****/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras A
starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Geneviève Page
screenplay by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, based on the novel by Joseph Kessel
directed by Luis Buñuel
by Jefferson Robbins It's fitting that a film about a woman agonizingly balanced between sexual repression and sexual freedom depicts an inner life balanced between two different periods in history. The opening moments of Luis Buñuel's Belle de jour lead us to believe it will be a period piece. In a static wide shot, a black horse-drawn coach on a country lane leisurely approaches. Two bystanders appear to root in the hedges along the path, too distant to be clearly made out: Are they peasants? Estate groundskeepers? Our eyes are programmed now to expect something Edwardian, or, more applicable to the subject matter, Victorian. Only when an automobile makes a turn in the distance do we realize the setting is contemporary. The modernity comes as a jolt, but from this sequence we will return to some kind of imagined past again and again as the heroine--a very modern woman, one whose frightened explorations map the sexual realms of our own later decades--slips between the cracks in her own mind.
When we meet the coach passengers, Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) and her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel), they're the picture of wedded bliss. But only the picture: She is ice-gorgeous, he is handsome in a way that's nearly ridiculous; they look like a fragrance ad in VOGUE PARIS, but there's no there there. We quickly learn their marriage is not fully actuated--sexual fulfillment, even availability, is beyond Séverine's grasp, and Pierre has reached his breaking point. It appears he's pre-arranged this ride and paid the coachmen to bind, strip, and flog his wife. Though imprisoned and faced with rape, Séverine seems to warm to the ravishment...until she wakes up. It's important to note that in Séverine's fantasy life--these flights that return her (in all but one instance) to some less-enlightened pastoral age where she finds gratification--her husband is largely a bystander. In her mind, Pierre may instigate her degradations, but a third party always exacts her dream-penances. It's the brutish coachmen to start, but after a certain point, it's usually her husband's friend and her would-be seducer, Husson (Michel Piccoli), whom she claims to despise. At times, in fact, DreamPierre can't even bear to watch.
Because we begin the movie in the realm of fantasy, Séverine's daydreams have, for us, the same weight as her secret real-world peregrinations from bourgeois Parisian housewife to afternoons-only prostitute in the high-class brothel of Madame Anaïs (Geneviève Page). We want to know where her mind is going as surely as we want to know what will happen in the here-and-now with her coarse client Monsieur Adolphe (Francis Blanche). This viewer investment in Séverine's dreamlife is anchored by snapshot views of her childhood: a molestation by a rough workman, followed by an unwillingness to accept the host during Catholic Mass. We understand that her experience and ensuing guilt are echoing in adulthood. To purge this, she must surrender all control--bound and tormented like the saints. If those symbolic coachmen show up at times in the broad daylight of her real life, well, it simply marks a point where her flesh and spirit converge.
In terms of eliciting satisfaction, it works. Séverine's liaison with an "exotic" Asian client (Iska Khan) the other doxies fear is precipitated by her peephole glimpse of a customer (François Maistre) humiliated by fellow pro Charlotte (Françoise Fabian). Séverine cannot bring herself to assert control and proclaims disgust with the man's submission to a woman, yet the viewing revs her engines enough to submit further, to violate another taboo. Not only does she come on strong to the foreigner who speaks no French, we suspect she acquiesces to whatever baroque sex toy is buzzing in his ornate box--and it gives her the most authentic joy we'll see from her anywhere in the film.1 It's hinted (but only hinted) that such adventurousness enlivens her home life. Pierre is, after all, the reason Séverine set out to learn her own erotic parameters, and as she further prostitutes herself, husband and wife grow closer, more comfortable, more (superficially) in love. Granted, this new intimacy takes place while she's courted and threatened by an obsessed client, the beautiful young gangster Marcel (Pierre Clémenti). Real-world danger, in addition to real-world loss of agency, continue to feed into her primary relationship.
In a film about Séverine's inability to react sexually, Deneuve's casting is inspired. She's desirable, and our response to a desirable person is a wish to please, so Deneuve as a woman unable to feel pleasure on the terms offered her already contains the seeds of heartbreak. If sex is life, fear of sex is death, and could we ask for a more exquisite corpse? Count how often Séverine finds herself in repose, hurled across a bed or laid in a coffin, with an ivory immobility to her face. Her expression is still but never frozen: Asked to play dead for a rich necrophile Duke (Georges Marchal), she inhabits the part perfectly--until the john turns out to be enacting the post-mortem molestation of his daughter. Deneuve's shock is hilarious, yet still removed. Her flattish affect, contrary to what we'd expect, isn't distancing. Instead, it's a door through which we travel to those fantasy realms, where she really lives.
If I had one syllable to describe the overall visual impact of Buñuel's lensing, I would pick "cold." His camera is seldom lively (save in dream sequences and their transitions, when it looms), his interiors are as flatly-lit as any mainstream '60s entertainment, and there is minimal direct sunlight to be found in outdoor scenes. When his players do venture into the sun, it's sterile and bleached, as at an alpine ski lodge or during an autumnal beach holiday. He does little in the way of point-of-view shots, keeping Séverine's reactions in full frame but ignoring the sights that cause them. It may be that the bedroom moment with Séverine's Asian gentleman charms not only for introducing gentleness and contentment to the heroine's experiences, but also because the client inexplicably rattles a pair of bells to entice her further--bells like those worn by a dray animal, like those Séverine hears whenever her dream-carriage approaches. (Even so, the contents of his magic box remain secret to us.) She inhabits an airless bubble of privilege, of deprivation, of hunger unanswered and chastened, and Buñuel as director is more interested in observing this environment than in disturbing it.2 The lack of score reflects and reinforces this coldness, this sense of vacuum, inviting us to contemplate Séverine's world more fully.
Belle de jour occupies one of those strange synchronistic points of literature and history, which intrigues me almost as much as the film itself. The source novel, by Joseph Kessel, appeared in 1928, the same year as D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. The two novels bear striking similarities, or, rather, reflect each other in striking ways. Constance Chatterley acts on sexual frustrations after her husband is paralyzed; Séverine's decision to act results in her husband becoming paralyzed. Prior to this, the young prostitute Mathilde (Maria Latour) says she entered the oldest profession because (like Constance) her beloved was injured and couldn't work; and Pierre contemplates an empty wheelchair with the air of a man whose grave has been trodden.3 In Chatterley and Belle de jour, there's a surrender of a high-class woman to a lower-class man (or, for Séverine, more than one). In both as well, there's a fetishization of nature, mud, ordure. (Most of Séverine's fantasy abasements take place outdoors.) Kessel named his heroine after the submissive viewpoint character of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus In Furs, and it's tempting to see Madame Anaïs as a nod to Anaïs Nin.4 In terms of sex as psychology, both Lawrence and Kessler's novels were preceded by Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle, later the source for Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, in which a man explores sexual abandon in hopes of assuaging his marital conflict. "Traumnovelle" means "dream story," and while there are no dream or fantasy segments in Kessler's Belle de jour, Buñuel the great surrealist injected them into the screenplay he developed with Jean-Claude Carrière. All these literary and cinematic monuments were built in the shadow of Freud, of course, who tore down the sexual prisons of the past century. Séverine becomes, then, a Freudian adventuress--a lineage she shares with dear Constance Chatterley. In her 1920s and 1960s variations, she's a founding mother of the intimate honesty we pursue (or should pursue) as a healthy virtue today. Like all pioneers, she suffers so her descendents might thrive.
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THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion has a practice of isolating a film's turning-point scene for its Blu-ray spinup menus, and this release of Belle de jour is no exception. In fact, the menu sequence of Séverine's fashionably-shod feet ascending Madame Anaïs's stairs, dithering on the landing, then continuing their climb perfectly encapsulate the character's dilemma. It hooked me instantly. Presented in 1080p at a "European" aspect ratio of 1.66:1, the movie proper benefits from Criterion's careful curation, preserving a minimal and welcome cinematic grain while allowing Buñuel's use of colour (in his first colour film) to shine through. Séverine's autumn coat in the opening carriage scene has a bloody richness to it against the actress's light skin and tresses, prefiguring her martyrdom in the woods, and the midnight blue of her Asian suitor's coat makes him an even more outré figure against the beige and white brothel interiors. I see little in the way of black crush and have no edge-enhancement to report; though worth mentioning, a slight spike in brightness fringing the left edge of the image is barely noticeable and intermittent besides. Scrubbed of celluloid dirt and scratches, the disc nonetheless preserves the feel of watching a film, and, more importantly, preserves the feel of watching Buñuel. The closing shot is of the country road travelled by the coach's wheels, in autumn again, fallen leaves mulching but still colourful on the path--beauty and rot in a single frame. I could count the leaves. Digitally cleaned to perfection and complementing that crisp, airless impression Belle de jour conveys visually, the French-language audio comes in LPCM centre-channel mono. The music-free approach means that each Foley effect or room dynamic takes on greater meaning, and here we can freely absorb every footfall, shattered vase, hoof-clop, and whip-crack that occupies Séverine's consciousness, or her subconscious.
Film scholar Michael Wood provides an admirably non-stop commentary track, his energy never flagging and his enthusiasm for the film manifest. Helpfully, he diagrams points of comparison between Buñuel's work and Kessel's novel, scattering readings from the fiction text throughout. Also, one couldn't ask for a better guide in excavating the class concerns of Belle de jour, as when Wood unpacks Husson's strange remarks concerning sympathy for the poor. Sad to say, much of the social satire would have flown right past me without him. Video-based supplements open with UC-Berkeley film professor Linda Williams and sex essayist Susie Bright noodling over Belle de jour as a feminist signpost in "That Obscure Source of Desire" (18 mins., HD). The talk, with each commentator filmed separately, tries to broaden out Séverine's experience to that of women in general; as Williams points out, Séverine's quandary is "kind of the normal position for a woman to be in, which is to submit to the power of a man." It's wanting more submission that makes the character, in her society's view, deviant. Williams convinces more than Bright, who uses pop-psych slang to describe our heroine ("She doesn't own what she's really doing and feeling") and claims that while Belle de jour isn't a feminist movie, "at the end, she doesn't get punished for it." Well...define "punished."
On the subject of women and empowering fantasy, Buñuel's co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière reveals in a 10-minute talking-head vignette (HD) that those dream sequences were composed with great feminist sympathy. "All the daydreams in the film had been told to us by women," he says. "We would never dare of inventing women's eroticism." An obstacle to this verisimilitude, he implies, was the producers: Robert and Raymond Hakim, past financiers of Jean Renoir and Claude Chabrol (and, just prior to Belle de jour, Roger Vadim's La ronde).5 "They had probably hoped that the film at the time would be something scandalous--erotic or even pornographic in some way." Although the end product was relatively restrained in its depiction of flesh, the Hakim brothers ultimately got their wish: Belle de jour was Buñuel's most financially successful film, for reasons Buñuel and Carrière believed were almost entirely prurient on the part of audiences. A dashing young Carrière appears in a 1966 edition of the French TV series "Cinéma" (7 mins., HD), outlining his process of working with Buñuel. He's bookended by a briefer conversation with the young Deneuve, speaking to her interlocutor through her dressing-room mirror, biting her lip fetchingly while awaiting each question...a born star. She wasn't allowed to see dailies because Buñuel knew his actors would contemplate only their own appearances, but she knew how the film would conclude: "It ends tragically," she says, "because no other ending is possible."
A small but telling collection of HiDef trailers closes out the Criterion platter. The original French promo (3 mins.) employs a swelling symphonic score and leans heavily on domestic scenes from the film, with little hint at the masochistic theme. The trailer for the U.S. release (2 mins.) pushes Belle de jour as "Luis Buñuel's Masterpiece of Erotica," highlights the floggings, and promises Deneuve "will stun you as the wife whose insatiable desire exposes the very core of her beauty and pain." Those are the '60s cinema equivalent of porn search-tags. Visually, this trailer suffers by comparison with the others on board--it's almost unbearably watery. Miramax rescued the film from the Hakims' estate for a long-overdue reissue in 1995, and the one-minute trailer for that is here, too: a collection of stills that amounts to an iPhoto slideshow scored by Enigma. The accompanying booklet is, as to be expected, a well-illustrated primer that includes Melissa Anderson's dishy but analytical essay "Tough Love" and a 1970s-era interview with Buñuel, wherein Tomás Pérez Turrent and José de la Colina spar bravely with the filmmaker about meanings, methods, and possible continuity errors. To my sadness, Iska Khan goes unnamed in the pamphlet credits. He hinges Belle de jour for me. Originally published: March 20, 2012.
1. This is my favourite scene in Belle de jour, for its mystery, its aliveness, and its jab of optimism. You can find it ably dissected by Kimberly Lindbergs at CINEBEATS and Mike D'Angelo at THE A.V. CLUB. return
2. The exceptions are Buñuel's brief excursions into the thug life of Marcel and his mentor, the scarred Hippolyte (Francisco Rabal). After the two heist a valuable package from a luckless deliveryman, Buñuel's camera pans down to watch them through the wrought-iron frame of an overhanging balcony. The director seems to breathe more freely in the presence of these gangsters, perhaps sensing they belong in a different movie of more percussive pace. return
3. In his audio commentary, scholar Michael Wood calls attention to this fairly clumsy moment, uncharacteristic for the director: "Did Buñuel suddenly forget he was Luis Buñuel and decide to become a symbolist of a different kind?" return
4. Tempting, as Lindbergs acknowledges in her essay linked above, but probably mistaken. Nin's first published work appeared in 1932, and her famous erotic diaries didn't see print until the 1960s. Still...synchronicity, man. return
5. And look! There's Arthur Schnitzler again, author of the original play. We're onto something cosmic here, people. return