Saturday, September 4, 2010

#178 Belle de Jour (1967)


Director: Luis Buñuel

Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Geneviéve Page, Pierre Clémenti, Francoise Fabian

Séverine Serizy (Deneuve) is a beautiful, elegant upperclass Parisian housewife who is happily married to a handsome surgeon named Pierre (Sorel). The problem, however, (and there always is some problem, isn't there?) is that she cannot bring herself to be intimate with him. They sleep in separate beds even after a year of being married--Séverine is cold, but not cruel.

In her mind, she drifts off into violent, fetishtic sexual fantasies to satisfy her needs and urges, and the unknowing, patient Pierre just politely kisses her and awaits the day he will get to be intimate with his wife. Séverine's fantasies, however, become real when she begins to gain an interest in the happenings of the local brothels after she hears a woman that she knows has begun working for one.

Séverine begins slipping away to the house of Madame Anais to work as a prostitute under the name Belle de Jour (Beautiful Day), named for the fact that she only works afternoons while her husband is at his job. She begins to feel satisfaction, and her confidence blossoms. She begins to see and understand Pierre's "man-urges" after dealing with bizarre and sexually aggressive clientele. It's only after one of her clients begins to step into her married life that things start getting messy.

One of the great things about this film is the way we get to wander in and out of surreal interludes into Séverine's fantasies without warning or explanation. We hear cats meowing in the distance or see the child version of Séverine moving throughout scenes where the main character experiences these day dreams. The transitions are smooth, but easy to follow, and they enlighten a lot of what Séverine is going through in her sexually-complicated emotional sphere--things that would be hard to explain on screen other than through dialogue.

I think Belle de Jour stands as a bit of a cultural landmark as well in the realm of erotic film-making. Despite the extremely steamy subject matter, the director didn't need to show nudity OR sex to make us understand how much of it was actually happening. Half of the titillation, of course, is experienced through suggestion or what is left unsaid. By letting the viewer fill in the gaps, we are able to experience the eroticism while still getting a sense of the subversive nature of the plot.

An amazingly interesting theory about this subtle surrealist masterpiece is... what if the prostitution situation was all just fantasy and day dream as well? What if it was another erotic vision of Séverine's, complete with her aggressive, I'd-die-for-you client lover? Without giving too much of the film away, I'd also think that the final state of Pierre gives support to this interesting theory-- in the end, he is stripped of the ability to act on his 'man-urges', isnt' he? While part of me thinks this is an interesting final place for him to end up in a Séverine fantasy (she is able to have her true love but is also free from the pressure of intimacy!), I also think this disproves the same theory! I do, on some level, think that Séverine uses prostitution as a way of understanding her husband and bringing herself closer to him. The two ideas conflict greatly, and so I'd be interested in knowing what other people think about all this.

At any rate, a very interesting and approachable film, even with its somewhat saucy subject matter.

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