Reviews of Belle de jour
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I love Love LOVE LOVE Belle de Jour! Haters, be damned. I know this is viewed by lots as minor Buñuel, but this film actually erased or clarified my previous qualms about his signature symbolism and surrealism. Belle de Jour worked for me. And it worked perfectly!
I thought that Buñuel was in full command of the medium here. Whereas I could not gloss over his usual conceits in Viridiana (for example), I think they suited Belle de Jour perfectly well. He moved the film forward and he did it with panache. Catherine Deneuve is immaculate in her role as the lonely wife-turned-prostitute Severine who harbours masochistic and humiliation fantasies. Critics may argue that this was a misogynistic treatment of her character. But I never felt that way. Indeed, I felt the other way around. Because she was trapped in her ennui, in the all too familiar banality of her bourgeois existence, she sought her own liberation (sexual and personal) by being in control of her life.
Prostitution was less of a point and more of a metaphor. It was this control that she had that allowed here to blossom. Even in small scenes where Severine was just playing or chatting with the other working girls, one could feel the palpable joy in her eyes. She was free and she had company. Indeed, life is not merely about possessions (she had lots based on scenes filmed in her home), it is about the people around us and how we interact with them. Even her encounters with the various customers, however bizarre, have more “life” than her life at home. Buñuel indeed films these scenes with such compassion and honesty but also with such audacity and bluntness; no wonder this film made waves during the Venice film festival that year (even winning the Golden Lion)!
It is just too tragic that in this film, the rest of the world could not keep up. This was symbolized by all her fantasies featuring the men wearing Victorian era costumes. There was her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) who was blind to her demands and also to her needs. There was her gangster lover Marcel (Paul Clémenti) whose naivety caused everyone dearly. He was kinda hot but his stupidity was astounding (Buñuel does a perfect joke on our fantasies of love with this character). And speaking of jokes, I thought that there were lots of inside jokes (or parodies) poked at Godard especially Breathless. There is the announcement from a seller shouting “New York Herald Tribune!” (Saint Jean!!!). And that street shooting purely channels Jean-Paul Belmondo’s final scene. I think only Michel Piccoli’s character Henri understood Severine’s plight but even he was ultimately constricted by the prevailing social conventions.
Belle de Jour comes in full circle at the end. Reality and fantasy collide in such a heartbreaking sequence. With her husband paralyzed, Severine makes one last fantasy – that of a happy relationship with her husband – this time stripped of sexual tones. The scene was just pure and sincere. I got overwhelmed. I cried during this part. I had been completely sold on this film early on but this perfect denouement nailed it perfectly for me. In this film, Buñuel successfully weaves the “real” and the “dream” into one lucid filmic existence. Just as Juliet of the Spirits (which has lots of parallels with Belle de Jour I might add) completely sold me on Fellini after my initial indifference to 8½ (I have since re-assessed it), Belle de Jour is my own epiphany (OMG Christmas!) on the endearing genius of this other surrealist master!
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.
Luis Bunuel’s famous bourgeois erotic drama still has the ability to shock, but not like it did in 1967, when seeing beautiful, virginal Catherine Deneuve get horse-whipped by stage drivers, or spattered with mud by her husband in self-pleasing dream sequences, was quite the scandal. Today we marvel at Bunuel’s pure mastery of the cinematic form, telling a story about a repressed woman’s desire for sexual exploration in a Parisian whorehouse, with only the sharpest wit and satire to fall back on, suggesting through brief memory flashbacks (and those famous erotic dream sequences) the guilt and ways of Deneuve’s psyche. Bunuel would flower this style to even greater heights in his following French films, especially the surreal “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, but this remains a linchpin in his canon.
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.
French language director Luis Buñuel is a master at cinematic surrealism. After seeing his masterpiece Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie in film history class during college, I had been intrigued to seek out and see more from him. So, when the Sundance Channel recently aired Belle de jour I took the plunge. While at first glance it seems we have a straightforward narrative, it all soon unravels. The first glimpse of our main character, Séverine, occurs during a masochistic nightmare (or maybe welcome dream as we might later discern) where her husband betrays her on a coach ride through the woods. She awakens in bed, where we discover she has had dreams like this before. All this is in a linear stream until we soon get a lightning quick cut to a scene of a little girl being sexually advanced on by an older man. Could this be a memory of Séverine’s childhood? or maybe just another puzzle piece leading us astray. Either way one thinks, he/she is in for a ride of reality and fantasy melding together, eventually becoming one and the same, where at the finish of the film no one will know what actually happened, if anything at all.
Our lead is played magically by Catherine Deneuve who’s striking in beauty as well as dramatic chops. Deneuve may be the most beautiful woman put to film that I have seen. She is not just a pretty face, however, as her angelic features are needed to juxtopose herself against the brothel lifestyle she soon enters. While cold to her husband physically, although we are shown signs she really does love him, she seems to open up completely during her escapades at the Madame’s underground whorehouse. At first she shies away from the intimate contact, but soon is reveling in the embarrassment as she’s dominated by her male suitors. The “nightmares” sprinkled throughout, then, could be pleasant dreams, as maybe she wants her husband to demean her and treat her as an object like those that she sees during the day. She superimposes the brutality on her husband in her thoughts because that is what she really desires.
Along with Deneuve, we are treated with many great performances, including her husband’s friend Hussan played by Michel Piccoli who plays the part with great duplicity. He is a man that Séverine despises yet her husband finds hilarious. An integral part of the film, Hussan could be construed as the conductor of the events at hand. He puts the idea of prostitution into Séverine’s head and ultimately gets the ball rolling for what the movie’s climax holds in store. Pierre Clémenti also does a wonderful job as Marcel, a regular customer of “Belle de jour” and the complete manifestation of everything she wants her husband to be. His brutality and emotion form a great edge to his character as you never know what he will do next. Marcel is constantly on the fence of keeping himself in check or totally losing his mind.
Belle de jour is a journey into the psyche of our main character. We see her fantasies, her nightmares, her thoughts, and the horrors that all hold in store for her. She lives dangerously close to disaster, but seems to enjoy the possibility that she will be caught or hurt. The excitement is what she is really after. There are many ways to interpret a film of this kind and all are probably correct. Buñuel has created a template for thought and discussion. One leaves his films with a feeling of disorientation, much like that contained by his characters, yet also a desire to crack the code to the mystery. This is cinema at its best; an intelligent story that challenges the viewer and doesn’t allow for the banal passivity that many movies churned out by Hollywood do today.
- Currently 4.0/5 Stars.
Luis Bunuel obviously knew a thing or two about perversion, and enough about sex to know what matters is not between the legs but between the ears. To further complicate things he has one of the most beautiful women who has ever graced the silver screen in Catherine Deneuve play the title role. As if this is not enough Bunuel then blurs the line between reality and dreams, fantasy and truth to create an unsettling feeling-scape, where maps are useless and the terrain unpredictable. We meet Severine (Deneuve) in a romantic coach ride with Pierre (Jean Sorel) the impossibly good looking trophy/Doctor/husband of many a middle class womans desires, yet from the beginning the facade cracks. Admitting she is ‘cold’, her husband flies into a rage and has her taken forcibly into the woods by the two burly coachmen and beaten and raped. Bunuel then shows us what emotional quicksand he’s set for us, by revealing the incident as one of HER daydreams. What’s a boy to think?!
Torn and confused by her inability to embrace sexual intimacy with her understanding husband, Severine takes mental note of the address of a brothel mentioned by a would be paramour Husson, archly played by Bunuel stalwart Michel Piccoli, and fronts up there to ask for work through the daytime. The Madame (Genevieve Page) is more than interested to have such a woman on her books and christens her Belle De Jour. After a shaky start Severine seems to enjoy the work, and finds her relationship with her husband Pierre ‘normalises’ to the point where she can sleep with him again. Marcel (Pierre Clementi) a young gangster client, becomes obssessed with her and falls in love, Severine is drawn towards him, his outsider status a natural edge to an already forbidden liason. The tangled web eventually has dire consequences as Husson discovers her secret, causing ‘Belle’ to cease working. Marcel becomes enraged, tracks her down to her home and guns down his rival Pierre.
Within this schematic Bunuel works his magic. He never frames the action from a judgemental or didactic point of view, giving us the information in dreams and clues. Severine acts out of compulsion, she was sexually abused as a child by an older man and must seek out forbidden forms of sex in order to feel ‘normal’. The key scene lasts only seconds, and judging by it’s scant mention in most reviews is not something widely admitted, most preferring to take the ‘bored housewife’ approach to viewing her actions. This, I feel, is a mistake and a male chauvinistic one at that. How can a woman who looks like she does, who would have had endless male attention growing up, including this life shattering event at such an impressionable age have a chance of easily coming to terms with sexual politics and impulses? She marries the ideal Dr Dreamboat, in an attempt to conform we assume, but finds it inexplicably difficult to achieve sexual intimacy with him, a square peg in a round hole? It’s obvious she loves him, but Bunuel gives us further clues that love does not always go hand in hand with sex, so to speak. (okay I’ll stop now!)
Severine takes a chance on coming to terms with her ‘defective’ sexual programming and, via the brothel encounters, starts to relax around Pierre and even meld their normal intimacies with sexual ones. Severine risks and suffers humiliation while exporing this ‘cure’, even if the men involved seem pathetic or ridiculous themselves. Of course the conservative condemnation arrives when Husson discovers her at the brothel and derides her actions as ‘having no class’, while never admitting the double standard of his own history with the establishment. Severines double life collides with her real one when Marcel, who seemingly encapsulates everything she was seeking in real sexual danger as well as a physical one, decides he must possess her exclusively. A beautiful woman is again reduced to a commodity in so many ways. Indeed one brief tantalising means of escape is hinted at in the relationship between ‘Belle’ and Madame Anais, her creator.
Anais seems more than interested herself in Severine, and as Severine leaves it seems the overtures are about to be reciprocated, but Anais turns away leaving Belle to deal with the messy masculine imbroglio alone. Events leave Severine with the ‘perfect’ husband, physically and emotionally crippled, emasculated and unthreatening. In the ultimate revenge for the travails she’s suffered at their hands, men are rendered impotent as she is left with her private fantasy life to constuct any way she desires.
So no easy answers await the viewer here, Bunuel contructs an atmosphere of unnerving semi-reality and stands back, letting the action take over. The set ups and style are never forced or imposed. It’s enough to provide some explosive and disturbing results. The ensemble work is terrific but the centrepiece is the impossibly gorgeous La Deneuve, her exquisite porcelain beauty is used to magnificent effect and her performance hits the right notes of calm terror. Bunuel made this in the heart of the liberated Sixties and still managed to cause a scandal. It disappeared from circulation for many years, resurfacing in the 90’s and it’s critical reputation continues to grow. One can imagine ice blonde obsessive Hitchcock getting a hard on (pardon my French) when seeing this! Indeed I’d guess it influenced ‘Frenzy’, his essay on perversion a couple of years later, in the new directness that could be put on screen. Bunuel reveals here that explicitness is not necessarily
about nakedness, and the gratuity that’s been unleashed since has not been particularly insightful or edifying. In this realm, ideas are still king.