The most curious thing about Luis Buñuel's fairly-curious-anyway Belle de Jour, which Criterion will be releasing tomorrow, is that even the film's ending unfolds with attempted murder, death, crippling, betrayal and despair, it never steps being, or at least feeling like, the odd, coy, erotic, fun movie that it's been pretending to be all along.
"Pretending to be" being the key phrase, though. Buñuel's film, based on a novel by Joseph Kessel, is the story of Severine (Catherine Deneuve), a beautiful young woman whose outward sexual coldness, so judged by her husband (Jean Sorel), hides a not just heated fantasy life, but a perverse one that includes among their sexual accoutrements broken bottles, lily seeds, and cow shit. To name but three. Severine's real self is sussed out by an acquaintence and habitual customer of prostititues (Michel Piccoli), and he directs her to a brothel where Severine becomes the shy, uncertain, bemused, but soon fully awakened prostitute dubbed "Belle de Jour." One of Buñuel's methods here is to not make a big deal about the stuff that is ultimately a pretty big deal, such as the violence of Severine's sexual fantasies. You don't see anything in these fantasies, but in one Piccoli breaks a wine bottle and takes it with him under a table with Severine. It's sort of played for laughs, but is it just me or is that sort of horrifying?
The violence, or death, violent or not, follows her from fantasy -- which also includes horewhipping -- to reality, a divide which can be hard to determine. There's a very Gothic, almost goofily so, scene where Severine goes to an aristocratic client's home, a client who wants her to lie nude, except for an essentially completely sheer gown, in a casket and act dead while he mourns over her (and pretends she's his daughter) before he tremblingly sinks out of frame to do...whatever.
The fantasy of the above-referenced aristocrat doesn't appear to do much to turn Severine's crank, but who knows? Her husband thinks she's cold, but the whole reason for that coldness is because that which she truly desires would possibly freak her husband out, and therefore must be released through the ministrations of strangers, even criminals like Marcel (Pierre Clementi). Marcel, scarred up, toothless Marcel, so satisfies her aggressive fantasies that she comes very close to loving the bastard, a thug Buñuel makes no attempt to romanticize. But that's what's so strange about Belle de Jour. Severine's desires and infidelity bring about real life death and destructions, but the tone of the film is always pitched straight down the non-judgmental middle.
It would be wrong to claim the film is coldly, clinically observational in the mode of, say, Kubrick or Cronenberg. There's a warmth to the photography -- the Gothic necrophile scene has an almost Hammer-esque vibrancy -- and Deneuve, despite her reputation as an on-screen personality, seems sad yet approachable, even sweet. I once claimed to dislike Deneuve, at least as sex symbol, as the icy blonde thing wasn't really my whole deal, but that was many years ago and I hadn't seen Belle de Jour. My reaction to her now is well, sure, okay. In a conversation with Buñuel and film critics Jose de la Colina and Tomas Perez Turrant reprinted in the Criterion booklet, Turrant says that Deneuve's beauty is "asexual" and "abstract," and Buñuel agrees. It may be just me here, but I think that's a very strange description to apply to this particular film. I mean, does this look abstract or asexual to you?
Well, anyway. The point is that Belle de Jour takes an almost celebratory, in that it's portrayed as charming, approach to the film's sex, yet when this sex and desire and aggression leads to gunfire and remorse, it's not like day giving way to night, but day giving way to tomorrow, when the desire will remain, and the consequences will be no less bad, but none of this will keep the sun from rising.