Elegant and perverse, Belle de Jour marks the beginning of director Luis Buñuel’s most challenging and creatively fertile period. By and large, his earlier films had been social satires clothed in the shabby couture of B-picture melodramas that used a soupcon of surrealism to enhance their air of imponderability. The full-blown surrealist assaults of his late period, along the lines of The Phantom of Liberty, would abandon linearity and even causality altogether, the better to disorient and disturb viewer expectations. At bottom, Belle de Jour delivers a straightforward narrative, complicated and rendered insidiously ambiguous through the irruptions of its title character’s unconscious imagination.
Misdirection is nothing new in Buñuel’s cinema. Él, one of the great films from his Mexican period, opens with a Maundy Thursday liturgical service that cheekily conflates sacramental foot washing and unbridled fetishism. But from its opening scene, Belle de Jour introduces something different, a kind of epistemological uncertainty factor. Under the credits, Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) and her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) enjoy an open-air carriage ride, their love talk as sappy as the autumnal foliage that surrounds them, until Pierre abruptly halts the carriage and orders Séverine to get down. She’s then dragged through the underbrush, trussed up, disrobed, and whipped by two brutish footmen, who are finally permitted to have their way with her. As she begins to enjoy her degradation, Pierre’s off-screen voice intrudes, and the scene abruptly shifts to an upper-middle class bedroom, complete with twin beds separated by a nightstand, a setup straight out of a chaste Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedy. What’s past has been fantasia, a product of Séverine’s marital discontent. Distant physically and emotionally, Pierre is more hapless obstacle than helpmeet.
When Séverine hears the news that an acquaintance is practicing the world’s oldest profession, she’s fascinated rather than disgusted. Buñuel uses Deneuve’s icy, impassive expression to great effect throughout. As her friend Renée (Macha Méril) fills her in on all the saucy details, Séverine’s face goes vacant, until she visibly snaps herself out from under the spell. With that same sort of hypnagogic blankness, she makes her way to the address of one of these “establishments,” given to her by louche friend Henri Husson (Buñuel regular Michel Piccoli). Compulsion is key here; just as Séverine feels compelled to cast herself out of bourgeois complacency, she must be compelled into action, first by brothel owner Madame Anaïs (Geneviève Page), then by her first customer, through “some of the rough stuff.”
To a lesser extent than Joseph Kessel’s source novel, Buñuel suggests an etiology for Séverine’s masochism in a briefly interpolated flashback to a moment of childhood abuse, and then complicates the explanation with a moment not in the book, wherein Séverine refuses to take the Eucharist. The obvious reading, that Séverine feels unclean and thus unworthy, certainly applies; nevertheless, it could equally be argued that this awakening of sexuality supplies Séverine with access to rebellious instincts she might otherwise lack. On another level, it’s also evident that Buñuel is toying with pat Freudian rationalizations, less interested in clearing away the thickets and brambles of unconscious imagery than in exploring and exploiting them for the purposes of critical social commentary.
Séverine’s experiences in the brothel run the gamut from the amusing (famous gynecologist looking to act out a mistress servant scenario, always in control even when trying to hand it over) to the indeterminable (large “Asian” businessman with his buzzing sexual aid in a box), the latter a source of perplexity ever since. When asked for clarification as to the box’s contents, Buñuel would evasively (and quite rightly) respond, “Whatever you want there to be.” The most notorious episode concerns a necrophiliac Duke (Georges Marchal) who recruits Séverine to substitute for his dead daughter in a mock memorial service. Originally, this incident would have been linked to the Eucharist denial scene via images of a requiem mass celebrated under one of Matthias Grünewald’s grisly crucifixion paintings, but this was deemed potentially controversial, and duly excised. As it stands, the vision of a naked Deneuve, draped in gauzy black, lying in a coffin suggests an episode in The Phantom of Liberty, with its striking images of a woman’s long blond hair trailing out of a closed casket.
The metal-toothed gangster Marcel (Pierre Clémenti) seems at first blush to offer Séverine an entirely different model of masculinity than Pierre: brutish, impulsive, demanding—in other words, tailor-made to fit her fantasy life. That is, he would be, were he not also prone to the correlative traits of jealousy and possessiveness that provoke him to attempt Pierre’s assassination. It’s in these scenes that the melodramatic filler really stands out; all Buñuel can do to thwart this tendency is toss in a couple of gags aimed at Godard’s Breathless, and take a time out for Francisco Rabal to sing a flamenco number.
The final scene signals its indeterminacy through strictly visual means: a superimposition that incongruously welds fall foliage and an establishing shot of Séverine and Pierre’s apartment building. Belle de Jour presents its alternate endings simultaneously, a synthesis of antithetical reactions. In one scenario, Pierre weeps behind his dark glasses, claw-like hands convulsing in his lap; in the other, he rises up out his wheelchair, and he and Séverine toast their newfound happiness together. Reality and imagination are ineluctably fused. Tinkling cowbells, a leitmotif in Séverine’s imagination, resound. In the film’s final shot, the open carriage from the opening scene passes along a wooded path, as though underneath their apartment window.
Quite simply, there’s no comparison between Criterion’s crisp, colorful Blu-ray transfer and Miramax’s 2002 non-anamorphic DVD. (Admittedly, I haven’t seen Studio Canal’s 2009 Blu-ray edition.) Colors are reproduced with strong saturation levels, in particular the autumnal browns, yellows, and reds of the outdoor scenes, as well as Yves Saint Laurent’s tony ensembles for Catherine Deneuve. Grain levels have been judiciously maintained. As for artifacts, there’s a hair noticeable on the right side of the frame from time to time, but it’s hardly a serious distraction. The lossless mono track provides ample range and fullness for the dialogue and especially the all-important sound effects like cowbells, whip cracks, and gunshots that punctuate Séverine’s fantasies.
Michael Wood, author of a BFI Film Classics monograph on Belle de Jour, delivers an academic yet compelling commentary track. Wood explores in ample detail the usual suspects: the film’s writing, production, and reception. Avoiding dead air, Wood fills the gaps by reading extracts from Joseph Kessel’s novel, pointing out the changes Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière made along the way. Most significant: the addition of Séverine’s dream life, nowhere to be found in the original, and alterations to the book’s clear-cut, punitive ending, in which Séverine confesses her misdeeds to Pierre of her own accord, after which he refuses to ever speak to her again.
"That Obscure Source of Desire" is a 20-minute documentary created for Criterion in 2011 that provides a platform for activist and "sexpert" Susie Bright and UC Berkeley professor Linda Williams, author of Figures of Desire, a landmark book on surrealist filmmaking, to incisively and articulately limn the sexual politics evident in Belle de Jour, Séverine’s psychosexual yearnings and limitations, and the influence of the surrealist movement on Buñuel in general and Belle de Jour in particular.
An 11-minute interview with Carrière filmed in 2011 delves into researching the film by visiting high-end brothels, basing Séverine’s fantasies on interviews with "actual" women, how Jacques Lacan used Belle de Jour in his seminars to illustrate feminine masochism, and finally the film’s reception. Belle de Jour was Buñuel’s most commercially successful film, although both he and Carrière attributed its popularity to all the wrong reasons (i.e. the erotic content), but at least initially was not exactly a hit with Carrière’s director friends like François Truffaut and Volker Schlöndorff, who apparently lamented the loss of the "Romanesque" and "cruel" Buñuel of Viridiana.
A truncated segment from the French television show Cinema contains on-set interviews with Carrière and Deneuve. Carrière discusses Buñuel’s working methods in some detail: his disciplined writing schedule, coming up with the new ending, making changes in the script throughout the production schedule. Deneuve analyzes her character, mentions being "in awe" of Buñuel, and relates how the director forbade actors to sit in on dailies. Three separate trailers offer a miniature study in marketing. The original French and English play up the erotica content, fluffed out in quasi-literary, suitably highfalutin lingo. Miramax’s re-release trailer does likewise, while also throwing in palaver about the film’s award-winning pedigree, all backed by an insufferable Chill to the Chant soundtrack. Finally, the lavishly illustrated booklet contains an insightful essay from critic Melissa Anderson and, per usual for Buñuel on Criterion, a relevant extract from Objects of Desire, an indispensible film-by-film, book-length interview first published in English in 1992.
Part case history, past surrealist prank, Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour gets a stunning new Blu-ray transfer, bolstered with the usual treasure trove of extras, from the Criterion Collection.