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Belle de Jour
Release Date(s)1967 (January 17, 2012)
Studio(s)Janus Films (Criterion - Spine #593)
Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour is as much a surrealist piece of avant-garde cinema as it is a portrait of a confused woman trying to chase away her inner demons in the best ways that she can find. The film was the biggest hit of both Buñuel’s and Deneuve’s careers and helped push the concept of surrealism in feature films even further.
Belle de Jour tells the story of a bourgeoisie house wife named Séverine who seems lost when it comes to her own sexual development. As an alternative, she fantasizes about repressed masochistic erotic acts, and when the fantasies are no longer enough, she turns to a secret life of high-class prostitution. Throughout the film, the lines between reality and fantasy are sometimes blurred and we’re never quite sure at times whether she is fantasizing or not.
It’s interesting to note that Belle de Jour isn’t quite as titillating today as it must have been in 1967. After all, times have changed, and acts of sexual freedom and the liberation of women are still very much in motion, despite both still being repressed in many societies the world over. Belle de Jour was at the forefront of this, giving us a female character that goes to incredible lengths to explore her sexuality. The film also tends to suggest more than it actually shows, which is a potent filmmaking tool. The mind will always conjure up more powerful images than a film ever can. We see a brief glimpse of Séverine being molested as a child, but it’s nothing more than a kiss, leaving us to wonder just how far it actually went. This event in her life seems to be playing into her desire to seek out things outside of her normal environment. It may have indeed affected her psychologically, but then again, it may have not. That answer is never very concrete, and I don’t believe that Buñuel intended it to be.
In the end, even after everything you’ve seen, you still have to make up your own mind about the film, especially the ending. It really leaves it up in the air as to what the outcome of this woman really is. The film doesn’t attempt to present a black and white moral dilemma that can be easily solved. Regardless, it’s still a rich and sophisticated film. Catherine Deneuve’s performance is terrific and it wound up being her most iconic role. She would go on to work with Buñuel again on Tristana, but it’s Belle de jour that everyone remembers. It’s a great film that was both a huge hit and highly influential in the years to come.
Belle de Jour’s debut on Criterion Blu-ray packs quite a lovely transfer. Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, the film looks pretty sensational. Film grain is strong and very natural-looking. Both brightness and contrast are also very good, but the color palette is not altogether perfect. Skin tones look a bit too pale and some of the primaries, mainly reds, are very striking, especially in the opening scene. The colors also appear very cool at times, maybe too cool. Blacks are ok, but the main color palette isn’t perfect. Most probably won’t notice it as it does appear fine to the naked eye, but with a little more analysis, you might find some imperfections. There are also some film defects left behind here and there, but not in abundance. So it’s a very strong and detail-oriented presentation without being totally perfect in the color department. The soundtrack, which is a basic French mono soundtrack, sounds very good. It’s a bit flat and shows its age, but dialogue is clear and there’s some nice ambience in the background. Sound effects sound particularly good, better than I would have thought. For a mono soundtrack its age, it sounds remarkably good. There are subtitles in English, which seemed accurate and were very easy to follow along with.
For the supplemental material, there’s an audio commentary with the author of the BFI Film Classics book “Belle de jour” Michael Wood; That Obscure Source of Desire, a featurette with writer and sexual-politics activist Susie Bright and film scholar Linda Williams; an interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière; a segment from the 1966 French TV program Cinéma, featuring interviews with Carrière and Deneuve; both the film’s original and rerelease trailers; and finally, a 28-page booklet featuring an essay by critic Melissa Anderson and an interview from the 1970’s with Buñuel. There’s more material out there that maybe could have been utilized in order to get into more about the actual making of the film itself, but this is a good set of extra material that’s very informative.
Overall, Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Belle de Jour will surely delight fans of world cinema in general. It’s a provocative and well-made film that is likely to enrich your film diet and make you think about the moral quandary of it all long after it’s over.
- Tim Salmons