How Bunuel Could Rewrite “Belle de Jour” For Modern Audiences

Dear CF,

I watched “Belle de Jour” (Bunuel’s 1967 film starring Catherine Deneuve) last night for the first time. It’s badly dated. I haven’t encountered that problem before—part of the pleasure of an old film is experimentally wrenching your psyche into the perspective that made the  movie and its attempted project possible. Here, though, the exercise defeats me. The movie depends on Freudian approaches to repressed sexuality that no longer titillate or shock—they’re structures so embedded in our contemporary narrative of female sexuality that shows like Desperate Housewives tacitly assume them.

It’s pretty clear that the auteur of Un Chien Andalou—which I need to watch, but which I know for its iconic eye-slicing and surrealism—is partly interested in scandalizing the bourgeois sensibilities of the viewing public (and perhaps in lampooning the banality of a housewife’s sexual fantasies), but the results are, if not vanilla, then butter pecan. The initial discomfort of the protagonist’s experiment in prostitution (her first john gets a little rough with her) gives way to work in a safe and vaguely glamorous brothel (complete with a classy, rational, female pimp who steals every scene) that, far from being degrading, is civilized, congenial, and often comedic. Much of what happens in Anais’ apartment is farcical, although Mr. Millicent is convinced—and has mostly convinced me—that the encounter with the Asian man is supposed to read as extremely degrading.

The farce would be delightful if the movie took pleasure in its comedy, which it usually doesn’t, focused as it is on the protagonist’s psychodrama. Deneuve’s Severine is icy and inexpressive in a glassy, uncompelling sort of way. Picture Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in The Royal Tannenbaums, only less self-possessed and  interesting. Paltrow’s character wore her disaffection better, but is a useful model for how we’re supposed to understand Severine, who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Heidi Montag. It struck me, as I watched, that this is another way in which the modern viewer is inured to Bunuel’s experiments  in Belle de Jour. Severine should track as aristocratic and elegant. Husson lusts after her because of her “virtue,” but also because she is half of a smart Parisian couple. She is expensive. And her complex, such as it is, is that she gets off on the whiteness of her skin and status and the secret mud that’s slung at it.

Sadly for the modern viewer, invited to be complicit in this delectable marring of the pure, the purity (such as it is) doesn’t register—we can’t have the aesthetic experience Bunuel planned for us. More on this in a minute.

First I want to talk about Severine’s fantasies, which are the focus of the movie and which deserve a little time. I want to focus on them because her visual appearance is hugely important to how those fantasies play out. Her sexual imagination, as the movie configures it, is 100% visual, not sensual. The fantasies—particularly the first and most violent one—actually focus not on her own sensations but on the spectacle of herself. She’s always visually present in her dreams (which is weird, and unacknowledged as weird), and what turns her on is primarily color: reds and whites and browns, the visuals of her humiliated self.

It’s important that she doesn’t bleed in the initial sequence (admirable restraint on Bunuel’s part—the viewer is tricked into wanting the spectacle of bright blood on white skin against the bleakness of the trees and woods). It’s important, too, that in the last fantasy, before her husband’s maiming, she has blood on her face. (I don’t know whether we’re supposed to read this as a growing appetite for sadomasochism or an acknowledgment of the dangers of her practice.)

By the end of the movie the stagecoach she and her husband started the film in reappears, this time empty. She isn’t in the carriage anymore—she’s inside her house, and she’s visually unimportant. Given that the movie started inside one of her fantasies, and focused on the redness of her wardrobe, it’s worth considering where the frame breaks off. What does this shift mean? Do we end on another of her episodic fantasies, properly domesticated, or have we been inside a mega-fantasy all along?

I vote for the latter. This is one of the very few stories that would actually be better if it ended with that bete noire of creative writing workshops the world over: “And then she woke up!” It would save the film from the sin it’s trying desperately to avoid: a conventional ending. And it’s there: the unkindest reading would say Severine  gets punished and put in her place by the end.  She’s a wife, and a bad wife, and a bad, insatiably lustful wife who will never be sexually fulfilled. What better hell? What grimmer cautionary tale?

If it’s all a dream, there’s more latitude and more interest. Her punishment at the end is still an unblooded one—her suffering isn’t physically felt, despite the emphasis on the body—and in that sense it can either be read as the ultimate fulfillment of her masochistic cravings, which are meant (I think) to be understood as unblooded and cowardly. Some critics suggest that she’s revealed at the end, when things get messy, to be merely bourgeois, retreating from the dangers of her position as soon as her reality is threatened. It could telegraph a development in her own psyche, a move away from spectacle and toward some other mode of experience. More interestingly, it would suggest that the entire film, an expressly visual medium, has been a transcript of her imaginative journey, the corollary being that her experience and ours has been identical. To which I say: interesting!

But, given that her appearance is all-important, and to a large extent the engine that fuels Severine’s erotic investment in her own degradation, I want to return to my earlier point: we have to talk about her looks. Everything about Severine’s appearance, from her hairstyle to her makeup to the shade of blonde to the shiny plastic trenchcoat—everything, in other words, that should register (according to the film’s terms) as rarefied exclusivity and “virtue”—is Heidi Montag’s idea of classy.

However ethereal Severine must have been in her time, now hers is an available, reproducible, generic beauty that’s luxurious in the sense that Montag is luxurious—monetarily expensive, but the easily manufactured product of plastic surgeons and expensive stripperwear, and therefore  tasteless and (in the classist, Frenchest way) cheap. Deneuve’s few moments of animation (as when, for example, she nuzzles up to the Asian man, smiling and kissing him) should read as shocking breakthroughs; instead—and I suspect this is because of how the accidents of her character read now—they feel tired and professional, no more free than anything else she does. Bunuel may have thought a blonde woman doing that to a fat Asian man was an innovation in sadomasochism, but then, he hadn’t been trained to the surrealist, grotesque horror that is  Bunnies fondling Hugh Hefner as normal.

We’re not shocked by beautiful women servicing ugly, repulsive men, so the visual mechanics of Severine’s psychodrama fail. These days, Google will run ads for men looking for “sugar babies” without blinking a surrealistically sliced eye. It has, however, labeled ads for dating services for older women searching for younger men “pornographic,” If Bunuel were to remake Belle de Jour now, he would need  to reverse the roles—have a young, handsome, happily married man start servicing fat older women.  That might shock us.

Fondly,

M

7 Responses to How Bunuel Could Rewrite “Belle de Jour” For Modern Audiences

  1. George Ruskin says:

    Interesting take on BELLE DU JOUR. I agree it’s not one of Bunuel’s films that holds up best. Much better are VIRIDIANA, THE MILKY WAY, THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, and others (including of course those first two exercises in pure surrealism). There are just a couple of points I take issue with is.

    “She’s always visually present in her dreams (which is weird, and unacknowledged as weird)”. This comment strikes me as naive. Characters are always visually present in their dreams in films, including in films in which all of the action is a subjective dream experience. It’s merely a convention of cinema, bypassing which is usually deeply awkward and ineffective (I’m convinced I’ve seen it done, but can’t think of specific examples). In other words, in the context of film it’s not “weird” at all and there’s no reason to acknowledge it as such.

    I also can’t agree that the film would be improved by having the action explicitly revealed to be “all a dream/fantasy”; that device, in my view, is almost never acceptable unless it’s merely suggested or revealed early so as not to play as a “revelation”. I think it’s enough that the the film is so thoroughly concerned with the theme of fantasy that one can easily justify reading the whole of it as one.

    The literalness of such a “reveal” would run counter to and even cheapen Bunuel’s aesthetic, which blurs distinctions between reality and dream, subjective and objective, in much more subtle and complex ways.

  2. George Ruskin says:

    Sorry about the typo in the last sentence of the first paragraph. That “is” at the end shouldn’t be there.

    I would also like to add that I think you are hinting at a valid point about her appearance in her dreams: that we never have the sense of inhabiting her point of view, making her more of an object than a subject even within what is supposedly her own consciousness.

  3. Millicent says:

    Hi George,

    “we never have the sense of inhabiting her point of view, making her more of an object than a subject even within what is supposedly her own consciousness.”

    This is really what I was getting at. My objection to the way Bunuel blurs the distinctions between reality and dream in this particular film is that the weight of the end twist depends on whether or not the event is REAL. The husband’s maiming is a departure from earlier (and pretty clearly demarcated) dream sequences, since it depends for its effect not on visual shock (like the opening sequence, or the eye slicing in Un Chien) but on *plot*. It’s a conventional, tragic turn. It does rely on *sonic* shock, I suppose, since the shot could arguably tie into other aural “auras” like the meowing cat. Still, the shot makes too much narrative sense to function as pure surrealism, and the movie is so interested in visual spectacle that it’s difficult to parse the status of the only major event that happens offscreen.

    This could read as a delightful confusion of dream and reality were the stakes not so conventionally moral. Read straight, the movie is a simple cautionary tale for lustful housewives. It even functions as punishment on a psychic level: Severine gets psychically but not physically flagellated. It’s clear Bunuel is doing more than this—it’s possible the film is a big cosmic joke on the audience, who are invited to read it straight and miss the deeper subversion.

    The reason I’d accept (and maybe even defend) the “and then she woke up” reading—though not an explicit reveal, which would be boring—is that I like the idea of double-consciousness that implies. Severine’s subjectivity is so persistently withheld from us, even when we’re privy to her dreams, that it would be wickedly satisfying to find out we’d been inside it all along.

    I don’t know that the facts bear out my reading, but I wish they did.

    What did you think about the scene with the man who asked her to impersonate his dead daughter? That scene continues to perplex me—as far as clear boundaries between dream and reality goes, it’s the only truly ambiguous one. It’s close to the silly aristocratic overtones in the opening sequence, the aural triggers are there, and it’s the only instance where her prostitution escapes the carefully policed confines of the brothel.

    How the film delimits space is important, so the fact that Severine’s fantasies mostly take place outdoors and that this encounter begins outside suggests that it’s a dream. But the masochistic payoff in that instance doesn’t include her being touched at all… which puzzles. In fact, it seems to come when the butler throws her out of the house. I’m not sure how it relates to other parts of the film where her attempts to compartmentalize erotic and domestic realities fail. Any thoughts?

  4. George Ruskin says:

    The film is not fresh enough in my mind to comment on specific scenes, but I do think one could argue that the conventional morality of which you speak is the character’s and not Bunuel’s. She is punishing herself; it’s not that Bunuel is suggesting it’s what she deserves. A psychoanalytic reading of the film as symbolic of the filmmaker’s own psychic tensions is not all that farfetched: he reveals in his autobiography that it wasn’t until quite late in late that he was able to fantasize freely without guilt.

    I think the film is a dream — the question is, whose? Bunuel’s, Severine’s, or the audience’s? There’s a great moment in DISCREET CHARM in which one character (I don’t recall his name; call him Jacques) has a series of experiences and then wakes up, and then later another character wakes up and says, “I dreamt that Jacques dreamt…” etc.

  5. Millicent says:

    So George, I’m adding Viridiana, The Milky Way and Discreet Charm to my Netflix list. Thanks for the recommendations!

    “he reveals in his autobiography that it wasn’t until quite late in late that he was able to fantasize freely without guilt. I think the film is a dream — the question is, whose? Bunuel’s, Severine’s, or the audience’s?” Yes! Exactly. To present a dream without a dreamer is a bizarre and interestingly pretzel-making inversion of psychoanalysis. Without the subject, you can’t clutch at the source of story and the conditions that produced it, and even the hints of childhood sexuality/molestation—such tempting little Freudian tidbits—flummox a psychoanalytic process when the (very real) possibility arises that it isn’t Severine’s psyche at all that we’re inhabiting. Which is a little maddening.

    Interesting that he explicitly makes the “and then he woke up” move in Discreet Charm, and twice at that. Nested frames with different dreamers. Very “Circular Ruins” of him. Hm. Much to chew over here.

  6. George Ruskin says:

    Even though it’s less renowned, in some ways I prefer THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY to DISCREET CHARM — though I do love both.

    “Dreams without a dreamer” — where have I heard that phrase?

    I think it’s appropriate to feel flummoxed. When he and Dali made “Un Chien Andalou” their intent was to construct a narrative that defied any possible interpretation (perhaps proving that’s impossible). Although he moved away from such pure surrealism, I always keep that in mind when viewing his later films as well, because that impulse to confound interpretation I believe lurks discreetly behind many of them.

    Borges is an interesting comparison because he’s so deeply logical, whereas Bunuel is intuitive and non-intellectual in his approach. Bunuel once said “I don’t have ideas; I have instincts.” Borges, by contrast, is an idea man through and through. “August 25, 1983″ is another wonderful dream story of his.

    *

    There’s one other thing I’d like to recommend. It’s a film called PROVIDENCE, directed by Alain Resnais and written by the British playwright David Mercer, who was heavily Marxist and psychoanalytic (in more of an existential, R.D. Laing way than strictly Freudian) in his approach, though by the time he wrote this film the Marxist angle had ceased to be terribly important. It deals fascinatingly with dreams and interior landscapes. It’s extremely difficult to find, but if you’re able to, I think you’d appreciate it very much.

  7. George Ruskin says:

    I really like your blog, by the way. I’ll come back to it.

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