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 released a pristine and fully restored original version of the film to BluRay it seems a good time to write a bit about this very important cinematic masterpiece.
If one is to comment on this film by Luis Buñuel he/she must take The Surreal Movement and the era in which this movie was made.
As a Surrealist, Luis Buñuel was not concerned with providing particularly narrative conclusions or logical explanations. As a filmmaker, his focus was on capturing both “reality” and “fantasy” in order to merge the two which creates true Surrealism. Meaning the state of art where the audience might not ever be completely sure where “fantasy” begins or ends and in what place “reality” slips in or out. A quiet discomfort comes with the odd familiarity of Surrealism.
Personally, I think it is safe to state that Luis Buñuel viewed life as surreal.
I believe that he and such Surrealist as Salvador Dali were on completely different planes of thought than most of their fellow established/remembered artists of their era. Though this may not be a fair statement if one considers such artists as Jean Genet, Kenneth Anger, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Raúl Ruiz, Fernando Arrabal or Jan Švankmajer who all tap into the Surrealist filmmaking experience. But if there is any one film artist who come close to this type of thinking in the 21st Century it might most probably be David Lynch. However, even with Lynch and the other artists I’ve mentioned, there is a most definite “vocabulary” at play. Metaphor and hidden meanings run throughout the work of these artists — and even the late Fellini or some works by David Cronenberg and Terry Gilliam flit toward Surrelaist concepts. But, they are not Surrealists in the true sense of the word as I understand it.
And, surreality must be kept in mind when watching Belle de Jour.
Another element that must be remembered when watching a film made in 1966 and released in 1967 is to expect the movie to be dated.
Even by today’s standards, Belle de Jour is way ahead of the cultural taste curve. Though, it is hard to imagine how most viewers responded to this French film when it was first released. The movie was considered controversial, perverse, bordering on pornography and shocking. I should think the average person watching this movie today would not feel it fits into any of those definitions. However, back when the film was released in caused a great deal of confusion within both the circles of film critics and intellectual audiences who championed it.
The challenge of trying to fully understand what the film is saying/showing still continues today. Even still, because of the time it was made, Buñuel’s approach to subject matter is now unintentionally confusing.
Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour bravely explores the mind of a female masochist at a time when the true understanding of such a person was not yet fully formed. In fact, it largely still isn’t. And, in 1967, while the psychiatric community and people were starting to understand the extent of what child abuse can cause later that child’s adult life — there was not 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 fully understood by most. Psychiatry was only just starting to get a firm grasp on this themselves. In the mid to late ’60’s our culture did not yet even have the ability to fully understand or accept the horrors of “shell shock” or PTSD other than for male soldiers who had survived terrible battles in war. Buñuel was charting new territory in a surreal way.
The Surrealist approach was probably his and the 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 must attempt to cleanse the collective pallet and accept that we are glimpsing into a surreal world created close to 50 years ago.
Even still, I can’t help but imagine how the average film audience must have 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 paid to play dead as her client 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. How would this have been viewed in 1967? I have read one source that notes that many men and women who saw the film were not really sure if the john was masturbating or merely shaking in horror and that many misunderstood the horse dung to simply be mud.
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 — a bit like a sexless 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 Buñuel manages to show that Alice was sexually molested as a little girl and stubbornly refused to accept her first reception of Holy Sacrament 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. 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 this 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 client that her Madam discovers that forceis a major if not key part of her sexual appetite. This is something the brothel 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) — ventures into unknown sexual territory, 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 grapples through her reality and fantasies as if in the dark and without control.
At the conclusion of Buñuel’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 endlessly about which scenes are “real” and which are “fantasy”; Did Alice actually work as a prostitute? Did anything we saw actually happen? How to explain the sounds we 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 Buñuel’s intention. The merging of the “real” with the “fantasy” is the “surreal” and the perfect way in 1966 to attempt to explore such a culturally challenging topic as The Female Masochist.
If one requires a 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. As a world culture, we appear to be losing the ability to actually think.
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 Buñuel 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 self-awareness or strength to even recognize her psychological challenges.
Additionally, I often feel ill when I hear or read how the current perspective on the female body is viewed. The women in Belle de Jour are beyond beautiful. Sadly, the cultural collective has changed the definition of beauty in an extreme manner. Media wants us to think that beautiful women are 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 puzzles me, but many do!
What has happened to us that actresses like Angelina Jolie or Kiera Knightley are considered beautiful when it looks like they are in dire need of a sandwich.
Anyway, I regard Belle de Jourof the most important films ever made. And, I’m happy to note that for once, I’m not all alone in my opinion!
If you’ve not seen it — check it out. And, it most certainly should be seen by anyone who has an appreciation for film as art.
Belle de Jour
Luis Bunuel, 1967