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Belle De Jour

Review by Carrie Gorringe

During his thirty-four years of filmmaking, the Spanish director Luis Bunuel (1900-83) was truly one of the most brilliant -- and controversial. From his Surrealist experimentations with Salvador Dali Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) and L'Age D'Or (The Age of Gold, 1930) to his final film, Cet Obscur Objet du Desir (That Obscure Object of Desire, in 1977,) Bunuel returned repeatedly to his favourite themes: the moral bankruptcy and even degeneracy of bourgeois life and religion, the hypocritical facades that are utilized in an attempt to conceal the bankruptcy and the brutality of totalitarianism disguised in calls for the restoration of "social order." In short, Bunuel was obsessed with the impossibility for individuals of distinguishing between "reality", the ideological constructs around them and their own desires, if any of the above could be defined as separable, or even separate. Yet, in his social critiques, shades of grey, not stark black and white, often prevailed. When Bunuel turned his eyes to examinations of injustice, there was more than a touch of jaundice available for observing the behavior of all of the chosen participants, no matter how downtrodden they might be; in this vein, the most immediate example that comes to mind is Los Olvidados (The Forgotton Ones, 1950), in which Bunuel could be rightfully outraged over a society that allowed a poor boy to be buried in a garbage dump like so much human refuse while simultaneously refusing to portray the poverty-stricken as one-dimensional individuals who suffer nobly (Bunuel undercuts that sort of wishful thinking in one scene by showing a group of poor young boys as they humiliate a crippled man with no legs by stealing his only means of transport). His themes were often delivered in a furiously sardonic tone which, although always thought-provoking and thus at times painfully hilarious, could be intolerable for those with more tender sensibilities. Not surprisingly, Bunuel was a perennial favourite for condemnation by the Catholic Church, which proclaimed that his film, Viridiana (1961), containing a rather vicious parody of the Last Supper, was "an insult to Christianity." Bunuel, who always thanked God that he was an atheist, probably could not have written a better tribute to his own work.

In 1967, Bunuel made Belle de Jour. This film represented a radical departure in style, if not in his beliefs; although the trademark social satire is still present, for this single moment in his career Bunuel chose to diffuse his usually angry explorations of social hypocrisy threatening to erupt into social chaos into a more lyrical format, in which atmosphere and style are paramount.

Belle de Jour is the story of Severine (Catherine Deneuve), the wife of a young doctor who is rapidly rising in his profession to the point where he has neglected both her and their marriage. Already inclined to sadomasochistic fantasies due to some unknown trauma in her past, Severine is increasingly drawn to acting upon her need for degradation. Bored with her life, she works during the afternoons at a brothel which caters to this proclivity, yet she is still the good bourgeois wife who informs her madam that she has to be home by five p.m.(her alias at the brothel is Belle de Jour, a pun on the French euphemism for prostitute, "belle de nuit"). She enjoys this double life until one of her customers, a gangster, becomes so obsessed with her to the point that he is determined to kill her husband. What follows next is a meditation on ambiguity on all levels. Severine is morally torn between living as an upper-class ice maiden and an abandoned fantasy woman. Although Severine is trying to stop her husband's murder, her efforts seem to be somewhat half-hearted, almost as if she is willing to tempt fate.

Thanks to Sacha Vierny's stunning color cinematography, Yves Saint Laurent's couture and her own genes, Deneuve herself looks so beautiful that even she seems unreal (an indication of how beautiful Deneuve is in this film can be found by recalling Grace Kelly in her Hitchcock period, and then multiplying that beauty by a factor of at least one hundred). Finally, the narrative structure is strained by events to the point where the audience cannot be certain whether anything recounted in the course of the film belongs to the realm of the physical or the psychological -- not unlike life itself, at times.

Belle de Jour most definitely belongs to the realm of cinematic classics. It is arguably the most accessible of Bunuel's films and probably the best introduction to his work. Unfortunately, the film has been unavailable for nearly thirty years until the release of this newly-restored print. In keeping with Bunuel's ability to offend, a certain unnamed but wealthy individual was so offended by Belle de Jour that he began buying up every print he could and destroyed each of them in a vain attempt to eliminate the film entirely. Go and see this film, if only for the cinematography or to gaze upon Deneuve; in the current political climate, some ideologue with offended sensibilities could decide to take up where the last censor left off.


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