I figure, why not call it what it is? As I mentioned when writing about The Red Shoes, this project is technically part of the “By Request” series because my wife requested that I watch the Blu-rays I owned but hadn’t watched, before I bought any new ones. (Imagine my embarrassment when The Earrings of Madame de … and Weekend came in the mail today.) So, think of The Red Shoes as Blu-ray Series #1, and we’ll move on.
If memory serves, I once went to a Luis Buñuel triple bill back when I lived in Indiana in 1971-2. This was one of three, alongside Viridiana and Tristana. I guess I was prepping myself for my Film Major days, which were soon to follow, but all I remember of that Hoosier afternoon is that watching three movies I didn’t understand was an odd way to spend a day. The tricky thing about Belle de Jour is that Buñuel manages to convince you that you’ve figured out the movie, until you realized “figuring out the movie” is not the point. There would seem to be three … well, I’m stuck for the right word, not “realities”, that’s for sure. And you see the problem: I’m ready to explain, but I’m not sure what it is that I am explaining. In parts of Belle de Jour, we watch the life of a bourgeois wife in Paris in 1967. In other parts, we watch that same women in her second life as a high-class prostitute. In still other parts, we watch the fantasies of that same woman, fantasies that revolve around masochism and sexuality. Over the course of the film, it becomes fairly easy to know when a fantasy is being shown, but it also becomes possible that everything we see is a fantasy of the bourgeois wife, including her work as a prostitute. Or maybe the fantasies of the prostitute, although that’s a bit harder to construct, given the evidence in the film.
It’s a surrealism that sneaks into the audience; it’s not obvious surrealism like the eye being slit open in Un Chien Andalou. Instead, it’s a deeper surrealism that forces us to confront the essential questions of real and not-real in a context that seems relatively straightforward. The opening scene is a good example of this. We see a carriage with two young people in love … they have been married for a year. It is a typical scene, banal in the extreme. But then the idyllic ride turns into something else entirely, as the husband, with the help of the two men driving the carriage, pull the woman forcibly from the carriage, take her into a nearby woods, flog the woman, and begin to rape her … at which point we’re at the couple’s home, and we realize what has just transpired was only the daydream fantasies of the woman. Simple reality, which turns into harsh reality, which is then revealed to be “mere” fantasy, but a fantasy that offers an instant insight into this young wife.
Belle de Jour is said to be Buñuel’s most popular film, which I mention in order to point out that the movie is never boring, equal parts thought-provoking and humorous, and not the kind of “eat your vegetables” movie that is good for you but not very tasty. I tend to resist movies that are what I call purposely obscure, but Buñuel is so playful, it’s hard to hold a grudge. His examination of a female masochist probably still raises a few eyebrows, even now … the Blu-ray includes a short piece featuring Susie Bright and Linda Williams, who place the film in the context of sexual politics, and while I don’t think Bright or Williams intend it this way, it does conveniently show us that there are women who appreciate Belle de Jour with its imagined floggings. #191 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.
For the Buñuel movie that ranks highest on the TSPDT list, see Viridiana. For my favorite Buñuel movie, check out The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. And for another Catherine Deneuve movie from around the same period, you could try Repulsion. If all of this sounds too depressing, you could enjoy Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.