Friday, March 25, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #9 - Belle de Jour (1967, dir. Luis Buñuel)

By this point in his career, Luis Buñuel had earned the license to range far and wide in his films and basically do whatever he wanted. So it's interesting that this film - adapted by Buñuel and co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrire from a novel I have not read - is so relatively straightforward (relative to his other films, that is). It came right on the heels of the eccentric short Simon of the Desert and precedes the oddball, picaresque tour of heresies in The Milky Way and so could very easily have been one of his films where the plot is merely an excuse to string a group of his obsessive fantasies over. But it actually - despite sometimes unheralded dreams and fantasies - falls into a relatively simple story pattern.
Séverine (played with brilliant understatement by a beautiful and young Catherine Deneuve) is a woman married to a handsome young doctor. She's frigid and unable to give him any real emotional or physical warmth, despite constant reassurances that she will do so soon. It's slowly revealed in flashbacks (that are not announced as such) that she may have been sexually abused as a child and that this is likely the source of her frigidity and also her fantasies of sexual debasement. It's also what piques her curiosity when she learns that an acquaintance - an upper class woman like Séverine - is prostituting herself during the day for a high-class madame. Séverine goes to meet another madame, Madame Anais, and in a heartbeat is christened Belle de Jour for her new day job, where she surprisingly finds herself able to express herself emotionally and sexually in a way she can't with her husband. This of course leads directly to emotional entanglements and complications she wasn’t expecting – unable to lead a double life when her fantasy life begins to cross over into her real life, she finds it’s not as easy to simply withdraw from the lifestyle as she thought.
Buñuel plays out this scenario more or less deadpan – things that seem like his old surrealist jokes turn out to have direct significance on the events that unfold, and what at first appears to be his absurdist sense of humor at play proves to be just another layer of the story he and Carriere have constructed. Also working toward the total effect of the film is Sacha Vierny’s evenly lit and unadorned cinematography. Unlike many film masters, Buñuel is not known for his camerawork – when he can make it simple, he does – and the Vierny adapts well to this cool style. The last piece of the puzzle – well, the last one I’m going to mention anyway, to tell you everything about the film would ruin the delight of simply watching a master filmmaker at work – is a nod to the performances – not just Deneuve’s Séverine/Belle, but Jean Sorel as her eternally patient husband, Pierre Clémenti as the dangerous criminal Marcel, and Michel Piccoli and Pierre’s friend Henri Husson, whom Séverine has a long-standing dislike for. All of them hit exactly the right pitch in their performances that keeps the film believable, and keeps in a realistic realm what could easily have turned into a sordid melodrama. This is one of Buñuel’s finest accomplishments – the perfect marriage of his explorations of the surrealist concept of l’amour fou and a drama that can engage anyone.

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