Belle de Jour
The Criterion Collection
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The porcelain perfection of Catherine Deneuve (Repulsion) hides a cracked interior in the actress’s most iconic role: Séverine, a chilly Paris housewife by night, a bordello prostitute by day. This surreal and erotic late-sixties daydream from provocateur for the ages Luis Buñuel (Viridiana) is an examination of desire and fetishistic pleasure (its characters’ and its viewers’), as well as a gently absurdist take on contemporary social mores and class divisions. Fantasy and reality commingle in this burst of cinematic transgression, which was one of Buñuel’s biggest hits.
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The screenplay is also quite amusing at times, and I think this further indicates Bunuel's satirical intent. Severine's early fantasies are really classic schoolgirl daydreams (well, OK, this schoolgirl may have read de Sade) and it's hard not to giggle at the sight of elaborately costumed coachmen whipping our heroine while hubby, striking a Bogart-like pose, lights a cigarette (he does this a lot). There are a number of other such moments. Even Deneuve's succession of stunning Yves St. Laurent outfits can be read as a satire of the typical commercial movie's obsession with surface glamor. The very sheen of Bunuel's imagery takes us further inside the worldview of his protagonist.
I, too, hope this film ultimately gets a better transfer to DVD. In the outdoor scenes, the fading and color shift (green to blue) are especially noticeable. Was there no better print to work from? Please, Criterion, consider restoring this. That's the only reason it gets four stars instead of five. Still worth having, of course!
There is an ongoing reference to cats in this film--we hear them yowling in the background for a few moments in several of Severine's fantasy sequences. The aristocrat who hires Belle to come to his chateau speaks of the "soleil noir" of autumn. The scene he plays out with Belle is a mingling of sex and death, although the details of exactly how his fetish manifests remains vague--the more to spark curiousity in the viewer's imagination. After this encounter, Belle is disposed of by the butler of this man of wealth and taste--she is kicked out of the chateau as if she were a common street whore. Two-thirds of the way though "Belle de Jour" we are introduced to Marcel, a violent criminal and client of Madame Anaïs who becomes obsessed with Belle/Severine. Paradoxically, it is with Marcel that Belle is able to be vulnerable, admitting to him that she is "lost". As opposed to her relationship with Pierre--as Severine--with whom she is loving and affectionate, and yet necessarily secretive. Ultimately, Severine pays the price for playing with the fire that is Marcel. There is a key moment of foreshadowing when Pierre observes an empty wheelchair on the street--he has seen his fate. A highlight of the film is Genevieve Page's portrayal of Madame Anaïs--she is alternately gentle, tough, sweet, fierce, no-nonsense, playful and decent. Of all the characters in this film, hers is the most transparent, and the most likable.
Stephen C. Bird, Author of "Any Resemblance To A Coincidence Is Accidental"