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Saturday, July 5, 2014
Luis Buñuel | Belle de jour
coach without riders
by Douglas Messerli
Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (screenplay, based on the novel by Joseph Kessel), Luis Buñuel (director) Belle de jour / 1967, USA 1968
Rumor once had it that the producers, Robert and Raymond Hakim, had originally sought through Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour to create a financially successful sex flick. But given the impressive films which the Egyptian brothers had previously produced (including Pépé le Moko, La Bête Humaine, Jour se lève, The Southerner, Casque d’or, and L’Eclisse it seems highly likely that the two would seek out Buñuel to deliver such a “popular” work. Certainly, what they got in Belle de jour is a fascinating film that has been described by some as “kinky,” “obsessive,” and even “sadistic,” but, in fact, is quite chaste. As critic Roger Ebert summarized in his 1999 review, “There is no explicit sex in the movie.” If the director puts us in a seemingly “underground” world of afternoon prostitutes working out of a Paris apartment, whose customers include a jolly Chinese man possessing a small lacquered box which utters an inexplicable noise but whose contents we never see; a gynecologist who performs as a servant with a whip; a violent young gangster, Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), who falls obsessively in love with the title figure, whose nom de plume is Belle je jour (Catherine Deneuve); and a wealthy man who seeks sex with (at least theatrically) the dead—the director spends far more time presenting the afternoon prostitute playing the role of the near-perfect wife, Séverine Serizy, to her handsome, if somewhat ineffectual, surgeon husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel). In the end, it is their relationship, rather than the exotic afternoon encounters of the chic Séverine, that truly matters. In her 1968 review of Belle de jour, Renata Adler describes the film as a comedy.
Apparently as a child—if we are to believe the several flashes of memory and dreams presented throughout the movie—Pierre’s perfect and beautiful spouse has been sexually abused by a family member as a child, and, accordingly sees sex as something forbidden and “dirty.” What excites her about the act is not the gentle, quite passive exhortations of her loving husband, but rather the illicit brutality and violence of the act. While Pierre placidly waits for her to come round to a healthy desire for him, her dreams speak of a world in motion (almost all her fantasies involve a coach) in which her companion, frustrated by her sexual refusals, might grow impatient, even ordering her to be raped by his coachman. At another moment, Pierre and a male friend, inexplicably surrounded by bulls, tie her up to a tree to demean her as throw the animals’ excrement across her body. Locked away in a protective cocoon of privilege and wealth, it is only a matter of time that Séverine’s inner desires will force her to escape. Instead of saintly patience, so the director and co-author imply, Pierre should demand his manly rights!
Obviously, much of this film’s fantasy, suggesting that Séverine’s condition is that of many women, is actually the wishful thinking of misogynistic males (perhaps Buñuel and Carrière included). Much of the film, accordingly—which I recall from watching it when it first was released and saw again yesterday—left me cold, as if I were simply witnessing a series of shallow male preconceptions of what the opposite sex desires, particularly as played out by the Serizy’s “friend,” Henri (Michel Piccoli), who admittedly cheats on his wife, Renée, regularly visiting brothels while attempting, throughout the film, to bed Séverine. For him all women, at heart, “sluts,” desiring the degradation they deserve. Obviously, his wife allows his bizarre relationships. Out of this belief, he even gives Séverine the name and address of the brothel she soon visits, and, after some forceful commands from the lesbian-like Madame Anaïs (Geneviève Page), accepts her employment each day from the hours of 2:00-5:00.
Despite such puerile notions of the female sex, however, I soon discovered myself getting involved with Buñuel’s work simply because of the gradual transformation of Séverine (and, by extension, Deneuve in terms of her acting) as she moves from a frozen goddess to a woman who, like her fellow prostitutes, begins to enjoy herself, at some moments even having what one might describe as “fun.” In the playing out of male fantasies, moreover, Séverine even develops a sense of humor, chuckling at the under-coffin masturbation of one of her fantasy-playing clients. Particularly with her passionate sexual encounters with Marcel, Séverine flourishes, growing suddenly deeper and more profound in her perceptions of life. She even finally joins her own husband in his bed, he finally feeling free to suggest that they should have a child.
As his wife blossoms, however, Pierre regresses, suddenly finding himself inexplicably attracted to a wheel chair. It is only a matter of time, after the jealous Marcel determines to kill Pierre that the husband’s desire to play a handicapped individual— a role in which he and the males of this film have previously cast Séverine — becomes reality. Even though Séverine is warned of Marcel’s intentions, she passively awaits until that event is played out, perhaps in her new somewhat feminist position, something to be desired.
Marcel, indeed, after shooting Pierre, is presented almost as a hero, as he is chased through the streets in a scene that can only remind one of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s violent death in Godard’s Breathless.
Pierre lives, surviving on—in his blind, dumb, and crippled condition—as a kind of signpost, a trophy of a husband, just as Séverine has previously played a trophy of a wife. She seems perfectly at home, for the first time, in the warm plush rooms against which she had previously chafed. The only danger she faces, so it seems, is the sudden reappearance of the brutish Henri, who despite his former assurances, reveals to Séverine that he now intends to tell Pierre of her secret life.
When he leaves, Séverine timidly returns to her post, crocheting a pattern upon the couch. What will be his reaction we—and surely she—can only ask. Without the ability to speak, to see, to move—without the ability to survive without her, what could be his reaction?
Buñuel resolves the tension with another hilarious fantasy wherein suddenly Pierre stands, insisting it’s time for a drink, bounding forward from his wheel chair; he too has been only playacting. His return to life is met joyfully by his wife, who, hearing again the sleigh bells associated with her dreams of coaches, she observes the coach passing below their window— this time, however, without anyone seated upon its bench. Either together they have exited the world of fantasy forever or have permanently entered it to share a new dream-life. Even the director admitted that he did not quite know what to make of this final scene.
Does it truly matter? All we need to know is that, in one way or other, “La Commedia è finita!” At least the comedy between the sexes is finished and the characters must now face the consequences of their lives, which, of course—as an empty coach may symbolize—must include death.
Los Angeles, July 4, 2014