The video image is embedded into our daily lives; it is scripted onto our landscape via phones and pads that project back at us visions of ourselves, as we imagine ourselves. So much so, that it could be argued that many of us even read and understand our own lives as though they are scripted into a series of short, narrative films. Younger people tell me, the first thing they do in the morning upon waking, is to check ‘their internet’. It belongs to, and is molded for, them.
Cinema, in its old configuration, was not like that. Terry Gilliam explains, “You went into the cinema before, and it had a sense of respect and worship […] you went in to the ‘temple’”. In any case, if it were not theological, the cinematic vista was indeed fantasy. A dream. A mirage of romantic and elusive imagery set like a shiny, jagged stone in a darkened room. It was oneiric.
Buñuel understood this latter concept when he put together his most critically well received film. Belle de Jour is an elliptical project, wherein dream and reality are blurred into each other without the telling signals of misty fades or a head shaking on the pillow. Parts of the film are the fantasy of the film itself, and parts are fantasies within that, but it is not easy to tell which are which. Indeed, in this period towards the end of high modernism, the author, Buñuel, seems to destabilize his own authority. He doesn’t suture you into a straightforward narrative, he doesn’t know the truth of the film any more than you – the spectator – does. As Roland Barthes argued, it is for the film’s reader, to decide where the film’s truths and its fantasies part company.
Severine (Catherine Deneuve), is the beautiful wife of a doctor, embellished with an icy visage and protected by militaristic, Yves Saint Laurent clothing. Seemingly near platonic in her marriage and in separate beds, Severine has a girlish innocence and discomfort in her bourgeois world. The film, however, superimposes onto her immaculate life, sexualised images of her fantasy masochism. Images of her husband imploring two coachmen to whip her, then have their ‘way’ with her. It is transgressive; the image of this, perhaps, virginal, middle class princess being roughed up by the stubble daubed working classes.
When her husband’s friend, Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli) casually (or otherwise) drops a mention of a bordello – run by Mme Anais (Geneveive Page) – that he used to frequent, the fantasy addled Severine, finds herself at the door. Further transgressions await, when the masochist decides to live out her fantasies in the brothel; unable to conceive of passion with her handsome, gentlemanly husband (Jean Sorel) she becomes drawn to a silver toothed, caddish – if strange – gangster (Pierre Clementi) who rents her time and body.
Unlike the updated Belle de Jour (Secret Diary of a Call Girl) with all its unveiled expediency, Buñuel’s film is all in the suggestions. Does Severine dream up her time in the brothel? Does she lose her virginity there? Conversely, is she really a cynically, low rent prostitute caught in the beige, smoky sub world of the brothel, dreaming of a primary colour, designer suited, respectability? It would seem more realistic for it to be the case that a woman – stultified by brothel life and the persistent intrusions of boorish men – to dream of middle class comforts, protective fashion and a bed of her own. Although of course, middle class marital comfort can contain a stultification of its own.
In any case, the film is not designed to elicit erotic charge. It dissociates from its own semi sexualised imagery to pose as a challenge to our fermented notions of masochistic desire. Whatever you take from the film, its narrative uncertainties and its confused chronologies leave it faltered in the mind, just as dream you can only half recall.