes she does, otherwise there is no purpose for her to be there.

There are many scenes in “Belle de jour” that involve similar implications: some suggestive, others shocking, all of them imperative. Their significance is not to progress a narrative or obliterate old-fashioned conceptions, but to add a touch of intrigue to an identity that wanders through stoic spaces like a figure searching for disturbing adventures. The timeless mystique of the film does not rest entirely on the inclusion of provocative ideas, however. Here is a movie so content to blur the lines between fantasy and reality that it doubles as a contemplative metaphor, inspiring us to wonder what contexts the director uses, and what his scenes stack up to in the end: a solitary point, or a kaleidoscopic portrait. As one watches Séverine move between points in a general story arc like a fetishistic apparition getting off at the idea of putting kinks in the pattern, most of the details take on additional meanings. Sometimes, it’s difficult to even tell what we are seeing: a literal moment, or one entirely in the heroine’s head. Consider a scene later in the film when she and Hasson, a man she has no fondness for, share an awkward interaction; after it is over, the film cuts to a moment when they are together at a restaurant, and they disappear beneath the tablecloth after exchanging a brief flirtatious innuendo. Is the moment real, or just a perverse desire? The lack of an answer is indicative of a director who knows how to rouse our curiosity, and then move on to other ambitions.

Others, like a key sequence in which she submits to an Asian client carrying around a mysterious box, are less concerned with blurring reality and more about creating open-ended wonderment in Séverine’s sexual appetite. The crux of this particular scene depends entirely on the response of Buñuel’s characters towards a lacquer box he possesses; though the contents are never revealed, the women in Anais’ brothel are horrified by the sight of it, and it buzzes mysteriously when he opens it. Séverine, on the other hand, replaces their horror with instant attraction, and after their escapades have concluded, we return to the room and spy a spot of dried blood on a nearby white towel while she lays contently on her stomach. What has happened here we can only guess, but her afterglow is arresting. The undercurrent of that reality follows through in additional sequences – fantasy or reality – and reaches a pinnacle when she meets a new well-dressed client whose mouth is filled with metal teeth: stern and forceful, his presence personifies all that brings her to orgasm, and the two engage in an affair so intense that it nearly overpowers her own sense of responsibility. What this leads to is a climax (and final scene) that could have been capable of unravelling an entire sphere of existence, but instead gives way to additional daydreams – as a way of escaping finality or as a coping mechanism, who knows. To understand Séverine is to know that the reasons for her actions are only for her to comprehend, and what we are left with as viewers is the acknowledgment that a woman is capable of owning her fate even when it seems like she is just an object of satisfaction in others.

Of all the prolific directors in the 60s that found success during French New Wave, Luis Buñuel was the most stirred by questionable human behavior. A Spaniard who came to France in the 1920s and then worked with the great Salvador Dali in the first of his many successes – 1929’s groundbreaking “Un Chien Andalou” – he was one of the great early provocateurs of International cinema, and uses his camera to discover the stirring depths of characters who were intoxicated by perversions or questionable pastimes. While most filmmakers are usually cynical of such behavior, however, Buñuel’s fascination seemed to almost come from a place of humor; his movies often offer sympathetic undercurrents, and antics are usually emphasized by tones indicative of surrealist amusement. His greatest film was “The Exterminating Angel,” about a group of intelligent socialites whose imprisonment at a dinner party reduces them to basic – and uncouth – human behaviors. Such principles inspired an entire generation of filmmakers (including the great Robert Altman, who did a handful of films about characters with similar flaws), and in a very prolific later career he exercised such tight control over his actors that he developed the same notoriety that plagued Hitchcock and Clouzot: that is, the reputation for using his stars as instruments in an elaborate façade of ironic euphemisms.

What he likely did not count on, I’m guessing, was the inclusion of a force as striking and independent as Deneuve entering his sphere (who he used again three years later, in the masterpiece “Tristana”). Like Marilyn Monroe, there was a quality in her at the time that was demanding without being calculated; every time she stepped in front of a camera, her natural sensuality seemed to turn its lens into an unlikely – but thoroughly pleased – voyeur. Nowadays the act is almost a given in any corner of the entertainment industry, where women have assumed a level of control over themselves (and their bodies) that increasingly defy the conventions of a male-dominated culture. After Deneuve came Charlotte Rampling; after Rampling there was Madonna; and after Madonna, there emerged a new breed of calculatingly provocative artistic vixens: women who oozed the joys of sex, but were unapologetic about such impulses and owned their fantasies without submission to the ideals of a man controlling every move. Ironic to think, in that hindsight, that Deneuve herself was the one who felt thoroughly objectified while making “Belle de jour.” “I felt they showed more of me than they’d said they were going to,” she admitted over thirty year later. “There were moments where I felt totally used.” Watching the movie now, one wonders if Buñuel, usually such a dominant presence behind the camera, would offer a completely different version of those events.

Written by DAVID KEYES

"Lessons in Criterion" is a series of essays devoted to exploring the films released within the Criterion Collection on Blu Ray and DVD. Noted for their notoriety or importance in their effect on the evolution of cinema, these films are not rated on the 4-star scale in order to preserve the intent of the work, which exist to promote discussion and inspire thought on their relevance in the medium. More information on this and other titles can be found at

"Belle de jour" is the tenth article in this series.

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