With each viewing of Luis Bunuel’s classic film, Bell de Jour, the power of the film seems to just get stronger. And, as Criterion has just released a pristine version of the film to BluRay I could hardly restrain myself from camping outside Amoeba Records the night before to secure my copy. As if there were going to be 20 other people clamoring to get a copy that morning. But, that’s me. I had pulled several other DVD’s and my DVD of Belle de Jour to trade in so that I could afford the new Criterion BluRay.
I’ve watched it four times in the last week.
As I blog for myself I am not going to indulge my interest.
To discuss a film like Luis Bunuel (I apologize, I don’t have the appropriate grammatical options to write his name correctly – deal with it) — one must, for a moment, consider The Surreal Movement and the era in which Belle de Jour was filmed.
As a Surrealist, Luis Bunuel was not concerned with providing particularly narrative conclusions or logical explanations to his audience. His focus was on capturing both “reality” and “fantasy” and merging the two to create true Surrealism. A state of art where the viewer or reader might not ever be completely sure where “fantasy” begins or ends and where “reality” slips in or out. A quiet discomfort comes with the odd familiarity of Surrealism. When discussing artists like Luis Bunuel I think it is safe to write that the man probably viewed life as surreal. I imagine that Luis Bunuel actually thought on a different plane than most. If there are any film artists who come close to this in the 21st Century it would probably be David Lynch. However, even with Lynch there is a most definite “vocabulary” at play. Metaphor and hidden meanings run throughout the work of David Lynch — or even the late Fellini. They are not Surrealists in the true sense of the word. Surreality must be kept in mind when watching Belle de Jour.
Another element that must be remembered is that the viewer is watching a film made in 1966 and released in 1967. Even by today’s standards, Belle de Jour is a bit ahead of the cultural taste curve. It is hard for me to imagine how most viewers responded to this French film when it was first released. A film which bravely explores the mind of a female masochist at a time when the true understanding of such a person was not fully formed. In fact, it largely still isn’t. In 1967, I do not think people had a true understanding of the long term damaging aspects of sexual child abuse or the ways in which religion can further a child’s view of the world after having experienced molestation. The unarticulated and unspeakable guilt, horror, pleasure, self-loathing and desire for order and acceptance were not known. Much less the ability for people to understand the horrors of PTSD other than for male soldiers. Bunuel was charting new territory in a surreal way.
The surreal approach was probably his and his film’s saving grace with audiences. The mixing of a bored, wealthy and overly pampered woman’s fantasies with reality probably gave audiences a sense of appropriateness for finding humor and eroticism within the context of the story. With the lens of the 21st Century Culture, one has to sort of cleanse the collective pallet and accept that we are glimpsing into a surreal world created over 45 years ago.
Even still, I can’t help but imagine how middle class men and women responded to seeing French Beauty, Catherine Deneuve, in all her Yves St. Laurent and blond glory being bound, gagged, horse whipped, whoring herself out, being payed to play dead as a john masturbates below the coffin or being pelted with cow shit as her husband and lover both call her every vulgar name in the book. It is a bit startling now in 2012. What would that have been like in 1967?!?!?!
The sheer masochistic desire of the main character is established in the first scene of the film. Without apology or explanation. It is shocking and Alice’s sexual fantasy merges with reality without warning or clue to the audience.
The “story” is simple. An upperclass young married woman is finding her marriage unsatisfying. Her husband, who looks a bit too perfect — like a Ken doll, obviously holds no erotic connection for her. However, it is clear she is in love with him and he with her. She is distant and cold. She is rather “removed” from her own life. Her day is pointless. And, with very clever editing Bunuel manages to show us that Alice was sexually molested as a little girl and then quickly we discover that she refused to accept her first communion — most likely because she did not feel worthy of accepting the Holy Spirit. She had already been stained and tainted. It is clear that she desires a force of eroticism from her husband that is beyond his understanding and Alice is as lost about her own desires as he would be if he knew them.
Alice hears about the existence of underground Parisian brothels where lower class housewives earn extra money. She ventures to explore that world. And, it is in this brothel that she discovers and has her sexual desires fulfilled. Once she finds the courage to enter the brothel she quite literally lets her hair down but it isn’t until her first john and the madam discover that force is a big part of her sexual appetite. Something the madame quickly sees as ideal for some of her clients. She sternly advises Alice that she needs a firm hand.
As Alice (AKA Belle de Jour — she can only work from between 3pm and never later than 5pm) — she ventures into unknown sexual territory where she begins to learn how to assert her power as a woman. However, she is unable to name it or actually understand that she holds any power. She grabbles through her reality and fantasies as if in the dark and without control.
At the conclusion of Bunuel’s movie the audience is given two endings. The two endings are literally interlaced at the beginning by visual and audio editing. Neither ending provides any resolution or clearly defined answer to our heroine’s situation. In fact, one could easily argue for days about what scenes are “reality” and which are “fantasy” — did Alice even actually work as a prostitute? did anything we see actually happen? How to explain the sounds we sometimes hear or the odd lines stated by the characters which feel so out of sync with the situation as it unfolds.
It is pointless to find any logical explanation for Belle de Jour. This is clearly not Luis Bunuel’s intention. The merging of the “real” with the “fantasy” is the “surreal” and the perfect way at the time to attempt to explore such a culturally challenging topic as a female masochist.
If one requires a need or point to art – then my suggestion is to look at Belle de Jour as perfect example of an accomplished artist who desires to make his audience think and contemplate what has been seen. A key desire that our culture seems to be losing at a horrifying pace.
Another curious aspect of Belle de Jour as seen through the early 21st Century lens is the way the collective culture views “beauty” “acting” and “filmmaking” : I’ve heard and read that many feel that Denueve had not yet found her footing as an actress. That is rubbish. She is brilliant in this film and delivers exactly what Bunuel wanted. She presents a vacant void of a woman who only seems to spring to life when punished or enraptured. The character is not intended to be fully formed. Alice is a stunted beauty at the mercy of those around her because she does not have the strength to even recognize her psychological challenges.
In addition I often feel ill when I hear or read current perspective on the female body when this film is viewed. The women in Belle de Jour are beyond beautiful. Sadly, the cultural collective has changed the definition of beauty to extreme manner. Beautiful women are now to be painfully thin with fake boobs and little to no body shape/curve. The French actresses in Belle de jour have curves. They are not “fat” — the very idea that someone would think that Catherine Denueve was fat in 1966 so puzzles me. What has happened to us that someone like Angelina Jolie or Madonna is considered beautiful when it looks like they are in dire need of a sandwich.
Anyway, I regard this as one of the most important films ever made. If you’ve not seen it — check it out. The film still carries an R-rating which is deserved and should most likely not be viewed by anyone under the age of 17/18. But, it most certainly should be seen by anyone who has an appreciation for film as art.
Belle de Jour
Luis Bunuel, 1967