Belle de Jour Review
Reportedly, Luis Buñuel wasn’t particularly taken with Joseph Kessel’s 1928 novel, Belle de Jour when he was asked by the producers to make a film adaptation. The story of a young newlywed housewife who becomes a prostitute at a high-class brothel in order to enact those deepest sexual fantasies that her young husband is unable to fulfil, Buñuel found the novel rather melodramatic and flowery in its dreamy romanticism of a bourgeois woman’s inner life. Looked at differently however, the story has a number of the themes common to many of Buñuel’s films - the blurring of reality and fantasy, a woman with a split nature, sexual fetishism and the absurdity of middle-classes values. With a script by Jean-Claude Carrière to draw out these surreal and absurd elements from the story, and the perfect casting of Catherine Deneuve as the frigid housewife Séverine Serizy, Buñuel succeeded in making Belle de Jour one of his most delightful and enduring satires.
Repressed and unfulfilled in her marriage to a young doctor, Séverine daydreams fantasies of masochism and humiliation, but is unable to find an outlet from them in her normal life and remains sexually remote from her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel). When she finds out from the scandalous M. Husson (Michel Piccoli) that an acquaintance housewife of theirs works part-time in a brothel, Severine’s imagination is fired by the sexual exoticism of this, on the surface, demure and respectable lady. She herself begins to lead a double-life. Working at Madame Anaïs’ house during the day while her husband is at work, she becomes known as Belle de Jour (“The Daytime Beauty”), and is introduced to a selection of diverse high-class clients with peculiar, individual demands.
There is barely any nudity in Belle de Jour, but the film does retain a certain frisson of eroticism. Much of this is down to the performance and glamour of the young Catherine Deneuve, who is able to effectively slip between the two facets of her double-life as easily as Buñuel slips between fantasy and reality. Characteristically she plays the ice-queen to perfection, but her performance has greater depth, showing real softness, vulnerability and warmth as her mind and body are opened up to her deepest desires. According to screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, a great deal of research and study went into the psychology of female sexuality, and all the situations depicted are authentic perversions and fantasies, but the film is by no means a textbook dissection of female sexuality - if anything it tends towards the male fantasy of the virgin and the whore. Rather Buñuel indulges in a typically sly, humorous satire on the hypocrisy of middle-class mores and behaviour, breaking through the veneer of respectability and showing a corrupting repression that lies beneath. Séverine is not the only person living a double life – even her husband Pierre, when asked, admits to having frequented a brothel before their marriage. One suspects, since his wife is icily frigid with him, that he may have been there more recently than he admits. It would at least be in keeping with Buñuel’s dissection of the lives of these bourgeois characters.
This is borne out by the controversial ending to the film, which cannot rationally be explained even by the director himself, but just feels absolutely correct. Influenced by André Breton, fantasy and reality come together and co-exist in the final scenes with their being no distinction between them. The rational world and the world of the mind are as one, neither of them, for these characters, any more unreal or absurd than the other.
The Belle de Jour: 40th Anniversary Edition is released in the UK by Optimum Releasing. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
It would appear that the master used for this edition is the same Studio Canal one used by Warner on the previous edition of the film included in the now out-of-print Luis Buñuel Box Set: Volume 1. On the plus side, it has taken what was already an excellent transfer, presented anamorphically at 1.66:1, and improved it slightly by making subtitles optional rather than fixed and placing the film on a dual-layer rather than a single-layer disc. Unfortunately, this doesn’t improve the image quite as much as you might hope. There is some additional definition and trueness of colour, but it is minimal and rendered moot by the artefact problems that remain from the previous edition. Faint levels of grain and dot-crawl can be seen, the image occasionally shimmering – albeit infrequently – with breaking up of lines caused by macro compression artefacts. There are some minor dust spots and scratches – also in places identical to those seen on the previous release – but they are very rare. These are relatively minor issues. Overall the image looks remarkably clear, with those beautiful cool pastel Eastman Colour tones (possibly a little bright here) that suit the film so well. Comparison screen captures are provided below – original Warner edition first, followed by the current Optimum edition:
The original mono audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is also identical to the previous edition. The sound is clear and strong, with rounded tones and no issues with noise or distortion of any kind.
English subtitles are provided and are optional.
The film comes with a full-length Commentary by Professor Peter Evans, an expert on Luis Buñuel. Personally, I found the commentary dreadfully dull and uninformative, Evans for the most part merely describing what is happening on the screen. I couldn’t listen to this all the way through. It would however serve as a thorough audio-description for the film – and I really mean that. Much more illuminating about Buñuel and the origins of the film is the History of the Film (29:40), which is largely made up of an interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, with additional contributions from Assistant Director Pierre Lary and some comments about the film by Françoise Fabian from a TV interview. This covers the approach to scripting from the book, the casting – particularly about Deneuve’s contribution – and Buñuel’s approach to direction. The film’s curious Trailer (2:39), I imagine would have left its original audience aghast and confused.
I confess to being surprised that Belle de Jour still receives an 18 certificate when released on DVD in the UK, since there is little in the film in the way of violence, nudity or strong, suggestive language. I can only imagine that the social context of Buñuel’s satire is still deemed shocking. It certainly remains a very adult film, but anyone expecting the standard clichés of sauciness of housewives in Parisian brothels is likely to be disappointed. Buñuel’s interest is more on the exploration of female psychology, dysfunction and perversion and applying it to a particular bourgeois mentality, blurring the lines between our inner lives and outward appearances. He does this, as he often does, with a great deal of wit, imagination and precision. The film looks terrific on this new edition from Optimum and is well served by the transfer and the inclusion of supporting features – unfortunately, neither show the substantial improvement over the previous release that might have been expected for a special 40th Anniversary Edition.