Belle de Jour (1967)

*. I first saw Belle de Jour at a rep cinema in the early ’90s. It was a full house, but as Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine got taken from the landau for her thrashing (this is the opening scene) a young woman sitting at the front quite conspicuously got up and stalked out of the theatre. I had to laugh. I mean, she knew what was coming and she obviously wanted to make some kind of statement by sitting up front and then heading for the exit in the first few minutes. It was that silly.
*. I don’t think anyone in the theatre that day found that scene, which is the riskiest in the film, shocking or offensive. By the 1990s we’d all grown used to much stronger stuff. Which is maybe why I was quite underwhelmed by the movie. I remember coming out of the theatre and wondering what the fuss was all about.
*. I like it more now, though I still don’t find it transgressive or disturbing and I don’t think I’ll every be fully on board with calling it a great movie. It is, however, a lot of fun to talk about.
*. A lot of this arises from the blankness of Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine. Like any good prostitue (I imagine) she is something that the client (or audience) projects on to. She’s like the Japanese man’s box in that regard. What’s inside? Whatever you want. A fetish is nothing to anyone but the person possessed of it.

*. Séverine, however, is even blanker than most sexual or fetish objects. Called upon to role play she can’t even manage the very minimal requirements demanded for the part. For the necrophiliac duke she is at her most convincing as a corpse. In her own fantasies she is something to be bound and gagged.

*. In an interview included with the Criterion DVD it is suggested that Deneuve is “asexual,” and it is a judgment that Buñuel immediately agrees with. To make use of a distinction that I remember Paris Hilton making once (and that I’ve adverted to before) she is sexy without being sexual. This is, I think, what Roger Ebert is getting at when he talks about the narcissism of Séverine: “For a woman like Séverine, walking into a room to have sex, the erotic charge comes not from who is waiting in the room, but from the fact that she is walking into it. Sex is about herself. Love of course is another matter.”

*. Part of this blankness is a certain generic quality that Séverine has as sexual object. Like most sexual fantasies, she easily fits into various stereotypical roles. When, at the end, Hussot sees her as a schoolgirl it’s just another conventional porn role she’s being seen in. Just as her own fantasies are drawn from Sade, or in one case from a Millet painting. I believe this is what Michael Wood means in his DVD commentary when he says of the dueling dream: “”there’s something horribly predictable about all of this and something horribly borrowed, it’s again as if Séverine has fantasies but she doesn’t quite have first-rate fantasies.”

*. The movie raises a lot of questions. Some of these aren’t meant to be answered, like the matter of what’s in the box. Or rather, their meaning is in the fact that there is no objective answer. Other questions, however, continue to bedevil critics.
*. I suppose the biggest of these has to do with what parts of the film are supposed to be “really” happening. The most notorious example here is the visit to the duke’s mansion to play a corpse. Personally, I feel convinced this is Séverine’s fantasy, but Buñuel was categorical about its reality: “the episode of the necrophiliac really happens; it’s neither a dream nor a daydream.”
*. Perhaps part of the difficulty arises from that same conventionality of fantasy life I mentioned. People’s lives are conventional too. Stereotypes are real. Could anything be sillier in a generic way than the whole gangster subplot? It seems to me that all of that stuff should be one of Séverine’s daydreams, but I guess it isn’t.

*. Then there is the justly famous ending, with its melding of dream and reality. How are we to read it? In the video essay Criterion includes, Susie Bright says that Séverine gets away with her affair unpunished. Does she? Or does the ending smack of Ethan Frome? The thing is, Séverine seems quite happy even before Pierre comes back to life. David Thomson goes as far as to suggest that the crippling of Pierre is what she wanted, perhaps a route to her expiation. Martyrdom is another form of fantasy, and we’ve clearly seen Séverine’s thoughts tending in that direction.
*. I’ve said I don’t think Belle de Jour is a great movie. Like a lot of Luis Buñuel’s stuff, I find most of it overly analytical. There’s something artificial about it, from the sets to the clothes to the fantasies themselves. It’s a passionless tale of passion. I find it fascinating on several levels, but never terribly involving. Then again, maybe Séverine just isn’t my type.

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