Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: Belle de Jour (1967, Luis Bunuel)

(Originally posted on 29 March 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.)

For about ten years, my favorite film of all time has been Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour. I must have seen it fifty times so far, and I always find new ways to enjoy it. For one thing, it’s gotten a whole lot funnier in recent years. As is the case with anything so close to one’s heart, it’s become an important film to me, so important that I once broke up with a girl over it (long story, don’t ask). However, due to its importance to me I’ve always been reluctant to write about it. I love it so much that I take my loving it for granted, and I find that it’s nearly impossible for me to vocalize why.

But I suppose that if I had to list one reason why I love it above all other movies, it’d have to be because of Catherine Deneuve. Gorgeous, talented, classy as hell, and unafraid of seeking out interesting roles rather than coasting on her looks and charisma. Severine, her character in Belle de Jour, is Deneuve’s original embodiment of a role she’d go on to play numerous times — the enigmatic wife who maintains a chilly façade even as her fantasies and schemes bubble just below the surface. To watch Belle de Jour is to watch this character being born, already fully formed.

Before Belle Deneuve specialized in innocent young women. In The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, her character seemed virtuous even after an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and in Repulsion she became the personification of raging virginity, turning on the men who would impose their sexuality on her. Belle de Jour begins the same way, with Severine married to Pierre, a young, handsome doctor. They could be poster children for the bourgeois lifestyle, with their impeccably decorated Parisian apartment and weekend ski vacations. But while there appears to be love between Severine and Pierre, they sleep in their own beds even after a year together, and it’s fairly clear that the marriage has yet to be consummated.

Yet Severine’s fantasies tell a different story altogether. Many of Buñuel’s characters conceal certain perversions from the world, and Severine is no exception. In the opening scene of the film, Severine dreams of a quaint carriage ride with Pierre, only to end up being tied to a tree, whipped and ravished by two coachmen at Pierre’s behest. Pierre is a kind and loving husband in real life, but a guy like him can’t satisfy her fantasies. She doesn’t want to be indulged or cared for; she wants to be dominated and disciplined.

One day, she hears rumors about an old school friend who turned to prostitution to make some extra money. Her husband’s lecherous pal Husson (the great Michel Piccoli) drops the name of a favorite brothel in passing, and the curious Severine ventures there one day to meet the proprietor, one Mme. Anais (Genevieve Page). Anais is professional but genial, and she makes Severine’s first visit feel less like an interview than a social call. Almost without knowing it, Severine agrees to work afternoons for Anais, assuming the name Belle de Jour, but so great is her anxiety over the job that she runs out on her first day of work. When she returns, Mme. Anais becomes stern and puts Severine in her place, saying, “I see you need a firm hand.”

Severine’s first days as Belle de Jour don’t go too well — she shrinks away from her first client, and she has trouble learning the favorite scenario for a submissive regular. Even after she settles into the job, she still seems to maintain an emotional distance, being friendly with her clients but always holding back. It’s much the same when she goes to bed with a large Chinese man. As he prances around the room and jokes in Chinese, she laughs obligingly. She accepts going to bed with him as part of the job, but only to a point — in what is probably the film's most remarked-upon scene, she opens the small wooden box he has brought, studies the contents (unseen by the audience, though we do hear a high-pitched buzzing sound), and shakes her head “no” as she closes the box again.

But the scene that not only sums up best what I love about Belle de Jour but also what makes Deneuve one-of-a-kind comes just after this. We see the Chinese man leave the room, briefly grope the housekeeper’s teenage niece, and walk out the door. Cut to inside the bedroom. Pallas, the housekeeper tiptoes around and tidies up, while Severine lies face down on the bed. Pallas, sensing that Severine needs comforting, kindly states, “that man scares me too. Sometimes, it must be so hard.”

It’s at this point that Bunuel, whose style is usually fairly low-key, suddenly pushes in on Severine’s prone form. As she props herself up on her elbows, she turns around, a look of pure bliss on her face, and says, “what would you know, Pallas?” The camera then holds on Severine’s face a few more seconds, the expression never fading. While she smiles a few times prior to this scene, this is a different kind of smile altogether. It’s clear that at long last, Severine has gotten exactly what she came for: complete sexual satisfaction. The moment lasts but a few seconds, but it speaks volumes.

I find it interesting that this scene takes place roughly halfway through Belle de Jour, since it more or less cuts Severine’s character arc into two distinct parts. In the film’s first half, Severine attempts to satisfy her fantasies, and after her sexual awakening happens, she must learn to reconcile it with both her marriage and her lifestyle away from Mme. Anais’. Everything that happens to Severine after her time with the Chinese client is caused by her newly-discovered sexuality, until the film’s perfect final scene, in which her fantasies and her real life melt together.

Every great star has at least one iconic moment. For Marilyn Monroe, it was the image of her in The Seven Year Itch, her dress flying in the wind of the subway grate. For John Wayne, it’s the final shot of The Searchers, standing in the doorway with the prairie at his back, even as the door closed in front of him. If Catherine Deneuve has had an iconic moment — and she’s certainly star enough to warrant one — I believe it’s that single shot of Severine on the bed, her fantasies finally fulfilled. Of all her great films and performances, this is the one I return to in my mind again and again, and more than anything else it encapsulates why Belle de Jour remains my favorite film.

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