How Bunuel Could Rewrite “Belle de Jour” For Modern Audiences
May 15, 2010 7 Comments
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.