Reviews and notes
Bunuel's cool, elegant version of Joseph Kessel's novel is an amoral comedy of manners. Beautiful, bored and bourgeoise Severine, married to a surgeon, decides to while away her afternoons by working in a high-class whorehouse, where she encounters a variety of characters - a Chinaman with a strangely erotic box, a depraved Duke, and a gangster with gold teeth, with whom she falls in love. Or does she? Allowing us no indication of what is real, what is not, Bunuel constructs both a clear portrait of the bourgeoisie as degenerate, dishonest and directionless, and an unhysterical depiction of Deneuve's inner fantasy life, where she entertains dreams of humiliation galore. For a film about such a potentially sensationalist subject, it's remarkably discreet and chaste.
- Geoff Andrew, Time Out Film Guide.
It is neither a novel of manners nor a seedy piece of morbid titillation. It is first and foremost a poem. Anyone who tries to translate the film into clear prosaic terms, will be completely non-plussed. The deeper meaning of the story was not first carefully worked out by Bunuel, and then transmogrified into a cryptic language and laced with porn to keep the public's interest up; it arises, on the contrary, from the breadth of a theme that obeys the rhythm and inspiration of automatic writing. BELLE DE JOUR
is a kind of kaleidoscope whose changing patterns can only be apprehended in a magical, indefinable way and vary according to the mood and predisposition of the viewer. A chain of events which seems to be real makes another chain of events seem to be part of a dream; then suddenly the tables are turned the second chain becoming real, and the first a mere memory or hallucination.
Past, present, future, memory, imagination, and immediate sensation all dovetail together and sometimes seem to fuse without really doing so. One is reminded of the popular illustrations entitled "Where is the hunter?" (he is lurking in a tangle of foliage), or of Arcimboldi's portraits, where one is quite unable to say whether one perceives simultaneously or successively the fruit, vegetables, fish, and the human face they constitute. Similarly in BELLE DE JOUR
, what seems to be an enigma suddenly becomes clear (and turns what had seemed to be clear into an enigma); and the spectator begins to wonder whether the real enigma may not be himself.
It is well known that the study of the vocabulary of a poem, its grammatical analysis and its semantic explanation do not alone enable one to grasp its marvellous, elusive beauty. In this line by Andre Breton, for instance: "My wife with her sexual organs of sea-weed and old sweets," the subterranean reality that emerges from these words results from an alchemy of words; the lexicological substance that forms the basis of this phrase has undergone a change that lies beyond the bounds of any linguistic science, whether it be structuralist or otherwise. BELLE DE JOUR
, like all Bunuel's films, results from precisely this process. Its sequences form a kinetic architecture in which the signs of fiction are inseparable from the materiality of the radiant presence that informs them. If this presence works its magic on the spectator, the whole film comes across as the revelation of a wonderful truth both for the eyes and the mind; if not, all that is left is decorativeness plus a vague reminder, as far as the plot is concerned, of the second-rate novel by Joseph Kessel that Bunuel used as his point of departure.
The film's centre of gravity lies in the relationship between Severine and her charming young husband, Pierre, who is a surgeon. The opening sequence shows them going up the drive of a chateau in a horse-drawn carriage against the background of russet leaves and autumnal light that accompanies the whole film. The two liveried brutes who are driving the carriage bring their pair of horses to a halt. On Pierre's instructions, they grab Severine, drag her out of the carriage in much the same way as Arcibaldo drags his tailor's dummy towards the pottery kiln, gag her, tie her to a branch, and whip her in front of Pierre, who then walks away indifferently, remarking: "She is all yours." The very next moment, we see Severine in her bedroom with her husband, who asks her: "What are you thinking about?" "About you," she replies. Then she remembers a meeting with the rakish Husson at a skiing resort, where she was fascinated by his glances and his sarcastic pronouncements such as: "One never gets bored in a bar. It's not the same as in church, where one is all alone with one's soul."
When Severine gets back to Paris, Husson's mistress tells her that one of their women friends, who has the reputation of being a paragon of refined upper-class elegance, in fact prostitutes herself. This discovery surprises and intrigues Severine; her imagination is stimulated and for some reason unknown to her she gets the urge to do the same thing. She keeps on thinking about it, and when she gets home commits a series of actes manques
, knocking over a vase of flowers and smashing a bottle of scent by mistake. Now the voluptuous prisoner of her own obsessions, she remembers that when she was a little girl a plumber who had come to her parents' flat to repair some piping had caressed her: when her mother called her, she did not answer, but let him go on.
After casually finding out from her husband what goes on in brothels, she gets Husson to give her the address of a maison de rendezvous
. She decides to pay a visit there. As she goes up the stairs, feeling a mixture of fear and fascination, she remembers her first Holy Communion as a girl of fourteen, when she refused to take the host offered her by the priest. Severine's two childhood memories suggest one of the possible origins of the ambivalence of her adult behaviour. She thirsts for sensual pleasure, but her husband does not satisfy her; so she seeks compensation through her imagination. The refusal of the host may indicate a vague sense of guilt (after being caressed by the plumber, our little Christian feels herself to be unclean) as well as a desire not to accept the yoke of religion. Unsatisfied, traumatised, and determined to experience every kind of sensual enjoyment, she tends towards masochism.
She attempts, without success, to forget her project by going to visit her husband at the hospital, but he is too involved with professional problems to be concerned with those of his wife. So she returns to the brothel, which is run by a certain Madame Anais. As it is decided that she will work only in the afternoons, she is nicknamed Belle de jour (the name of a convolvulus whose flowers only open during the daytime). She is introduced to her first client, Monsieur Adolphe, a lewd, jokey, podgy industrialist. When she gets home that evening after her first "short time", Severine is not quite sure whether to feel disgusted or happy at having taken the plunge. By pretending not to feel very well, she avoids the need to come into contact with Pierre and is able to indulge in the solitary, bittersweet pleasure of her exhilarating secret. She burns her underwear in the fireplace (whether to exorcise her defilement or because she has decided to stop wearing them, one is not quite sure). Then she dreams she is in the Camargue in the midst of a herd of bulls. We are told by Husson that they all have names, like cats. Some of them are called Remorse, and others Expiation. Husson, egged on by her husband, flings handfuls of mud in her face.
For a whole week, she is afraid to return to Madame Anais's establishment. But her desire proves too strong for her, and she decides to go back ...
Anyone with a smattering of knowledge about surrealist theory will be able to appreciate the hidden beauties of BELLE DE JOUR
. The careless spectator might assume Bunuel's talents as a director to be merely those of a rich man's Jean Delannoy; but when observed attentively the film reveals countless overlapping elements, the most important indication of these being incongruous dialogue and a seething sound track. As in L'Age d'Or
, the sleighbells are the harbingers of wild, violent passion. Bunuel is not a film-maker who needs to resort to the sort of pretentious gimmicks that are influenced by Pop Art or the Nouveau Roman in order to be modern. As in the work of Andre Delvaux, another film-maker who is a genuine modern poet in his way of breaking down the barriers between dream and reality in order to inject the reality of the dream into the everyday, and as with such painters as Magritte or Balthus, the figurative style remains apparently traditional in order better to stimulate our blunted sensibilities and reveal the latent essence of the behaviour, the things and the world around us and within us.
Bunuel's full maturity once again lends him a cool self-assurance which is not that of someone aiming merely to shock. He also steers clear of all the conventions of cinematic dream sequences, the cliches
films, and even for that matter the use of Freudian symbolism, which does not however prevent his personal emblematic obsessions from being present all through the film - the shoes, the fire in front of which BELLE DE JOUR
repeats Viridiana's movements, the ropes, and the jumble of strange instruments in the professor's suitcase. He deftly inserts brief memories (the plumber who caresses her, the communion she refuses) or little scenes, such as when Madame Anais comments on the school work of her maid's little girl, which put the whole descriptive fabric of the film in perspective: Bunuel is then able to give free rein to his fondness for collage, humour, preposterous gags, and freaks of chance. Just as, in Viridiana
, the roistering beggars take up the pose of the figures in Da Vinci's Last Supper
, the Angelus here triggers off a reference to Millet's famous painting, and the black veil that shrouds Severine's pearl-white nakedness at the castle comes as a kind of homage to Clovis Trouille. Allusions, visual puns, pastiche, rhetorical dislocation and lyrical purple passages all combine with the classical richness of this love song to take us on a journey into the recesses of a disturbed subconscious and to bring back both the diamond and its matrix.
- Freddy Buache, translated by Peter Graham, The Cinema of Luis Bunuel, Tantivy/Barnes, 1973.
Weblink: Review by Edward Guthman, San Francisco Chronicle, July 21, 1995
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