Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Belle de Jour

Let’s begin with the box. Not because it’s important—though it is, sort of, kind of, in the proper light and when the mood strikes—but because it remains one of the most beguiling moments in one of Luis Bunuel’s most beguiling films, Belle de Jour. It appears only briefly, when bourgeois-housewife-turned-prostitute Severine (Catherine Deneuve) is shown a buzzing, glowing box by one of her clients. We see only the woman’s reaction, not the contents. Rather than horrified or confused, she responds with simple wonder, approaching it quietly, wide-eyed and serious, like a child encountering a strange, new toy.

Viewers drawn to literal explanations are easily flustered by the presence of such an inscrutable detail, which can best be described as a surrealist MacGuffin. It structures the scene and drives the plot forward by providing something to entice Severine on her sexual journey, but beyond that the meaning is irrelevant. The little mystery of the box allows the larger mysteries of the film—those of Severine’s curious, conflicting desires—to exist. One almost begins to believe that the film could be explained away if only that one little mystery could be explained: everything unknown and unknowable, safely locked away in a little box held by a man who, to our relief, speaks a language none of us understand. 

If only it were that simple. Belle de Jour remains one of Bunuel’s most engaging yet confounding works, effortlessly pleasurable and still somehow unsettling (Bunuel attributed the film’s enormous success not to his own talents, but rather “his marvelous whores”). At times, the film evinces nothing more than a fly-stained pulp erotic novel, scraped off the back shelf of some used bookstore. The very premise—sexually repressed housewife becomes a prostitute during the day while her husband is at work—has very likely been replicated a dozen times over in a less tasteful manner than what we see here. Even the first few clients met by Severine (a candy maker and, no kidding, a gynecologist) sound suspiciously like the beginning of a pornographic joke.

Ever the blasphemer and ever the Catholic, Bunuel’s version of titillation is modestly restrained, relying heavily on fetishistic detail (Deneuve’s calves should get second billing). Severine’s numerous visions of debasement are filmed from a cool distance, which only heightens the erotic charge. Contra to all the good clean kinky fun, the film also flirts with adding a psychological gloss to Severine’s masochistic tendencies by offering two brief glimpses of her childhood: a scene where an older man fondles her, and another where she denies herself the sacrament in church. Already there is a pattern of desire and shame at work here, self-denial and self-flagellation rooted deep in her being. But like most psychological origin stories, it’s far too simplistic to be believed, and the film rushes past it, eyes down, as if almost embarrassed. 

However, everything is elevated—you might even say levitated—by the inimitable Bunuel touch, which erases all boundaries between fantasy and reality. So many of his other films freely break into dreams and surreal interludes with little warning, but few spend so much time focused on the dreams of one individual. Bunuel’s surrealism comes and goes like weather—forever changing, always present. Typically rooted in the director’s own imagination, here it is personalized as an emanation of Severine’s own stormy psyche. We likely spend close to a third of the film in her dream life, and if we’re not in her head we’re in her bed at the brothel, where she spends her afternoons luxuriating in the desires of others or merely lounging in the arms of her gangster lover, Marcel—he of the golden scowl, perpetual slouch and scar from the knife in his back.

At times, Severine bears an uncanny resemblance to Conchita, the literally two-faced (well, two-bodied, really) heroine of Bunuel’s final work, That Obscure Object of Desire. In that film, Conchita is played by two different actresses in order to showcase her capricious moods, alternating between warm tenderness and fiery passion. Severine is similarly divided, living her passions out by day before going home to a fond, but frigid marriage at night. Yet this division should not be taken for mere inconstancy. Much like the later film, it is a sign of feminine individuality, unbowed before the demands of the men who wish to control her. The two halves of Severine define the woman, her repression meaningless without her liberation and vice versa.

This tension comes to a head in a final scene that brings her daytime adventures into conflict with her nocturnal domesticity. Her husband, wheelchair bound and practically a vegetable, cries after being told of his wife’s affairs. But then bells ring from the street—the sound of the carriage that carries Severine through her fantasy world—and her husband springs to his feet. We’re back in the dream world of Severine, but this time it is not her humiliation she envisions, but rather a modest matrimonial clinch (or is that her final humiliation?). They watch the carriage ride away from the window.

There are a number of ways of looking at this. One is to say that her fantasies and reality have a last merged, making her whole and satisfied for the first time. But another possibility exists. She only imagines her unrealistic desires—abject humiliation, violent and painful sex—because what is the point of a realistic fantasy? You dream of what you want, not what you already possess. This final fantasy may be her most perverse, unachievable longing—a simple, loving marriage. When all the barriers have been broken, normality becomes the one taboo remains out of her grasp.

Are the filmmakers punishing Severine for her desire or setting her free? Doubtless, Bunuel has little interest in answering the question, much as he cares not to explain away the contents of the box. Later in life, he remarked upon how often people came to him asking about that buzzing mystery. Undoubtedly, it irritated the old surrealist, all these ridiculous prosaic types who saw the film as some riddle to be solved. Does the picture in a jigsaw puzzle become incomprehensible when you remove one piece? (It’s a bigger question than you think: why do people see what they lack instead of what they have?) When people asked Bunuel what was in the box, he would simply wave them away with a simple answer, “Whatever you want to be there.” No surprise that the answer leaves so many unsatisfied. How many of us truly know what we desire?

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