Sunday, September 14, 2014

Belle de Jour

As a necrophiliac nobleman swoons in ecstasy over Catherine Deneuve veiled in black but otherwise nude and reclining in a coffin, the kinky marquis' servant in another chamber cries out:  "Shall I let out the cats?" (The nobleman responds by asking if the servant is "an idiot.")  In Luis Bunuel's 1967 film, the Spanish surrealist invents perversions that haven't yet been named, hitherto unknown paraphilias lovingly, if elliptically, displayed along with more familiar sado-masochistic practices.  The occasion is the unhappy marriage of Severine, a well-bred 23-year old Parisienne, to her handsome, but professionally distracted, physician-husband.  Deneuve is ice-cold, her hair lavishly sculpted into tight serpentine coils, a variant of the glacial blondes that Hitchcock favored in his films.  Although she has no interest in sex with her husband and repeatedly rejects his embraces, Severine enjoys a rich and varied fantasy-life:  in her imagination, she is stripped and flogged by coachmen, has sex with a man under the table on which her husband is dining, and causes duels and all sorts of other havoc with her remote and chilly beauty.  A sadistic and perverse friend of her husband, indelibly portrayed by the wonderful Michel Piccoli, mentions a local brothel.  Severine is intrigued and goes to the brothel, agreeing, at first reluctantly but, then, with considerable relish, to see the establishment's patrons, but only between 3:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon -- hence, the film's title.  A series of increasingly lurid complications ensues.  Piccoli discovers Severine's secret, although his reaction is completely unexpected:  the old sadist turns out to be a moralist after all and chides Severine for her disloyalty to his friend.  Severine falls head over heels in love with a vicious criminal; the man dresses like a dandy, carries a cane enclosing a stiletto, and has a mouthful of silver teeth -- periodically, he threatens his associates with a dagger or pistol, even his best friend.  The film's ending is famously ambiguous -- either Severine's moonlighting as a whore has inflicted horrible injury on her husband or she has reinvigorated their marriage or, most likely, the whole scenario has been her fantasy from beginning to end.  Bunuel's film is as frigid as its heroine and his most impressive surrealist effect is Deneuve's icy hauteur, her somnambulistic disengagement.  Deneuve's mask-like features are alarmingly beautiful, but immobile and marmoreal; it is impossible to determine what she is thinking or whether she has much of a reaction to the perversion in which she immerses herself -- certainly, she feigns indignation and, even, disgust but these responses seem completely inauthentic.  In one scene, we glimpse her sprawled naked across a bed after an encounter with a particularly horrifying client, a pseudo-sumo wrestler who speaks incomprehensible Japanese and carries a small, ornate box with some sort of buzzing insect or apparatus inside.  The maid commiserates with Severine and observes a small stain of blood on her underclothes.  Severine throws back her lioness' head, tosses her mane, and displays a faint, but distinct, afterglow of rapturous pleasure.  Bunuel eschews anything like explanation or psychology (after all what is psychology but a form of explanation?)  He doesn't need to probe Severine's emotions and motivations because in a real sense all of the exterior action in the movie occurs within her imagination:  there is no interior to Severine because everything in the movie, including her automaton-like indifference, is within her fantasy.  The film is brightly lit.  There's no night and no shadow.  In proper surrealist form, all incidents occur in broad daylight and are clearly, and analytically shown.  The film's subject is a profoundly disheartening one -- that is, the disconnect between love and sexual desire.  Severine loves her husband, at least, apparently, but her desire is elsewhere.  The d├ęcor and mise-en-scene suggest that this is a pathology of the bourgeois society in which Severine lives although Bunuel is uninterested in etiology and the sample of human behavior that he explores is too narrow to generalize.  The film is surprisingly and cheerfully perverse, completely amoral, but, also, schematic, scientifically dispassionate, and completely without any trace of human emotion, a cold mechanism abstracted from the mess of ordinary life -- in a sequence in which Severine is defiled by having shovelfuls of mud thrown at her, the filth spattering her is ebony, ink-dark, and its effect, blackening her pale alabaster complexion, is almost wholly abstract, a pictorial effect relying upon contrasts between white and jet-black.  One would think that mud would impart an earthier, warmer quality to the film, but it doesn't because this is imaginary mud thrown on an imaginary figure.  Bunuel's effects are precisely calculated but the film isn't shocking because it is so classically analytical.  This movie has always left me cold -- exactly Bunuel's intent.  In the final shot, we hear tinkling bells, the sound-cue for Severine's fantasies (it's the noise the coach and its cruel coachmen make) but, also, the caterwauling of cats.  At last, the cats have been set free. 

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