Before saying that a film is important, the term "important" must be defined. Is it artistically brilliant as a film? Is the film life affirming? Is the film life changing? Does the film live beyond its date of release? Does the film capture a time or place in society and history? Does the film challenge the audience? If it can fit into most of these categories, then it simply must be important.To quote the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, "The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good." On that note, the fourth film in my collection of important films is:
Luis Buñuel's Belle de jour (1967)
Highly controversial for its time, Luis Buñuel's Belle de jour (1967) is a landmark film within Buñuel's career and the history of cinema. Winner of the Golden Lion at Venice in 1967, Belle de jour marked Buñuel's official return to France, his first film in color, and was scandalously a film about female sexuality. Though the topical nature of the film is intensely mature, it is portrayed on the screen and within the script with great respect and taste. Beginning Buñuel's streak of French masterpieces, Belle de jour is a wild film that blends the line between reality and fantasy with seamless finesse.
Starring Catherine Deneuve as Séverine (a.k.a. "Belle de jour" or as translated "Daylight Beauty") is a married woman with a loving husband named Pierre (Jean Sorel) who is a doctor in Paris. Living as a wealthy young couple with a maid, Séverine spends her days at home or out shopping as she awaits the return of her husband at 5:00 each day. Implied to have been happening for years, at the opening of the film Séverine has a reoccurring dream that involves her being beaten for pleasure. She does not understand the dreams, and - as revealed after this particular dream - has difficulty opening herself up to intimacy with her husband.
Over the weekend, she and Pierre go out and run into a couple they both know. The girl is friendly, but the boyfriend named Husson (Michel Piccoli) is very openly attracted to Séverine - something Pierre does't notice. When Séverine and Pierre leave back to their home, Séverine's dreams continue. Upon bumping into Husson the next day, he mentions to Séverine the name of a local brothel which both strikes her imagination and disturbs her... yet she goes to the brothel out of curiosity anyways. Agreeing to be a regular prostitute at the brothel in exchange for 50% of her earnings, she is named "Belle de jour" since she will only be at the brothel until 5:00 each day so that she may return home to her husband without his knowledge. From that point forward, the film becomes an engrossing experience that bears comparison to thrillers while still embodying the dramatic genre.
What makes this film particularly special is that sex is never portrayed on screen in any fashion. It is certainly implied to have happened, but there isn't even a speck of sexual nudity in this film (had there been, this easily could have turned into smut if the director had been interested in low-brow entertainment). Instead, Belle de jour focuses upon the inner psychological battles of a sexually disturbed woman. Though not a significant reveal, it is shown early on that Séverine may have been sexually assaulted as a young girl which made her feel filthy before God and possibly triggered her desire for unconventional love as she got older. Her masochistic desires are best clarified by film scholar Linda Williams in The Criterion Collection's documentary entitled That Obscure Sense of Desire, "[Séverine] had this moment of molestation in her past which actually opened up a door to a forbidden pleasure. What she has to do is... discover a way to open up her pleasures."
As typical of Buñuel's films, Belle de jour also depicts the wealthy class in a satirical style. This is best reflected in his previous films Viridiana (1961) and The Exterminating Angel (1963) and would be expanded upon with his later films The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and his final film That Obscure Object of Desire (1979). Though Belle de jour does not hinge upon that concept as his other films do, it is a present subtext within the activity on the screen.
The film is also one of Buñuel's most visually beautiful films. His subtle use of vibrant colors (particularly red) reflects the inner passion that Séverine would like to experience on the outside. Belle de jour also features magnificent camera movements as the camera steadily observes a horse-driven buggy as it goes down a dirt path at the opening of the film, or as the camera dollies out from two men as they have a pistol duel. Through the artistry of Buñuel, his screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, and his cinematographer Sacha Vierny, any misinterpretation of the purpose of Belle de jour is immediately proven incorrect as the subject matter is handled with such care.
The impact of this film upon modern cinema is vast, but there are many notable films which owe great credit and even reference Belle de jour within their content. Most notably may be Stanley Kubrick's final film Eyes Wide Shut (1999) with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Similarly beautifully shot and carefully handled (though much more explicit in content), Eyes Wide Shut follows a man who discovers that his wife had a deeply passionate fantasy about a random navy officer she once saw while on vacation with her kids and husband. A vast majority of Kubrick's film is thematically dedicated to the promiscuous side of "all women" that men seem to believe does't exist.
Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar's 2009 film Broken Embraces starring Penélope Cruz draws direct comparison to Belle de jour. In need of money to help her father receive medical treatment for his cancer, Lena Rivero (Penélope Cruz) revisits a call-girl company that she used to work for under the name of "Séverine" (an obvious allusion to Catherine Deneuve's character of the same name). A simple allusion like that automatically pays tribute to Buñuel's film while enhancing the way that a film like Broken Embraces should be interpreted.
Interestingly enough, both Eyes Wide Shut and Broken Embraces also lend themselves to comparison with thrillers and noir films in a similar fashion as Belle de jour.
Likewise, Buñuel seems to give a nod to the French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard within Belle de jour. Godard's debut film Breathless (1960) shook the film world with its approach to presenting narrative. In one of the early scenes of Breathless, French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo runs into an old girlfriend who is selling The New York Herald Tribune. Though, in Belle de jour, a man is selling The New York Herald Tribune, it is difficult to argue that it is mere coincidence that Buñuel would feature that without being an allusion to Godard within his return to French filmmaking.
Belle de jour is a dramatic powerhouse, and a perfect example of Buñuel's surrealist style as the truth is bent between fantasy and actual tangibility. In a role that Catherine Deneuve is still iconic for today, it is obvious why her performance - and this film - have still held up nearly fifty years later.
Though risky in its context, it is the mark of a great filmmaker (even one as controversial as Buñuel) for him to make a film so tastefully 'naughty'.
Belle de jour is now available on DVD and Blu Ray by The Criterion Collection.