December 1, 1995 in Seven

Masterpiece Is Revived In Erotic ‘Belle De Jour’

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Most anything labeled an “erotic masterpiece” is worth avoiding. For one thing, there’s always someone willing to argue over just what the term “masterpiece” means.

After all, one person’s “Citizen Kane” is another person’s “Grumpy Old Men.”

When you add sex to the equation, matters tend to get even more confusing. Witness American culture at large: The range of what some people term “erotic” is as wide as Howard Stern’s… uh, ego.

One person’s pleasure, after all, is another’s pornography.

So when we look anew at “Belle de Jour” - a 28-year-old film that, from the date of its Paris premiere, has been hailed for its erotic qualities - we need to be careful. And we need to consider just how much attitudes toward sex have changed over the past three decades.

What’s your notion of a sexually frank movie? “Henry and June”? “Basic Instinct”? “Two Moon Junction”? “9 Weeks”? “Body of Evidence”? “sex, lies and videotape”? “Porky’s 2”? God help us, “Showgirls”?

Virtually any five-minute stretch of most of these films, both the good (“sex, lies and videotape”) and the bad (look up: The Films of Zalman King), boasts more explicit sexuality than any half-hour stretch of “Belle de Jour.” And why is that? Because Luis Bunuel, the film’s director (and co-screenwriter with Jean-Claude Carriere), wasn’t interested merely in sex.

He wasn’t interested merely in eroticism either, but then that shouldn’t come as a big surprise. In his 50-year cinematic career, the Spanish filmmaker didn’t specialize in simplicity. A giant of the movie screen, he made films that attacked hypocrisy (especially as it was manifested by organized religion) and bourgeois attitudes; at the same time, he delighted in exploring human psychology, especially as it pertained to dreams and sexuality.

“Belle de Jour,” then, involves most of these themes (there is scant mention of religion). It concerns the lives of two characters, the married couple of Severine (Catherine Deneuve) and Pierre Serizy (Jean Sorel).

Pierre is a well-to-do doctor who seems to have everything - good looks, good job, ample wealth and a beautiful wife. The only problem is that Severine is as glacial in bed as she is in appearance (Deneuve, in a role that confirmed her as one of France’s greatest stars, gives new meaning to the term ice princess).

Things change, though, when Severine learns that an acquaintance of her own social class has become a prostitute. Pretty soon, Severine seeks out a brothel and with only the slightest hesitation becomes one of the girls. She adopts the alias of Belle de Jour, which translates to “woman of the afternoon” or, more loosely, to something like “afternoon good-time.”

The rest of the film is fairly straightforward in plot, even as it drips with irony. As Severine becomes more experienced, servicing everything from a Japanese businessman to a baron with a death fetish, she becomes more loving to the unknowing Pierre. At the same time, though, she becomes the object of a young thug’s (Pierre Clementi) obsession.

Ultimately, Severine must face the consequences of her actions. Her two lives intersect, and both end up shattered. She is left with a questionable future and a still-active imagination. We, meanwhile, are left to figure out what it all means.

It’s not that hard to figure out, even though I admit that, like all great films, “Belle de Jour” has more than just one ultimate meaning. Essentially, Bunuel is examining how his characters (whom he lifted from a 1928 novel by Joseph Kessel) want what they can’t have.

Pierre wants physical intimacy from a woman who is little more than a beautiful object. Marcel, the thug, wants pretty much the same thing. Pierre’s friend Husson (Michel Piccoli), one of the great, charming hypocrites of film, wants Severine only when he thinks she is pure and unviolated.

And Severine? Well, the irony surrounding her is that from the first she was never the chaste beauty that Pierre thought he was marrying. There is evidence that she was sexually abused as a child, which may be the motivating factor for her self-degrading behavior.

But Bunuel doesn’t offer that possibility as an excuse. For in fact Severine comes alive as a prostitute, the glow on icy Deneuve’s face after late-afternoon lovemaking looking as incongruous as is the notion that degradation leads to fulfillment. No, Bunuel is after a bigger meaning, and it has to do with the emptiness of his characters’ lives.

Give that a Marxist interpretation if you want. Or you could merely chalk up the tone of “Belle de Jour” to Bunuel’s ongoing cynical attitude toward the upper classes in general. Husson, in one of his more telling moments, does say offhandedly, “I’m particularly fond of the working class. I think of them when it snows.”

But however you choose to translate his intent, give Bunuel his due as a cinematic artist. “Belle de Jour,” which was kept out of circulation for more than 20 years because of contract disputes, demonstrates Bunuel (who died in 1983) at his best.

He spurns the irregular camera angles, hand-held shots and machine-gun-quick cuts that characterize so much of today’s arty cinema. Instead, he focuses on character and setting, unleashing his imagination only on dream sequences that often reveal more of character motivation than any extended sequences of trivial dialogue.

And give him credit for understanding psycho-sexuality, too. Even though he was 67 at the time, Bunuel still managed to imbue the emotional complexities involving sex with more meaning than Madonna in a massage parlor.

Which, come to think of it, is a thoroughly appropriate segue. Compared to what the world’s most self-promoting pop singer views as sexually alluring, even “Porky’s 2” rates as an erotic masterpiece.

Now give yourself a reality check. Go see “Belle de Jour.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: “BELLE de JOUR” Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Co-written and directed by Luis Bunuel; starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Genevieve Page, Michel Piccoli and Pierre Clementi. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1:42 Rating: R

OTHER VIEWS: Here’s what other critics say about “Belle de Jour”: Soren Andersen/McClatchy News Service: Back in circulation after having been unavailable for viewing in the United States for nearly two decades, “Belle de Jour” remains what it was when it was first released in 1967: a revelation. Cool, cerebral and possessing a level of erotic mystery matched by few films, it takes the viewer deep into the psyche of a beautiful, unfulfilled Parisian surgeon’s wife who moonlights as a prostitute. Joe Baltake/McClatchy News Service: “Belle de Jour” is a vivid reminder that, once upon a time, sex on screen could be playful and imaginative and even a little intellectual. Controversial in its day, considered kinky and profane, Bunuel’s film may seem a little quaint today, positively serene and elegant. Janet Maslin/New York Times: Twenty-seven years after it was first released in New York, Luis Bunuel’s exquisitely subversive “Belle de Jour” still stands as a monument to the power of suggestion. Bob Fenster/The Arizona republic: Over the past 25 years, movie sex has grown more explicit and common. But it has not grown more erotic than “Belle de Jour.”

These sidebars appeared with the story: “BELLE de JOUR” Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Co-written and directed by Luis Bunuel; starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Genevieve Page, Michel Piccoli and Pierre Clementi. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1:42 Rating: R

OTHER VIEWS: Here’s what other critics say about “Belle de Jour”: Soren Andersen/McClatchy News Service: Back in circulation after having been unavailable for viewing in the United States for nearly two decades, “Belle de Jour” remains what it was when it was first released in 1967: a revelation. Cool, cerebral and possessing a level of erotic mystery matched by few films, it takes the viewer deep into the psyche of a beautiful, unfulfilled Parisian surgeon’s wife who moonlights as a prostitute. Joe Baltake/McClatchy News Service: “Belle de Jour” is a vivid reminder that, once upon a time, sex on screen could be playful and imaginative and even a little intellectual. Controversial in its day, considered kinky and profane, Bunuel’s film may seem a little quaint today, positively serene and elegant. Janet Maslin/New York Times: Twenty-seven years after it was first released in New York, Luis Bunuel’s exquisitely subversive “Belle de Jour” still stands as a monument to the power of suggestion. Bob Fenster/The Arizona republic: Over the past 25 years, movie sex has grown more explicit and common. But it has not grown more erotic than “Belle de Jour.”


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