Movie Like Life

Last night I went to the theater to see Luis Bunuel’s “Belle de Jour.” Translated literally, Belle de Jour refers to the Morning Glory- a bloom which typically lasts for a single morning and dies in the afternoon.

According to Roger Ebert:

It is possibly the best-known erotic film of modern times, perhaps the best. That’s because it understands eroticism from the inside-out–understands how it exists not in sweat and skin, but in the imagination. “Belle de Jour” is seen entirely through the eyes of Severine, the proper 23-year-old surgeon’s wife, played by Catherine Deneuve. Bunuel, who was 67 when the film was released, had spent a lifetime making sly films about the secret terrain of human nature, and he knew one thing most directors never discover: For a woman like Severine, walking into a room to have sex, the erotic charge comes not from who is waiting in the room, but from the fact that she is walking into it. Sex is about herself. Love of course is another matter.

The subject of Severine’s passion is always Severine. She has an uneventful marriage to a conventionally handsome young surgeon named Pierre (Jean Sorel), who admires her virtue. She is hit upon by an older family friend, the saturnine Henri (Michel Piccoli, who was born looking insinuating). He’s also turned on by her virtue–by her blond perfection, her careful grooming, her reserve, her icy disdain for him. “Keep your compliments to yourself,” she says, when she and Pierre have lunch with him at a resort.

Her secret is that she has a wild fantasy life, and Bunuel cuts between her enigmatic smile and what she is thinking. Bunuel celebrated his own fetishes, always reserving a leading role in his films for feet and shoes, and he understood that fetishes have no meaning except that they are fetishes.

For me, the story was about Pierre. As an omnipotent viewer it was impossible not to feel for Mr. Serizy, who continued to maintain the status quo in his relationship with Severine, oblivious to her indescretions and his own ennui. Severine continues throughout the film to draw the life from her husband, eventually she must sleep in the bed she made for herself- tangled up with a jealous, abusive gangster named Marcel. Sadly, this is the first bed she allows Pierre to share with her. Marcel waits outside of Severine’s home and shoots Pierre as he arrives home from work eager to see his wife- paralyzing him. Locking him inside himself- still under the full control of a woman without any control.

Severine is such a person. “I can’t help myself,” she says at one point. “I am lost.” She has a kind of resignation late in the film. She knows she has betrayed Pierre. For that matter, she knows she has used Marcel shamefully, even though that’s what he thought he was doing to her.

Bunuel was deeply cynical about human nature, but with amusement, not scorn. He was fascinated by the way in which deep emotional programming may be more important than free will in leading us to our decisions. Many of his films involve situations in which the characters seem free to act, but are not.

Pierre Serizy

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