Belle de Jour – Luis Bunuel – Catherine Deneuve brings her impossibly pristine beauty to the role of Severine, a sexually reserved, quiet and refined bourgeois wife who is drawn into volunteering at a nearby brothel. Her interest in sex as business is sparked by a casual aside, and from then onwards a seemingly insatiable curiosity begins. While remaining conservative, to the point of inertia, in the bedroom of her marriage, Severine conversely pursues the bizarre fantasies of her clients in her own emotionally inscrutable exploration of desire. From an expansively bellied Chinese businessman – who carries with him a mysterious ornamental box (the contents of which are never divulged – but instead the expressions of reaction it inspires are teasingly shown), to a man whose fantasy involves a ritualised re-enactment of death… cue: Severine, passively waiting in a coffin…which begins to shake (implying, without certainty - this being Bunuel - the client’s over enthusiastic voyeuristic ‘enjoyment’ of her cadaverous submission). Throughout the film are various potential dream sequences that, often accompanied by the non-diagetic jingling of bells or sound of mewing cats, seem to constitute Severine’s burgeoning fantasies. All of which seem to involve her own debasement (being covered in mud/captured/whipped) or the notion of bondage; interludes of transgression, each one a momentary mirage that beckons and diverts from the stifled normality of the bourgeoisie.
Despite being able to appreciate the surrealist themes in Bunuel’s perpetual critique of the bourgeois (the rupturing power of desire, fond memories of the Bretonian heydays of l’amour fou, the role of religion, control and power, social expectations, the equal importance lent to dream life alongside waking life…etc etc), I cant help but always feel slightly disappointed in his films, that is, after the uniquely impressive nature of Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or. While it would be ridiculous to maintain that much of the ambition and dogma attached to early surrealism was not naïve and (often) deeply problematic…there is nevertheless sadness in seeing revolutionary energy ‘grow up’.
Although Bunuel continued to make films with surrealist preoccupations throughout his career and, in his brilliantly entertaining autobiography ( My Last Sigh) proudly proclaims to have always been true to his motivations in whatever he filmed – it is not so much the ‘surrealism’ that I miss, but the visual audacity that accompanied the youthful expression of that surrealism. Some may see maturity and control in his later portrayals, where dreams intercut supposed reality but remain measured in their service to narrative. I, on the other hand, wish there were more men flung up to ceilings, defying gravity and menacing expectation; more bleeding eyes and kissing toes; more abrupt Sadean endings and gleeful scalping; more scorpions and ants; more skeletal priests and kicked dogs; more donkeys draped on cumbersome pianos; more eye slicing provocation and more absurdist theatre! Bunuel had remarked on his own adversity to aesthetic frivolity for the sake of cinematic ‘beauty’ – but there was an inane joy in his early surrealist cinema for accident, irreverence and confrontation.
Arguably of course, much of his later films are still confrontational – but, regardless of how controversial Belle de Jour may have once been, it now feels muted, unlike Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, which continue to feel urgent and exciting. I am not berating a departure from surrealism, but instead mourning the more stilted sense of control which, alongside the prevalence of his social critique, seems to neuter the films of their conviction. Leaving one feeling as though each attack against the ‘bourgeois’ system is undercut by the safe and bourgeois style of its filmic presentation. I feel guilty, harsh and grossly misguided in criticising such a leviathan of cinematic genius…but, whether symptomatic of the jaded anaesthesia of a generation over exposed to violent transgression (be it intelligent…or be it The Human Centipede), or simply a result of my undying love for those first two early film explosions…I was left feeling unfulfilled…much like many of the men in his films…always waiting for that elusive, mystified, Aphrodite to excitably comply (to whatever chauvinistic, surreal impulse of libido is plat de jour). Instead, distinctly un-ravished, I feel the viewer is left in the chaste marital bedroom – lusting after the same ineffable thrill Severine is seeking…the same thrill Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or specialised in. 6.8/10
In an appropriate ode to the ‘surrealist Peter Pan syndrome’ (it’s a fairly common affliction in terminally adolescent males…I’ve heard…):
‘I am already twenty-six years old, am I still privileged to take part in this miracle? How long shall I retain this sense of the marvellous suffusing everyday existence? I see it in every man who advances into his own life as though along an always smoother road, who advances into the world’s habits with an increasing ease, who rids himself progressively of the taste and texture of the unwonted, the unthought of. To my great despair, this is what I shall never know.’ – Louis Aragon