Beauty can be deceptive. While we're often quick to prejudge outward appearances, innocent exteriors can sometimes hide murkier realities, masking secret desires and dark fantasies behind a pretty face. In Luis Bunuel's 'Belle de Jour,' that pretty face belongs to the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve, and beneath her ivory skin and flowing blonde hair, lays a forbidden truth. A surreal and satirical decent into dreamy sensuality, the film weaves a lose plot full of internal contradictions, sumptuous images and erotic absurdities, cementing it as a true classic of its genre.
Based on the novel of the same name, the story follows Severine (Catherine Deneuve), a beautiful, seemingly innocuous housewife. Though she appears to love her husband (Jean Sorel), she is reluctant to embrace him physically. When Severine hears rumors of a nearby brothel she becomes intrigued, and though hesitant at first, she eventually gives in, joining the establishment's lineup of women. As her sexual exploits evolve, masochistic tendencies are revealed and embraced, leading to fetishistic daydreams and realities. While all seems well at first, a jealous client eventually becomes too possessive, and Severine's two worlds start to collide, leading to potentially violent consequences.
The film deals with a variety of complicated topics involving sexuality, empowerment, control, desire, and love. The concept of masochism becomes a large focus and Bunuel approaches the material with artistry and wit. Though the subject matter could potentially prove controversial or off-putting to some, in reality, the director employs a fairly subtle hand here, choosing to avoid traditional sexploitation. In fact, outside of a fleeting, partially covered shot of Deneuve wrapped in a transparent cloth, there is no real nudity to speak of and no actual onscreen sex scenes. Instead, Bunuel lets the audience use their imagination to fill in the more explicit aspects of Severine's journey, favoring mystery over blatant titillation.
In the included commentary track, Princeton professor Michael Wood classifies Deneuve as a "photographed person" rather than an actress, and in many ways that's a very appropriate distinction, which isn't meant as an insult. There's a kind of non-acting quality to her performance and a certain unreadable stoicism to her expressions that makes the character almost impossible to fully interpret. Her many blank stares could be construed in a variety of ways, allowing the character to maintain an enigmatic, unknowable air. With that said, as Severine begins to fully embrace her life of prostitution, Denueve provides a few key glimpses into the woman's true feelings, with a sly smile here or a satisfied glance there, effortlessly pulling back the facade of an innocent housewife.
Stylistically, Bunuel creates a strong visual atmosphere full of rich color and powerful images. The director likes to play with space and blocking within his compositions, frequently employing wide masters and flowing camera movements which engender a laid back, ethereal mood. The positioning of characters also becomes an important visual feature. This is most notable in several early scenes set in the brothel where Severine is physically placed on the edges of the image. Partially obscured and seemingly forgotten (even by the camera itself), these metaphoric compositions accentuate her emotional disconnect from others and herself. In these instances, it's almost as if she's an afterthought -- there, but not there, still unable to fully embrace her desires.
Known for his surrealist touches, Bunuel weaves in and out of reality. Intricate fantasy sequences are interspersed throughout in a very matter-of-fact manner, easing the viewer into Severine's masochistic daydreams. Peeks into her childhood are also featured that appear to almost subconsciously sneak into scenes, intruding upon and informing the present day action. Eventually, the line between imagination and reality blurs, and as the film reaches its ambiguous end, we are left to draw our own conclusions.
Despite the film's many strengths, there are a few minor issues here and there. The third act introduces a pretty conventional plot point involving a jealous gangster, and this rather ordinary development lacks much of the fun, dreamy energy found in the rest of the picture. Some of the symbolism can be a little heavy handed as well, particularly a moment of not so subtle foreshadowing that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Still, these criticisms are very minor, and the strength of Bunuel's artistry overcomes any small flaws.
'Belle de Jour' is a cryptic, complicated examination of forbidden desire and sexual fantasy. Filled with sensual delights and satirical observations, the film's conclusion remains vague and obscure, letting us devise our own meaning in the madness. Fueled by Luis Bunuel's unique vision and Catherine Denueve's deceptive beauty, dream and reality join in a carnal dance of absurd fantasy, that has and will continue to beguile audiences for years to come.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'Belle de Jour' in their standard clear case with spine number 593. The BD-50 region A disc comes packaged with a booklet featuring an essay by critic Melissa Anderson and a 1970s interview with Luis Bunuel.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Despite a few age related hiccups, this is a gorgeous transfer that absolutely sparkles on Blu-ray.
The source print is in very nice shape with a lovely layer of nicely textured film grain. A few sporadic specks, faint vertical lines, and fading on the fringes of the frame do show up, but these signs of damage are very minimal and fleeting. Of more pressing concern, however, is some minor but still noticeable color pulsing that causes the tint of the picture to slightly fluctuate. Thankfully, this anomaly isn't very troublesome and is certainly understandable given the age of the material. Detail is often stunning, showing off Bunuel's dreamy photography and Deneuve's timeless beauty with exquisite clarity and depth. Colors are vivid and rich, with seductive reds that simply pop right off the screen. Contrast is high but not blown out, with intense whites and deep, consistent blacks. There are stretches of the movie that are simply mesmerizing to look at, with sumptuous imagery brought faithfully into the digital realm while keeping a natural, film-like appearance.
Though there are some understandable age related issues, for the most part, 'Belle de Jour' looks absolutely fantastic. Criterion has a done a great job here and fans of the film are in for a real treat with this eye-catching, faithful transfer.
The movie is presented with a French LPCM mono track with optional English subtitles. Featuring some interesting and important auditory motifs, the mix offers a nice blend of artistic design and technical proficiency.
Dialogue is clean, though a little thin. Bunuel uses a lot of deliberate background effects and ambiance to enhance the mood, mystery and subtext of his scenes, with bells, in particular, becoming an important recurring sound. Thankfully, all of these auditory touches come through with solid fidelity. Dynamic range is on the flat side and bass is negligible, but for a 1960s mono track that's all to be expected. Effects, score and speech are balanced well together.
The track has been cleaned up well and is free of any major hisses, crackles, or pops. Coupled with the director's creative sound design, this is a very nice audio presentation that does the film justice.
Criterion has included a solid assortment of supplements, including some interviews and a commentary. All of the special features are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital mono audio and optional English subtitles (for the French portions only) unless noted otherwise.
'Belle de Jour' is a dreamy, daring examination of hidden desire, fantasy and sexuality. Through Bunuel's surreal lens, we are treated to a visually rapturous, ultimately ambiguous experience that lets its audience draw their own conclusions. Despite some minor signs of age, the video transfer is absolutely gorgeous, and the mono audio track is technically proficient and artistically faithful. Supplements are on the slim side, but the included interviews and commentary are interesting. The subject matter might not be for everyone, but for those who can embrace the movie's ethereal sensuality, this disc comes highly recommended.