DVD Review Of Belle De Jour
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/31/07
There was something about the 1960s that brought out a playfulness in filmmakers which allowed them to not have to condescend to audiences and wrap up every little aspect of the film in a neat little bow. When the films’ techniques and narrative strengths worked, as in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, or Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, the result was a great film. When neither worked, the result was a pretentious mess, like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby or Luis Buñuel’s Belle De Jour- his 1967 foray into color film, based upon the same titled novel of Joseph Kessler, released in 1928.
The film has been described as an ‘erotic masterpiece,’ but forty years later one is left with a film that has so little sex in it that it could pass as a PG film if released today, as well as lacking all eros. Mild sex scenes are not, by definition, eros, and it’s difficult to believe that anyone watching this film could have been shocked, much less aroused by a single scene in it. Yes, young Catherine Deneuve, as bored bourgeois hausfrau Séverine Serizy, is her typical gorgeous self, but having seen her in several of her later roles, plus her featured role in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, I seriously must question whether she could really act. In Polanski’s film, she plays a neurotic, sexually stifled woman who sleepwalks through her descent to murderess, after what was likely a childhood of sexual abuse. Similarly, her character of Séverine was sexually abused (seen through flashbacks, and after which she refuses communion), but unlike the Repulsion heroine/villain, is not repulsed by raw sex, but attracted to the filthy sadomasochistic aspects of it.
For some reason- likely the abuse, she is frigid, and rejects her devoted, handsome, and wealthy physician husband Pierre (Jean Sorel). She has elaborate fantasies of him and other men degrading her sexually. When they are out with her husband’s older and gauche friend and his wife at a ski resort a different aspect of Séverine slowly emerges. The other couple, the Hussons- Renee (Macha Méril) and Henri (Michel Piccoli), are also idle rich, and he has a wandering eye for young women, including the blond Séverine. She is repulsed by him, but drawn to his tales of sexual perversion at brothels. Then, one day while shopping with Renee, Renee tells her of a mutual female acquaintance who makes extra money working at an underground brothel. Inexplicably, Séverine obsesses over this, and when Henri lets it be known where the address of the local brothel of Madame Anais (Geneviève Page) is, the viewer basically knows how much of the rest of the film will play out. Séverine will become a prostitute, despite initial qualms, and Henri will eventually discover her at the brothel. The Madame christens her Belle de Jour, or Beauty of the Day, since she will not work past 5 pm.
Throughout the film, there are dream sequences where Séverine tries to expiate her sins, and even one where she fantasizes about having sex with Henri under a table at the ski resort as Renee and Pierre talk above it. Pierre is clearly painted as the villain in the piece, as many critics have taken the proto-Feminist argument that he is responsible for their dying marriage because he views his wife as a sort of kewpie doll, even though he is very loving and attentive, and none of their claims are to be found within the film, itself. Attentiveness, it seems, equates with condescension. Of course, the fact that Séverine manifestly has issues over sexuality could not be to blame, nor could the fact that she lies to a husband who manifestly adores her. This outdated view of sex and sexual responsibility is a major problem with the screenplay of Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carriere, along with wooden characters, and banal dialogue- which some critics also defend, with the tired argument that Buñuel was trying to parody the stupor of bourgeois conversation with its recapitulated banality. Of course, if the tired dialogue is merely a veneer with something more underneath, then it can be convincing, but if the actors look bored, act bored, and talk bored, the chances are that that is the effect they will have on the audience.
Then the film takes an even more unwelcome twist, when two career criminals become regulars at the brothel. Their entry into the film begins with the mugging of an older man on an elevator, then using his money to get laid. The younger one, Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), is a bad ripoff of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s bad ripoff of Hollywood B film gangsters from bad films noir from Jean-Luc Godard’s excruciatingly banal Breathless. Marcel is ugly, brandishes a sword-cane, a black leather cape, and a mouthful of steel teeth. This predictably banal bad boy, of course, sexually excites the perverse Séverine, not for who he is but because he is a walking talking caricature. Yet, worse still, than even this stale quotation of a stale quotation, is that, after Marcel becomes obsessed with Belle, and she leaves the brothel after Henri finds out of her profession, the thug hunts her down to her posh apartment, then waits outside for Pierre to return home and shoots him. He takes off in his car, gets into a crash, has a shootout with a local gendarme, and dies in the middle of a Paris street in the same hypermelodramatic fashion Belmondo’s thug from Breathless did, and with even less audience concern for the character, since, by this point in the film, most viewers are long turned off by this mess of a film.
The film ends with Pierre in a coma, then recovering- as a mute invalid, when Henri shows up, and tells Séverine that he will tell Pierre of her life as a prostitute. Earlier, he had promised to keep it a secret, but now that Pierre has been paralyzed Henri feels he needs to know the truth, and now Henri’s attraction to her as a perfect porcelain doll of a wife is ruined, as he now knows she is a mere slut. Séverine does not object- more evidence of her masochism and desire for expiation (to be put in a subservient position again), and after Henri leaves Pierre, she enters Pierre’s room. He seems to wilt, and have no reaction, then, in what is clearly a fantasy, Séverine wills him back to health, looks out her window, after hearing the bell sounds of the carriage that started the film (and which almost always signal a fantasy sequence), in the fantasy sequence where Pierre sexually and brutally humiliated her. Yet, as she watches, the carriage rolls by with no passengers, and the film ends.
In many ways, the ending, as well the mix of reality and fantasy, echoes the far superior Blowup. Where Belle De Jour fails is in not reeling us into the characters nor their dilemmas. In Blowup, the nameless photographer who seems to stumble upon a murder, is humanized from being an arrogant prick to one who cares of another’s possible suffering, and all the events that occur- whether imagined or real, seem plausible. Belle De Jour has no such emotional growth. The film ends with the bored Séverine still fantasizing, and still afraid of true intimacy, after her base lusts have ended up injuring a man who truly adored her. Also, the events in the fantasy sequences all seem implausible- from a necrophilic Duke who pays Séverine to lie naked in a coffin, to the possibility that the whole story arc in the brothel could be fantasy, since Marcel is such a cardboard cutout that he may be a low rent movie version of what a housewife surmuises a thug would be like. Many critics have argued over which parts of the film are real or not- such as whether or not Pierre cries, then dies, in the final scene. While a small tear does seem to run down his right cheek, the claims for Pierre’s death rest on an upturning of his right wrist alone- even though we can clearly see Pierre still respiring! Yet, regardless of their interior truth, no interpretation can save the film from being so dull that whether this scene or that was ‘real’ has little relevance.
That said, the fact that the brothel life, as shown, is so ridiculously unreal- merely a brothel fantasy for 1960s suburbanites who would never really experience one, lends credence to the argument that it could all be what a bored housewife merely fantasizes what a brothel is like. Anais is like no real world Madame, and her threats to Séverine are laughable; even as Buñuel uses them as rationales for Séverine’s masochistic subservience, only denied when the Madame tries to lesbianly seduce her with a kiss- one Séverine coyly tries to repay when she quits, but is rebuffed by the Madame, who believes she is abandoning the brothel because of Marcel’s obsession, not because of Henri’s knowledge of her ‘secret.’ The perversions of the clientele are also ridiculously silly; most johns are stiflingly boring in their sexual tastes- just horny little men who’d shoot a load into the nearest tree knot if they could. And after her first trick, Séverine tosses her undies into a roaring fireplace- as trite a symbolic act as can be.
The DVD, put out by Miramax, has only a few extra features. Fortunately, the film not only has optional English subtitles, but is well dubbed into English- always preferable for the visual medium. There are two theatrical trailers included- the one with the film’s original 1967 American release, and its 1995 re-release. Then there is an audio commentary by Buñuel scholar Julie Jones, but it’s not particularly good. It lacks insight, Jones pauses for minutes at a time, and her delivery is far too scripted. There seems to be no genuine love for the film that she conveys- a factor which can make even obvious points seem enjoyable to hear. She repeats the claim that Buñuel did not understand his own film’s ending- an obvious fuzz job used in marketing the film, as well toeing the Feminist line that the film’s bad guy is the poor suffering husband Pierre- who is lied to, cuckolded, sexually frozen out, then shot, all for loving his frigid, deviant, faithless liar of a prostitute wife. Of course, the rationale is that Pierre is the bad guy because he’s a bit of a workaholic- surgeons often are, and is concerned for his patients, and does not dote enough on his selfish wife. And the claim that he infantilizes Séverine is simply not so. He is always soliciting her opinions, and it is actually Séverine who behaves like a child, and desires such treatment. The reason seems to be her sexual abuse and inability to get over it, or so the film portrays this. Thus, she only responds to people who boss her around, like Henri, Anais, and Marcel, not someone who actually solicits adult behavior- like Pierre. That this key point in the film- Pierre’s being the only person who treats Séverine with adult respect, is missed by almost all published critics, says much of how political and sexual dogmas can interfere with a fair reading of a work of art. His great sin is to mistake his wife’s frigidity for some lingering sexual decorum. Note, as well, that the only time Séverine does act like an adult is when she is in the brothel, under the thumbs of the Madame and her johns. The rest of the time it is she who acts like a child under her own volition- such as the scene where Henri discovers her at the brothel, and she blames him for giving her the address in the first place. This is a classic childish tack, and one which utterly voids the biased Feminist critique of the film.
Jones tends to condescend to viewers by explaining some of the most manifest symbolism in this film, larded with some of the silliest Freudian symbols on film. A good example is when Pierre takes his wife to a beach, to get away from Paris and test whether or not she has a lover. Marcel gets enraged by this, but the scene consists of them on the cold desolate beach as the waves pound away (obvious female imagery) and a giant hulk of a dead tree branch dominates the center of the screen (even more obvious phallic imagery of Pierre’s lack of manhood). In short, while Jones presents these symbols as evidence of Buñuel’s art, she does not touch upon how manifest and hamhandedly they are presented. Ideas can be great, but if not presented well, even they lose their power. Belle De Jour is a great example of many good ideas being too clumsily presented. Interesting premises and themes do not make up for poor execution. That the film is very badly dated in many ways is also a testament to the filmmaker’s failures.
Technically speaking, the film has many pluses, such as the fact that Buñuel does not use soft focus to distinguish dream and reality, and much of the film depends upon not overt acting and emoting, but on gestures. During heightened emotions, Buñuel almost always shoots someone’s limbs or digits- not to fetishize them, as some claim, but to show their power diffused across the whole of the body, and to disallow overacting. The shots are not erotic, but deeply emotive and evocative, as they show Séverine in distress. But the print this DVD used is in sad shape. The tone is muted, fuzzy, streaky, and occasionally muddy, and compared to the great job DVD restorers did for Blowup, a film two years older, it is truly sinful.
Belle De Jour is simply not a good film, and while on a par with Breathless- in terms of the bad acting and screenplay, it is a bit better for it is technically better made. It has not aged well, and is one of those classics (usually ‘sexually provocative’ films like the I Am Curious films or Last Tango In Paris) that one can only shrug their shoulders at and wonder what all the fuss was about. It is claimed to be an erotic Surrealist film, yet it lacks eros and Surrealism. Symbolism is simply not an equivalent to Surrealism and eros is not induced by faux sex that one does not even see. If anything, Deneuve’s performance desexualizes her persona as a goddess, a feat worth commenting on, since few men would not want to have sex with a woman who looked as good as she did. But, that alone is not eros. That the film fails on its own two main claims for excellence says all one needs to know of it as a work of art, for it is utterly hollow. The dream sequences are so banal in their symbolism that even the most diehard Freudians would snicker at their unrealistic presentation. And, to top it off, the film is simply very dull, a trait that Surrealism- or any art school, when it fails, inevitably falls prey to.
Had Belle De Jour been made in Hollywood and called Beauty Of The Day, would it have been as well received- then and now, or seen as passé would be erotica? Would it be called a classic, a masterpiece? I doubt it, but because it is French, and an early example of the sort of film called Eurotrash, it is fetishized over, and bad critics and worse scholars- like Jones, try to parse ever second of footage as if a Rosetta Stone to the whole, failing to understand that the bulk of the film’s message is obvious as a bumper sticker, and most viewers simply will not care enough about the wooden characters, their fantasy situations, and the puerile plot to waste time analyzing it. Even Buñuel admitted he believed fetishes were without deeper meaning. Outside of Deneuve’s stale performance, only Michel Piccoli shines in his role as Henri- the rest are marionettes who act woodenly. The 100 minute film also seems far longer as the editing by Buñuel and editor Louisette Hautecoeur allows scenes to go on far too long. That said, the cinematography by Sacha Vierny, is first rate, and almost seems at odds with the bumbling and clumsy nature of much of the rest of the film.
Although I’ve compared aspects of this film to films like Breathless and Blowup, the film that most resembles it is the far superior Eyes Wide Shut, by Stanley Kubrick. Although made over three decades later, and initially panned, it stands out as the far superior work, with much deeper insights into human sexuality, and it deploys far more interesting and less obvious imagery. The only portion of Belle De Jour that gets the notion that less is more in regards to imagery, is the scene where Belle is entranced with the glowing hum of something inside a large Oriental john’s memento box. While the thing scares off the other prostitutes, Belle is taken by it- likely a sexual toy, and after her encounter with the man, she is laying in bed, when the maid sympathizes with her job and Belle smirks and says, ‘What do you know?’ The object is never seen, and what it is does not matter, literally, as it is a classic Hitchcockian MacGuffin, and precursor to the glowing object in the briefcase in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Had Buñuel included more instances like that, the film would have been much better off, as would have Deneuve- an actress who was a natural for an Ingmar Bergman film, but never worked with him. Had Bergman made this film it would have been far subtler and better. That Alfred Hitchcock, by contrast, loved this film, says a lot, for his own films were equally dependent upon hamhanded views of sexuality, and most are equally outdated, as well, for that very reason. Apologists for the film claim that it allows viewers to bring their own thoughts and experiences into the film. Well, most films do, so that’s not a great argument. Belle De Jour fails for the opposite reason; it lacks a core- emotionally, philosophically, and technically, masquing it all with claims of Surrealism- that label used to cover and alibi for all manner of bad art.
In short, this film does not even walk the walk, and Buñuel is not in a league with such filmmakers as Werner Herzog nor Antonioni, as far as symbolism goes. Belle De Jour may have titillated audiences four decades ago, but today it simply plays out as a wan and silly- as well as poorly wrought, exploration of a dull woman’s sexual life, and how that keeps her deluded and miserable. One need not pay to see such, when a trip to the local supermarket can give you dozens of more interesting female subjects to choose from. Damn, and I need some bread and milk, too!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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