Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Essential Mystery in All Things Should Be Maintained: Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008, occasioned by an introduction to Belle de Jour at Borderlines Film Festival the same year)

‘The essential mystery in all things should be maintained and respected’ said Luis Buñuel. I’ve long thought this sage advice when approaching Buñuel’s own films and so have never much sought to dull them with clarification, analysis or over keen scrutiny. Like Buñuel too, I am completely indifferent to the psychology and motivations of his characters. However, as I introduced a recent screening (2008) of his 1967 film Belle de Jour at the Borderlines Fim Festival in Hereford recently – the film shown, appropriately enough, at 2 o‘clock in the afternoon – it’s in my mind, so I thought it might be useful to consider it a little. I want to do this for two reasons. Firstly, because shorthand appreciation of Buñuel often goes only as far as saying something along the lines of ‘his films are a skewering of religion and the bourgeoisie’. It’s a tired phrase, as much to do with marketing as anything else these days, albeit one with a kernel of truth – Buñuel was nothing if not thoroughly alive to exploring the workings of human hypocrisy in all its myriad forms – but it’s a phrase that obscures some of the more subtle elements in his work. The second reason is that the fairly substantial audience for the screening was made up almost wholly of people who had seen the film the first time round in 1967, and I wondered what Buñuel’s films hold for a different generation, other than a few iconic moments, or even stills, referenced in histories of cinema, from films such as Un Chien Andalou and Viridiana. His films are after all self-effacing, ordered, subtle, tangential, even obscure – qualities that are unlikely to find ready favour nowadays. It’s not surprising that his DVDs are sold on the back of past outrage instead. Watched with only this in mind, I suspect that one’s expectations are likely to be deflated, so I thought I would look at a few of the subtle pleasures to be had from a Luis Buñuel film. I’ll use Belle de Jour as it’s in my mind – though any of his last 10 films, from Viridiana through to That Obscure Object of Desire, could have done equally as well.

I suppose this situation was only to be expected. Controversy in one form or another attended most of his late films, starting with the one that announced his return to Europe in 1961, Viridiana. Although this won the Palme d‘Or at Cannes in that year, it caused a right rumpus in Franco’s Spain, where it was banned until 1977, and following representations from the Vatican about its blasphemy, its main offending scene being a restaging of the Last Supper as a drunken orgy for beggars to the tune of Handel’s Messiah, Buñuel, in his absence, was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment there should he have wished to visit the country.

This attention directed towards possible outrage in subject matter seems to have stuck, and what is less appreciated now is that Buñuel was a master craftsman at work, one whose economical skills in filmmaking and editing had been honed during his time in Mexico, when he made 20 films in 18 years, nearly all of which were made in less than a month and edited into shape in just 3 or 4 days more. This economy of means in realising his ideas on screen is part of the special atmosphere of a film such as Belle de Jour.

In case the story is unfamiliar, the film sees Catherine Deneuve play Séverine, a bored, sexually unfulfilled bourgeois housewife for whom the thought of polite lovemaking at night with her husband in a quiet, darkened bedroom is intolerable. Following the lead of a chance conversation, she finds work in a maison specialisée in the afternoons between 2 and 5, hence her name, ‘Belle de Jour’. Her suppressed fantasies and feelings of guilt coalesce in her daydreams and reveries are also shown in a manner largely undifferentiated from that of her daily existence. The film gave Buñuel his biggest commercial success, something probably not unconnected with its subject matter, though anyone watching for titillation would have been disappointed. For its potentially exploitative subject, it is both discreet and even chaste in its approach. It was, as critic David Thomson mischievously observed, ‘the perfect movie for wealthy women with free afternoons’.

So, what are its subtle delights. Well firstly, there’s the script, one of nine written in collaboration with Jean Claude Carrière, six of which Buñuel turned into films. It treads between the deliberately banal, the ironic, the evocative and the unexpected. ‘I love you more and more every day,’ says Paul to Séverine in an early fantasy scene of hers before he assumes a role of mastery. ‘What are you thinking about?’ asks Paul, awaking her from her reverie. ‘About you,’ she says.

In two later scenes with Husson, whose coolly distinguished decadence and depravity Michel Piccoli embodies so well, he says to his companion, ‘I’ll tell you something pleasant. I love you.’ ‘Merci,’ she says, in an equally trite tone. Then comes the punch: ‘Your scars are healing wonderfully,’ he says, casting his eye along her forearm.

Phrases dip in and out of Séverine’s reality and her secret life, with talk of cats (whips as well as animals of course) and forgiveness. Some of the best lines come in the fantasy sequence before she is pelted with thick, dark mud. ‘What time is it?’ asks Husson. ‘Between 2 and 5, but no later than 5,’ says Paul.

Interesting too is how the film’s dialogue hints at thoughts of stains in Séverine’s mind. After she has first learned of the existence of brothels she drops the vase with Husson’s roses onto the ground. ‘Don’t worry, it’s clean water. It won’t make a mark,’ says the maid. Later, on first returning from the brothel, she burns her underwear in the fire.

This scene is also a fine example of a subtle reinforcement of Séverine’s perturbation. She is told in a taxi by her companion about a mutual friend who apparently works in a brothel. When, in response to her question, the taxi driver assures her that such places do still exist, although they no longer use lanterns to advertise themselves, the screen for the next few minutes is touched with flashes of red in each scene – passing cars, a red traffic light, the red lining of a car door, the red roses in the vase on the table, and red bottles in Séverine’s bathroom. On the borderline of being unnoticeable, it is just slightly, purposefully accentuated reality.

As is often the case, Jean Claude Carrière has a telling phrase about Buñuel’s approach: ‘He wanted his films to have a power of strangeness without being strange.’ His films ‘follow a narrow path through many dangers – too much fantasy, too much absurdity, too much mystification, too many jokes … without going too far either way.’

The camerawork on Belle de Jour, by Sacha Vierney, who also lensed Last Year in Marienbad, is typically economical and unfussy and forms part of the Buñuel style, that, in a nice phrase, has been called ‘insolently effortless’. Wartching the film at the screening I set myself the task of trying to follow its camerawork. Time and again I would watch as a shot progressed and before I knew it I was hooked into and carried along with the film again, not noticing its self-effacing style.

Buñuel would famously pretend a deafness more profound than he already had when he was pestered with bothersome actor questions. Typically he would give no psychological indications or motivations to his actors. What he would give were postures, movements and gestures. I think of Madame Anais spooning cherries in brandy into a glass for Séverine on her arrival in the brothel, an action later echoed by Séverine when she prepares her paralysed husband’s medicine. I think of Séverine’s gold-toothed lover Marcel visiting in her apartment, eventually departing just before her husband returns, but leaving Séverine perturbed. She bites her thumbnail twice, a typical action of nervousness, but one that recalls Marcel’s habitual action of pushing his own gold teeth into position. I think of Séverine running her thumb along the edge of a chipped marble hall table before she goes to face her husband, but more than anything I think of Michel Piccoli sniffing the curtains in the brothel.

In my view, it is these small offhand moments that are as important as the set-pieces in setting the particular tone of Buñuel’s films. ‘I don’t systematically look for eroticism or subversion. I’m just me,’ said Buñuel. ‘His eyes were laughing the whole time – he was like a child ready for mischief,’ said Carole Bouquet, one of the two leading ladies in his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire.

While on the subject of set-pieces though, I must mention one of the central fantasy scenes, in which Séverine dreams of Husson and Paul on a plain with black bulls. It is a compendium of gestures and phrases that have percolated through Séverine’s mind: the soup is cold and cannot be warmed; Husson throws his bowl of soup to the ground in an offhand manner that recalls M Adolphe, Séverine’s first cusomer who threw a champagne glass to the ground; there is the phrase, ‘between two and five, but no later than five’, that I have already mentioned, these images mixing with that that recurrent motif beloved of the surrealists, Jean-Francois Millet’s ‘The Angelus’, the poses of which are adopted by Husson and Paul.

The depiction of dreams in film have had a mixed and not entirely successful history. At their most banal level, we have a shimmering screen or billowing clouds accompanied by glissandi on a harp, or the sound of a theremin. The latter was featured in Salvador Dalí’s dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Although Dalí’s full 20 minute sequence is now lost, the surviving part shows that his was a painter’s imagination that couldn’t struggled to reconcile itself to the demands of a different medium. In Belle de Jour, as with The Phantom of Liberty a few years later, Buñuel simply ignored boundaries between reality and fantasy and presented them both as plain as day, so that daydreams look like reality and vice versa. In fact, and this is a point that Carrière makes, the conventional storyline, adapted from Joseph Kessel’s novel, is fictional, Séverine’s fantasies were based on documentary fact.

Lastly, that notorious box that one of the clients brings to the brothel. Buñuel said that of all the senseless questions he was asked about his films – and he was asked many – the most common one was what was contained in the box that repelled one girl in the brothel but intrigued Séverine. When not responding by saying that it contained a picture of Monsieur Carrière, Buñuel’s answer was, ‘whatever you want there to be’, well knowing that as soon as you try to force an understanding on an image by explaining it away, you reduce the power of that image.

I’ll leave the last words to Jean Claude Carrière, who said of Buñuel that ‘he was a bunch of contradictions living together quite easily: at the same time very Spanish and very international, totally involved in his Christian Latin tradition and totally without any sort of religion. He was an instinctive scriptwriter, a surrealist, concerned with structure and plot development. He was the most subversive filmmaker but in the most classical form.’

The command of his resources and skills, and how he translated his ideas to the screen is equally as interesting as the more notorious outrages in his films. There is still plenty to learn from him there.

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