Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Blu-ray Review | "Belle de Jour"

Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967) opens on what will become one of many of its heroine's sadomasochistic fantasies. A horse drawn carriage, accompanied by the incessant and ever louder sound of sleigh bells (a recurring signal that this is all imaginary), brings Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve) and her husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel), to a secluded wooded area, where he forces her to get out of the carriage, ties her to a tree, and orders the carriage drivers to whip and finally rape her.

We realize this has all been just a daydream when Séverine snaps back into her almost laughably chaste reality - her bedroom the very picture of 1950s sitcom piety, with separate twin beds for husband and wife. This strange purity stands stark contrast to the dark eroticism of the opening scene. Séverine's life is nothing like her rich fantasy life - it is prim, sexless, and ultimately boring. She is in many ways the perfect socialite housewife, beautiful and stylish, but completely lacking in verve and excitement - a blank slate on which to project one's most depraved fantasies.

Catherine Deneuve as Séverine Serizy (Belle de jour).
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
Things change for Séverine when she discovers the existence of modern day brothels, and decides to try her hand at being a high class prostitute.  So she visits the home of Madame Anais (Geneviève Page), whose high end brothel plays host to wealthy clients of all stripes. Séverine informs her that she can only work in the afternoons, and absolutely must leave at 5:00 every day, earning her the nickname "Belle de jour." Séverine is frightened at first, scared away by allowing her own fantasies into reality, but soon she becomes Madame Anais' most popular girl. But even as she slowly begins to give in to her deepest desires, she somehow remains distant, almost detached, giving herself over to pleasure but keeping her darkest fantasies at arms length.

As fantasy and reality begin to blur, however, she becomes in danger of losing herself completely. When a mysterious young client comes into her life, a guarded criminal with scars and metal teeth, Séverine's fantasy world threatens to clash with the real one. But those looking for a cautionary tale of sexual excesses should look elsewhere.  Buñuel was notorious for rejecting any kind of symbolic reading of his work, and Belle de Jour is no different. In fact it remains almost frustratingly unreadable, like its heroine. But that's part of its brilliance. Like Séverine, Belle de Jour is a blank canvas for the viewer to project their own fantasies, and any reaction to the film is meant to be more a reflection on the viewer than the film itself.

Catherine Deneuve as Séverine Serizy (Belle de jour).
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
At first glance, Belle de Jour is, in some ways, the quintessential art house film of the 1960s, the kind of erotic foreign film young people would flock to in order to catch a glimpse of something naughty that American films wouldn't dare show. Time may have softened its sexual brazenness, and age may have mellowed  Buñuel's more surrealistic tendencies, but like his best work, it transcends its erotic nature. It never feels as if  Buñuel is exploiting his subject (even though Deneuve would later protest her treatment on set) for dirty thrills. He expertly weaves fantasy and reality in a much more subtle way than in his earlier surrealistic masterworks like Un chien andalou. And by the film's end, Buñuel leaves everything entirely up to the audience. Some would call this a cop out on  Buñuel's part, but perhaps more than any other director,  Buñuel keenly understood the subjective nature of film, and created something that reflected the almost anonymous nature of its lead character. It both defies and invites interpretation, but to try to define it is a madman's folly.

Séverine would go on to become one of Deneuve's most iconic roles, one that would serve as a template for many to come. Her role in Buñuel's take on repressed sexuality would come to define her delicate sensuality off of which she molded a career. In fact, one of the first thing one notices in Criterion's vibrant new blu-ray transfer is how the light plays off her silky blonde hair. The lush technicolor photography pops in all the right places, but it's interesting that how the little details like the sheen of Deneuve's hair can become so important and so intense due to the HD transfer. Blu-ray reveals such details in ways that we've never seen, and allows us to look at films in new ways. In this case, it's Deneuve's classic beauty that seems to radiate off the screen like never before.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Special features include 

  • New high-definition digital restoration (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition). 
  • Audio commentary featuring Michael Wood, author of the BFI Film Classics book Belle de jour 
  • New video piece featuring writer and sexual-politics activist Susie Bright and film scholar Linda Williams 
  • New interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière Segment from the French television program Cinéma, featuring interviews with Carrière and actress Catherine Deneuve 
  • Original and rerelease trailers New English subtitle translation 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Melissa Anderson and a 1970s interview with director Luis Buñuel

BELLE DE JOUR | Directed by Luis Buñuel | Stars Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Geneviève Page, Pierre Clémenti | Rated R | In French w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

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