Thursday, June 23, 2005

Film: Belle de Jour

20th century turned the ideal of artists as tortured souls who die a young age upside down. Nowadays, artists end up as old men, not prepared for dying because they still have so much to say and to many ideas. I recall of the picture taken late in Matisse’s life, where he is too week to stand up, but he attaches brush on a stick to that he could paint on the wall while laying in bed.

And even then, Luis Bunuel is a particular case. He made three three of the most influential films in history somewhere around the age of thirty (those were, of course, surrealist manifests “Un chien andalou”, “L’Age D’Or” and, hm, surreal documentary “Las Hurdes” (“Land without bread”). He only continued directing at the age of 47, after years of working various supporting jobs in film production. Then he executed a series of films, some of them masterpieces, others hired jobs, but his greatest creative period falls after he turned 60, when he made a series of films that set him within a handful of greatest directors in history. He retired at the age of 77. They say that the period of the most creative thinking falls between 20 and 30, and that, after 30, most of artists get away with experience. Bunuel seems to have creatively matured 30 years too late.

I may talk a lot about Bunuel later. Lots of his films have a story behind their making, that would make a good movie itself; “Las Hurdes”, for one, was produced with money that one of Bunuel’s friends won on lotery (he promised him that if he won the lottery, he’d give money to Bunuel to make a documentary) and it was edited on Bunuel’s kitchen table, with Bunuel staring at the tiny film against the lantern, trying to figure out which part of the film is which take. Anyway, reading Bunuel’s biographical book, “My last sigh”, is an excellent read: filled with anecdotes of his rich life and, perhaps more interesting, description of his acquaintances with many of the most important figures of 20th century culture. The ones he describes most elaborate, of course (because he knew them the best) are Salvador Dali, Federico Garsia Lorca and the Parisian surrealist circle of 1930ies, with artists such as Max Ernst, Juan Miro and Rene Magritte.

For the record, my favourite Bunuel’s movie is “The Discrete charm of the bourgeoisie”, film with so complex dream-fueled plot, that for now, I am choosing a more conventional, yet still a masterpiece, “Belle de jour”.

Bunuel is often considered surrealist director, although, apart from his early movies, and a very few later films like “The Exterminator angel” and “The Discrete charm”, his films were mostly neo-realism studies of class society, often rich in satire. What makes him surrealist is his deep belief in dreams, his liking of a unique quality of dream imagery; His movies often have dream sequences as a sort of a clue to character’s motives and actions, and it’s those brief dream sequences that give the entire film a texture and that remain in our memory the longest.

“Belle de jour” starts with such sequence: We hear horse hoofs clomping on the road. We see Severine (Catherine Deneuve) and her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) riding in a horse carriage, surrounded by pastel-coloured landscape scattered by leaves. We see them stopping, Pierre tying her up, and then whipping her, at ambivalent looks of two cabmen. As the camera is suddenly brought to an ordinary bedroom, with Severine lost in her thoughts and her husband Pierre, not nearly as eager to punish someone, we realize that it was all Severine’s daydream, and we get to be aware of her weird sexual desires.

What follows may be known from notoriety of this film: Severine is slowly intrigued, and later drawn to secretly work as a prostitute is one Parisian brothel. Thing is, Severine’s husband is wealthy, their marriage is happy, even though not very eventful, and Severine apparently loves her husband. What draws her to prostitution? This setup works as a double edge – as a satire of bourgeoisie double morality, and as an insight into a world of unconscious and of sexual fantasies. See it as you will – some tend to see Bunuel’s work mostly as social commentary, some as psychoanalytical before all, but it is open to lots of readings and that’s what grants it richness. So in a scene where Severine is laying exhausted in the bed, after a session with the customers, a cleaning lady comments “Poor madam”, to which Severine’s reply and the look on her face is the one of fulfillment, if anything.

But that’s all explanations that we will get from either Bunuel or Deneuve’s performance. To which, I just have to praise that performance, elegant all through, enigmatic, with her face prompting us to ask questions but keeping all the secrets. Sexuality in this film, rich in assumption, but never having an open display (with only a glimpse of nudity), is consisted not in what’s shown in film, but in what is not shown; In what is outside the camera’s view; Thus, leaving everything else to imagination. In such concept, perhaps the most erotic thing on Deneuve is her face.

When talking about things not shown in this film, one notorious scene is where a customer of the brothel opens a box that he keeps tightly, containing perhaps some sort of sex tool? We don’t see what is in the box, but the prostitute sees it and, disgusted, loudly disagrees. Yet, a bit later, Severine agrees to serve that customer. We never find out what was in the box, what is it that Severine agreed to do. Bunuel was later asked that question a lot, and he always stayed enigmatic. Perhaps because he didn’t know what it is either? This way or the other, the scene with the box sublimes a lot of Bunuel’s storytelling: by not telling us what’s in the box, Bunuel keeps us asking ourselves; He carves that scene into our brain; What we imagine was in the box, might be much more terrible than anything that Bunuel might’ve come up with. Forty years after making of this movie, anything that he might’ve explicitly shown might seem mild today. This way, the content remains perpetually terrible. (I can’t help mentioning that John Updike used the same effect in “Run Rabbit, run”. What is it that Rabbit’s lover agreed to do, after which all her love for him was gone? I was puzzled over it, until I was reminded of “Belle de jour”).

This example, perhaps, explains Bunuel’s poetics in this movie and in others, better than any possible explanation. Bunuel always leave a lot unsaid and unexplained. Why? Read previous paragraph for an answer. But it is what lends his realistic movies dream-like quality, and what lends this movie in particular, erotic aura, even though nothing on it’s surface does.

Then, a plot comes, with a customer that falls in love with Severine. This dangerous man, neurotic gangster (Pierre Clementi) of some sort, thinks that he is hinted by Severine that her husband is the only obstacle of their happines, so he puts it to execution by shooting her husband in the middle of the street, after which he is chased by police and shot dead in place. We don’t see any of this, we see Severine hearing shots from inside the house, then a sight she sees through the window – a moment too late – and we hear the rest from the report of a policeman. That’s it, Bunuel decides not to take action and shooting an opportunity to steal the movie; We’ll notice that he didn’t allow the love melodrama to do the same minutes earlier: For him, they’re just plot devices, and he doesn’t stay on them long enough to make a visual firework (which, no doubt, some other directors would do despite the fact that it might ruin the movie).

What follows is one of the most intensive finale’s I’ve seen – told without any obvious intensity:

Pierre is alive but stuck to the wheelchair, unable to speak or move, but able to hear and to grasp things happening around him. The person he must rely on to take care of him is his betrayer, Severine. His friend Henri (Michel Piccoli) enters the room to tell him the truth about Severine’s day job. Severine doesn’t stay in the room for this, and Bunuel decides to rather show her despair, than the scene of Henri’s revelation. But as she re-enters the room, we are surprised along with her: Pierre is up from the chair, talking and walking again. He seems to be in a very good mood.

To which Severine hears clomping of the horse feet, approaches the window, and sees the horse carriage, the same one from the beginning, thus rounding up this film’s circular structure. We can see that the sequence with which the film started is about to begin, and even though the film ends as the carriage approaches, we know that the scene from the beginning is about to begin. We realize that Pierre is not walking, that it is another Severine’s dream; But what was just a masochistic sexual fantasy at the beginning, now is a futile attempt of self-punishment for what she’s done to her husband. Is it possible that the fantasy and the real torture are so close to each other? Is it possible that this is, just maybe, what Severine wanted all along? That the real-life materialization of whipping from the dream, nursing an immovable husband, the psychological torture by his hatred and despise (that she is aware of although he isn’t even able to express, expect with his eyes), is another sort of masochistic enjoyment for Severine? Or is it just a turn as her fantasies come to hound her? Read this end as you will too, it is amazing in any case.

Bunuel’s “Virdiana” won Palme’D’Ore in Cannes. “Discrete charm” won Oscar for the best foreign movie. His first phase of work is among the most influential in cinema history; Each of his 60ies and 70ies movies is considered a masterpiece on it’s own; He arose controversy in 1930 with his banned “L’Age D’Or”; 61 year later, he caused controversy again, with “Viridiana”, banned by Franco’s government in his homeland. 61 is probably the oldest age anyone has ever been controversial at. Some consider “Belle de jour” his best movie; Some consider others; They’re both right.


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