Monday, April 16, 2012

Belle de jour: Criterion Collection DVD Review

Catherine Deneuve’s porcelain perfection hides a cracked interior in one of the actress’s most iconic roles: Séverine, a Paris housewife who begins secretly spending her after­noon hours working in a bordello. This surreal and erotic late-sixties daydream from provocateur for the ages Luis Buñuel is an examination of desire and fetishistic pleasure (its characters’ and its viewers’), as well as a gently absurdist take on contemporary social mores and class divisions. Fantasy and reality commingle in this burst of cinematic transgression, which was one of Buñuel’s biggest hits.
Film (4 out of 5 stars)
On the surface, Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve) seems to have it all – she’s beautiful, married to a wealthy doctor who dotes on her, and she doesn’t even have to work for a living.  If she did have to work then perhaps she wouldn have been too busy and avoided what befalls her in this movie.  To an outside observer, Séverine has the perfect life but the reality is quite different as Séverine has hidden desires that she can barely control which threaten the good life she currently enjoys.  Because she doesn’t have to work for a living or even around the house (since they have servants) she has the time to take it easy at home enjoying life while daydreaming of being manhandled, beaten, whipped, and raped by men beneath her station, all with the full permission of her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) who directs the assault.
These daydream fantasies interweave throughout the movie and the movie even opens with one.  We witness Séverine and Pierre taking a carriage ride complete with ringing bells (which come to symbolize her fantasizing) through the woods all the while exchanging loving sentiments to one another.  Suddenly Pierre tells her that he wishes that she wasn’t so cold to him and orders the carriage to be stopped and instructs his coachment to drag her from the carriage.  Séverine is then tied up to a tree and has her clothes torn only to be whipped and raped by one of the coachmen with Pierre’s approval.  It’s at that point that we realize that it was a fantasy once Pierre wakes Séverine from her dark reverie by asking her what she’s thinking of.   She replies that she’s thinking of him which is partly true and she tells him of her thoughts of the carriage but leaves out the rest of the details.  It’s obvious that Pierre has heard about the carriage before and he tries to comfort her and attempts to initiate some intimacy that she refuses.  Her constant refusual to have sex with him is also something Pierre is well aware of but he accepts her decision with a kindly but melancholy acceptance that has the resigned air of frequent repitition.
When Pierre and Séverine meet up with some friends, she confides to Pierre that his friend Hussan (Michel Piccoli) repulses her since he acts inappropriately towards her.  The genial Pierre dismisses her concerns since he thinks she is overreacting but we soon see Hussan propositioning her when Pierre is away.  When the group’s discussion leads to talk of a former friends’ descent into prostitution, Séverine is instantly transfixed and wants to know everything about it.  Hussan tells her the address of a brothel that he used to frequent and the next day Séverine is on the doorstep.  She meets the brothel’s proprietor Madame Anais (Genevieve Page) and almost backs out as she is torn between her forbidden desires and her upbringing.  Séverine goes back and forth on whether or not she wants to become a prostitute but once she is given a firm hand by one of the customers thus making her the submissive masochist that she’s always fantasized being, she gives herself over to him and revels in her new occupation.  Whether it’s a weird duke with a necrophiliac fetish or a man with a buzzing box, it’s all enticing to her as long as the customer is domineering. If he is, then Séverine is an enthusiastic participant which eventually leads to her sleeping with a thug named Marcel (Pierre Clementi) who is only to happy to fulfill her hidden fantasies of being dominated. It’s only when Marcel’s obsession with controlling and having her all day long, does Séverine finally understand the possible ramifications of what can happen when her two lives crash together.
Belle de jour is an interesting look at at a repressed woman’s journey into depravity that functions as much as a character study as it does a cautionary tale.  The movie’s longevity and popularity is due not only to the great performance of Catherin Deneuve, but also because of the fim’s persistent ambiguity.  Whether it’s trying to discern what’s in a buzzing box that intrigues Séverine or where her fantasies end and reality begins, it’s all deliberately ambigous and left up to the viewer to fill in the gaps.  In some cases that works well, but the multiple endings of the movie – each with it’s own meaning and resolution – will leave many viewers unhappy without a clear cut comeuppance or redemption for Séverine.  The ending is just as undefined as Séverine herself is as portrayed by Deneuve who keeps her a blank slate which gives her an unsympathetic and icy demeanor while keeping the character’s motivations hidden which only adds to the mystique and debate about the movie.  This wasn’t an easy movie for Deneuve to make as she felt that “there were moments when I felt totally used.  I was very unhappy.”  Despite not enjoying the process of making the movie, Deneuve later called Belle de Jour “a wonderful film,” a sentiment somewhat shared by the director Luis Bunuel, who described the movie as his “biggest commerical success, which I attribute more to the marvelous whores than to my direction.”
Video (4 out of 5 stars)
Belle de jour is presented in it’s original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 from a new high definition digital transfer which was created on a Spirit 2K Datacine from a 35mm interpositive.  For a movie from 1967, this transfer looks incredible with vibrant colors, sharp details, and excellent black levels.  Criterion asserts that “thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS, while Image Systems’ DVNR was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction,” and I believe them.  I had seen the video quality on an earlier release which looked every bit of its age, a problem that doesn’t affect this release.  I can only imagine how good the new Blu-ray edition of this movie must look since the DVD version is excellent.
Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)
Belle de jour sports a new soundtrack that was remastered  at 24-bit from a 35mm print, which is a large improvement over the original monaural soundtrack.  Much like the video print, this audio mix’s defects were manually removed using Pro Tools HD, so there’s no clicks, hiss, or other defects which usually accompany films from this period.  This is a dialogue heavy film and each line spoken (in French) is clear and intelligible and the subtitles are easy to read for non-French viewers.  One of my complaints with subtitled movies is that the font size and type is usually hard to read or too small, but that wasn’t an issue with Belle de jour for which I was grateful.
Extras (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
Criterion is well known for their incredible special features and this one is no different.  While this set may not have as many extras as some of their other releases, what is here is excellent and contributes to our understanding and appreciation of the movie which is exactly what they’re supposed to do.
Audio Commentary – A movie that’s as ambiguous as Belle de jour just begs for an illuminating commentary and fortunately we get one with Michael Wood (who wrote the BFI Film Classics entry on the film).  Wood clearly appreciates the film and offers a comprehensive non stop commentary that covers Bunuel’s career, the symbolism found in the film, his interpretation of  Séverine’s fantasies and reality, and more.  It’s a very interesting commentary that’s both smart and informative and one that fans will appreciate.
  • That Obscure Source of Desire – This is a twenty minute look into Séverine as a character and her desires.  With interviews with feminist writer Susie Bright and film scholar Linda Williams, this featurette offers a welcome female point of view.
  • Interview with Screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière – We hear from the screenwriter of the movie himself who discusses the backgroud of the movie and the details of his working with Bunuel.  This is a brief featurette but it’s nice to hear from one of the integral people involved in the making of the film.
  • 1966 segment from the French television show Cinema – We also get a short clip from the French showCinema where Carriere and Catherine Deneuve talk about the movie.  This is a cool addition since it’s really the only chance we get to hear from Deneuve directly.
  • Booklet – This booklet includes an essay by critic Melissa Anderson and a 1970s interview with director Luis Bunuel, all of which are very well done.  Anderson does a great job critiquing the movie and the interview with Bunuel is also interesting and very candid.
  • Trailers – Three trailers are included: the original French trailer, the original U.S. trailer, and the 1995 U.S. reissue.
Summary (4 out of 5 stars)
Belle de jour is an interesting exploration into one woman’s forbidden desires and how it affects her once she succumbs to it.  This is without a doubt Catherine Deneuve’s iconic role that she will always be famous for and one that is perfectly suited to her.  In fact, the role almost seems to be written expressly for her beauty and talents as well as her ability to appear to remain aloof and remote onscreen.  While the subject matter appears to be fairly racy on the surface, it’s actually fairly tame as Bunuel (and Deneuve) keep the sexuality more suggestive than explicit.  The movie is ambiguous and daring for its time and it’s great that the Criterion Collection has done such a great job bringing this movie back to the public with such a beautiful release.
Order your copy today!

No comments:

Post a Comment