May 29, 2018

The 44th Seattle International Film Festival: Belle de Jour (1967)

The audience attending Belle de Jour (1967) at the SIFF Cinema Uptown last night alternated between stunned silence and nervous giggles, a clear sign that Luis Buñuel’s tale of desire has retained its power over time. In a new 4K restoration from the original negative, the colors popped and Catherine Deneuve looked icily serene as she played a wealthy housewife rebelling against convention by pursuing her fantasies.

Deneuve is a young wife of leisure, somewhat happily married to, if a bit emotionally disconnected from a surgeon (Jean Sorel). His cheerful wholesomeness is at odds with her S&M-tinged sexual fantasies. Anxious to relieve the tension these daydreams create, she begins to work afternoons in a high end brothel, where she is called Belle de Jour. There a violent criminal becomes obsessed with her, a fact which both frightens and arouses her, and brings her fantasy life into harsh reality.

I was delighted to see that the house of Yves Saint Laurent was a donor to the restoration effort. The designer created Deneuve’s costumes, which do as much to establish her character as anything she says or does. The military-influenced structure, and the epaulettes on her shoulders, are a vivid reminder of the way society restricts fantasies like hers. On the other hand, she also garbs herself in furs, leathers and one particularly kinky-looking shiny, black raincoat which point to her animalistic and adventurous side.

Deneuve's YSL raincoat, from a 2016 exhibit at Seattle Art Museum honoring the designer Photo: A Classic Movie Blog

Buñuel’s fetishistic camera adds to the erotic appeal of those artfully crafted costumes. His obsession with shoes is especially pronounced, as he lingers on shiny pumps with pilgrim bucklers and patent leather boots that scream danger and perversion. He gives the same treatment to the objects in his heroine’s life, sweeping over an array of perfectly arranged bottles on her bathroom counter to announce her return to safety and order after her first afternoon at the brothel.

The highly-disciplined craft of these elements: the camera, costumes and Deneuve combine to create an erotic, dangerous tension which keeps the viewer intrigued and excited, but also uneasy. Much like the BDSM it reveals, Buñuel’s film demands the release of that tension, without regard for propriety and fully in service to desire. It is this boldness that gives Belle de Jour a timeless edge.

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