If there’s one thing I’ve learned about film critics, it’s that they tend to be perverts, and I mean that in the most complimentary manner possible. Some of my best friends are film critics, and they can be really fun at parties.
Unfortunately, I am the contrarian prude, and I think I missed out on the fetish gene altogether. There are few things I’m less interested in watching on film than someone indulging their sexual fantasies, or perhaps I should say there are few things I find less sexy. So you’re into bondage and humiliation? Donkey shows? Klismophilia? Oddly-shaped fresh produce? Live like you want to live (but only with a consenting donkey) but please don’t make a movie about it.
Luis Buñuel made plenty of movies about perversions and, perversely enough, I think many of them are masterpieces. But “Belle de Jour” (1967) goes a bit too far for my prudish tastes. Not that it’s Buñuel’s most graphic film. Nowhere close. There’s one shot in the magnificent “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964) that is vastly more disturbing than anything in “Belle de Jour,” and “The Phantom of Liberty” (1974) does pervy sacriliciousness to a subversive perfection that makes “Belle” look positively demure. Which, in a way, it really is, despite being all about sex.
While fetishism was merely a prominent element in these other films, it is the overt subject matter of “Belle de Jour,” a movie which could be read as one long masturbatory fantasy. The fantasist is Severine (Catherine Deneuve), the bored, bourgeois housewife of a handsome but dull Parisian doctor. In the opening sequence, the happy couple is riding in a horse-drawn carriage along a country lane. A simple conversation turns ugly in the blink of an eye. Pierre drags Severine out of the carriage ,and has the coachmen tie her to a tree so he can whip her before permitting them to rape her. It is only at this point that Severine really begins to enjoy herself.
It’s a day dream, of course, but whether or not anything else in the film is real is up for debate. It doesn’t really matter in Buñuel’s surrealist vision. Fantasy and reality are both crunched together by Severine’s libido. She cannot respond sexually to her very sweet but very passive husband, and finds an outlet in a nearby brothel where she starts to work during afternoons only because she needs to be back home by five like any good housewife. This is how Severine picks up her nickname Belle de jour, “Beauty of the day.”
Since Severine looks remarkably like a 23 year-old Catherine Deneuve, she quickly becomes the most popular draw at the brothel which is frequented by men who are seriously into domination fantasies. This works out fine for Severine, especially in the case of a client who scares off the more experienced women when he shows them the mysterious contents of a glowing, buzzing box, the contents of which he wants to … use. Severine is eager to oblige. After she’s been ravished and left face down and exhausted on the bed, she appears at first to be defeated. But then she tilts up slowly and her face breaks into an angelic smile. It’s great when you can turn your hobby into your job.
“Belle de Jour” has been embraced by some feminist critics who no doubt appreciate the rarity of a film that focuses on female desire. Less than a decade before, Louis Malle’s “The Lovers” (1959) was banned in some U.S. markets simply for lingering for an extra second or two on Jeanne Moreau’s face as she orgasmed; it’s OK for women to have sex, just not for them to enjoy it. So an entire film centered around a woman’s sexual fantasies was progress. On the other hand, “Belle de jour” proved to be one of Buñuel’s biggest box office hits in no small part because men piled into the theater to watch the placidly pure porcelain beauty queen Deneuve tied up, pelted with mud, decked out as a corpse, and pushed around a by a thug with steel teeth (this is the John she winds up falling for, of course). A feminist manifesto for men in trenchcoats who like to sit in the back row?
Still, Severine wants to be humiliated ,and the film’s greatest strength is that it does very little to explain why, and absolutely nothing to assign any blame. Even an apparent punishment at the end may be yet another fantasy by Severine who wants to be punished for, well, wanting to be punished. Severine is calling the shots here, and the film gives her room to indulge herself in wide-screen and with gorgeous cinematography by Sacha Vierny.
I understand the appeal of a female character who exhibits such agency, even if it’s in the service of her own humiliation, but if I am intended to find the film erotic (as many critics do) I most definitely do not, no matter how exquisitely beautiful Deneuve is. I find it rather repellent at times – S&M is strictly off-limits for me. So is any combination of sex and food; I almost had to run out of the theater while watching “I Am Love.” But those are my hangups, and though I have shared them with you, dear reader, I promise not to make a movie about them. Without said hangups (and let me be clear – “Belle de Jour” is not particularly explicit, just highly suggestive – Deneuve did not even want to expose her breasts while changing on set, let alone on film) I would probably be freer to appreciate the film, which some see as Buñuel’s greatest. It has certainly been influential, and must be seen simply for the testament to Deneuve’s supernatural beauty and for the buzzing box, perhaps the most-renowned mystery object in cinema history. Buñuel claimed the box contained whatever you wanted it to, which is just the perverse kind of thing that bastard would say.
The color palette on this 1080p transfer is really striking with rich, saturated reds really popping off the screen. Contrast levels are sharp, and the grainy look is very pleasing overall. This transfer looks sharp both in indoor sequences and in the outdoor autumn-set shots where greens and browns look quite vivid. I don’t have the old Miramax SD release to compare it to, but I can’t imagine this isn’t a major improvement. The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
The linear PCM Mono track is perfectly clean and crisp, as we’ve come to expect from Criterion, and it sounds rather dynamic for a Mono mix. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
The film is accompanied by a commentary track by Professor Michael Wood, author of the BFI Classics book “Belle de jour.” From the portions I sampled, Wood manages to get into some deep analysis without sounding too didactic or as if he is literally reading from his book.
“That Obscure Object of Desire” (18 min.) combines interviews with film scholar Linda Williams and writer and sexual-politics activist Susie Bright. The disc also includes a 2011 interview (conducted in Paris) with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, a frequent Buñuel collaborator. We also get a seven minute excerpt from the French TV program “Cinéma” which includes interviews with Deneuve and Carrière from the set of “Belle de Jour.” Finally, we get three trailers, including one for the U.S. re-release.
The 28-page insert booklet includes an essay by film critic Melissa Anderson and an interview with Buñuel excerpted from “Objects of Desire: Conversations with Buñuel.”
While “Belle de Jour” is not my personal favorite among Buñuel’s films, it is one of his best-known and most influential. It is certainly considered a milestone in art-house fetish cinema (at least of the non X-rated variety) and Criterion’s high-def treatment of the film is superb. The extras might be a mild disappointment for a film of this stature, but who’s complaining?