Classic Film Club: 'Belle de Jour' (1967)

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Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. Luis Buñuel's 'Belle de Jour' (1967)

Films can feel antiquated for all kinds of reasons: because fashions change, visual techniques improve, acting styles adapt. But perhaps the most damaging and irreversible process of dating a film can undergo is when the moral landscape in which it was made no longer exists: particularly if the film in question was made primarily to challenge those morals. ‘Belle de Jour’ both confirms and challenges this assumption: it’s overt sexuality, shocking in 1967, feels tame by modern standards. But the film’s treatment of its central character – perfectly acceptable in the exploratory context of the late ’60s – now feels courageous, unsettling and, at times, deeply questionable.

The plot is a daydream within a daydream: Severine, played with icy distraction by Catherine Deneuve, is a bored bourgeois housewife who dreams of sexual humiliation, but cannot bear to have her straight-laced, keenly devoted husband touch her. Intrigued and aroused by the story of a destitute former acquaintance forced into prostitution, Severine dreams up a double life in which she is employed at a high-class brothel under the name ‘Belle de Jour’ ('the day-flower').

Buñuel never hides the fact that the entire film is a fantasy, but whose fantasy? The daydreams of a bored woman keen for sexual danger, or of an ageing, dirty-minded surrealist filmmaker? A bit of both, in the end: Buñuel is too observant a storyteller to be unaware of his own furtive interest in the subject, and too honest an artist not to alert his audience with a sly nod and a wink. But he’s also genuinely interested in his central figure, treating her with sympathy and, at first, respect.

It’s when this respect begins to flag that the film starts to feel outdated. Ever the old-school revolutionary, Buñuel’s preoccupation is as much with class as it is sexuality, and he revels in taking potshots at the staid, restrictive world in which Severine suffers (even her dreamworld, the brothel, is festooned with frills, her customers almost exclusively wealthy). But there is sometimes a sense that Buñuel delights a little too much in picking Belle apart, peeling her open, layer by layer, with the tools of his superior intellect. It’s a fascinating process, but discomfiting: Buñuel is undoubtedly sympathetic towards his Severine, but it’s an arch, superior form of sympathy that verges on pity, and there are times when the character begins to seem more like a case study, a butterfly under glass.

The film’s cruel, cynical ending seems to confirm this. Reality and fantasy blur, leaving Severine’s husband in a vegetative state following a shooting by one of her jealous johns. She quits her job at the brothel, and seems poised to confront her new reality, saddled with a paraplegic husband and rumours of her indiscretions escaping into the world. But instead she retreats once more into fantasy, only this time her fantasies are more acceptable, even ‘normal’: a happy ending with her miraculously healed husband, and the promise of a contented life together. Buñuel can no longer suppress his derision: for these characters, happiness can only ever be a fantasy, their lack of self awareness leading them into ever more inescapable psychological traps.

Admittedly, this is a very twenty-first century reading of a staunchly mid-twentieth-century work of art. There’s no denying ‘Belle de Jour’ is a great film: beautifully structured and photographed, sumptuously designed, flawlessly acted. Ironically, it’s the cold cynicism that Buñuel used to isolate his characters that has now served to isolate his film, leaving it feeling like a gorgeous, fascinating museum piece, remarkable but no longer relevant.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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