Saturday, February 25, 2017

Belle de jour

BELLE DE JOUR (Luis Buñuel, 1967)

Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) and Pierre (Jean Sorel) have been married for a year and are very much in love, yet she remains frigid toward her doctor husband. In BELLE DE JOUR Séverine holds sex and love as separate things but desperately wants to be intimate with Pierre. She fantasizes about being roughed up and degraded, secrets which she doesn’t dare share with him.

One day a friend tells Séverine about an acquaintance who is turning tricks. The notion repels her as a wealthy and refined woman, yet she is also fascinated by the idea and questions her husband about his familiarity with brothels. Her friend’s lover Henri (Michel Piccoli) mentions where high class women can work as prostitutes, so, unable to shake her curiosity, Séverine pays a visit to Madame Anaïs (Geneviève Page). Because Séverine insists on just working afternoons, Madame Anaïs gives her the name Belle de jour.

Although not explicit in depiction, BELLE DE JOUR’s subject matter was surely hot stuff upon its debut fifty years ago. The film retains its erotic properties because director Luis Buñuel and his frequent co-writing partner Jean-Claude Carrière rely on suggestion and mystery to convey Séverine’s fantasies and journey. It’s an acknowledgement that, like the clients with varied preferences and fetishes, what one may find arousing, another may not. So BELLE DE JOUR does not get hung up on what specifically fuels Séverine’s primal urges but rather concerns itself with how those fixations make her feel and act. The sound of carriage bells recurs in her sexual daydreams, but the meaning is entirely inscrutable to anyone but her. As Buñuel was a noted surrealist, the lack of definitive interpretation is part and parcel of his style, but it also suggests that her predilections were set in ways that even Séverine may not understand.

Fantasy and reality are inseparably blurred in BELLE DE JOUR. While some scenes are clearly dreams, it is difficult to say for certain how much occurs in Séverine’s inner life. Perhaps most or all except for the final scene are imagined. Then again, that last scene could be a vision of how she might feel once all of her guilt is laid bare and open communication with her husband is something she can finally engage in. Accordingly, Deneuve withholds telegraphing Séverine’s emotions for others, including the viewers. The pleasure and disgust the character experiences belongs to her. Whether intentional or not, Deneuve’s casting makes for an intriguing comparison with REPULSION, in which her character’s frigidity manifests in a more horrific manner.

Not to wield BELLE DE JOUR as a club, especially because it is considered a masterpiece of world cinema--and thus not a fair fight--but it is informative to view it in relation to something like FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and its sequel. The contemporary films employ representation as provocation, yet the lack of ambiguity is precisely why the most salacious moments seem dispassionate and mechanical. BELLE DE JOUR and the FIFTY SHADES movies are self-serious, but Buñuel’s work is more artful, personal, and intellectualized in a European manner while the FIFTY SHADES films have been reduced to their basest elements and homogenized for mass consumption.

Grade: A

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