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BFI Film Classics: Belle de Jour, Michael Wood, (2000)


Book Review by Daniel Herbert.

Michael Wood begins his book on Belle de Jour by characterizing Luis Buñuel’s style as “a form of impatience” (page 8).  One might assume that, at a mere seventy-seven pages, Wood might require a similar impatience to breeze through the intricacies and enigmas that abound in Belle De Jour.  As a director whose career spanned more than fifty years, four nations, and produced more than thirty films, Luis Buñuel stands as one of the most unique and prolific visionaries of the film medium.  Wood is smarter than to treat him impatiently.  He allows for pauses of deep reflection, not only on the intricacies of Belle de Jour, but also on how the film works within Buñuel’s greater oeuvre, within its greater social context, as well as how it interacts with films by a number of different directors.  Forgoing impatience, then, for brevity, Wood manages to capture and relate much of the impact of this puzzling film through his careful and succinct writing.  Wood does not intend to give a final or definitive reading of the film.  In fact, he shows how such an endeavor would be misguided from the start.  Within its six chapters, this book provides an engaging companion to Belle de Jour that synthesizes a tremendous range of thinking about the film.  Eventually, the reader is left with an enriched sense of adoration for the film, the director, and the possibilities of film in general.

Traditionally, Buñuel’s films have been placed into four main categories.  First, there are the overtly surrealist films made in France.  Then, there are the “commercial” films made in Mexico, or as Buñuel liked to call them, his “bread and butter” films.  The third and least defined period produced both Simon of the Desert and Diary of a Chambermaid, and has been viewed as the warm up for the fourth and final stage in Buñuel’s career.  Belle De Jour initiates this last period.  However, Wood begins the first chapter of his book by linking all of Buñuel’s films by a “ragged poise, a careful flouting of rules of composition and sequence” (8).  In this way, Wood discusses Belle de Jour in the greater context of Buñuel’s career.  However, Belle de Jour marks a certain shift in Buñuel’s style, and so this impatience is reworked in the film.  While it engages in moments of formal beauty and contemplation, they do not provide clear resolution to their explorations.

The second chapter of the book discusses how the producer and the cast contribute to the film’s unique flavor.  Wood briefly describes how producers Robert and Raymond Hakim approached Buñuel with the idea for the film, already having Catherine Deneuve attached as its star.  He mentions in passing that they were fairly hands-off, forcing the alteration of only one scene in the movie.  They also provided Buñuel with a great deal of money to make the film, an unusual circumstance for the director.

In Wood’s view, the content of the film is just as determined by its three main actors.  Catherine Deneuve a certain air of mysterious unknown that profoundly affects the film.  Her sharp and sophisticated hair, makeup, and wardrobe further punctuate her sullen and enigmatic performance.  Wood traces her character, Séverine, in relation to both the films Deneuve had done previously as well as the films she would eventually make.  He notes that in Belle de Jour Deneuve exists as an enigma with “an extraordinary capacity for seeming not to be there” (18).  This performance works in concert with that of Michel Piccoli and Geneviève Page.  While Piccoli lends his sly combination of humor and danger to the role of Husson, Page provides the Madame Anaïs with a grace and class that would not otherwise be present.  In this interweaving of actors, each transcends the basic conscriptions of their roles and contributes to the film’s greater argument about mystery, enigma, and secrecy.

Wood moves on to the third chapter to differentiate the film from its source, the novel of the same title by Joseph Kessel.  In one of his many exact and illuminating textual analyses of the film, Wood describes how the opening of the film, in the carriage, mixes contemporaneous 1960s high fashion with the trappings of a fin de siècle melodrama.  The temporal juxtaposition also works in conjunction with the way events play out in the film, an ambiguous mix of fantasy, memory, and reality that defy clear differentiation.  This ambiguity most clearly separates the book from the film, as the conflation of reality and fantasy does not occur in the novel.  By reiterating the original narrative, Wood clarifies what changes upon the original Buñuel made, and so indirectly points toward how the original might have seemed attractive to Buñuel in the first place.  Additionally, one can see the spaces where Buñuel asserted his own personal obsessions into the narrative.  Nevertheless, major changes were made from the book, most notably the enigmatic end sequence.  These changes reveal Buñuel’s voracious appropriation of a wide variety of sources as well as his unique ability to assert his personality into a number of settings, contexts, and narratives.

The fourth chapter examines the layering of reality, memory, and fantasy that so defines Belle de Jour.  The film provides few clues as to how each level of reality within the film’s diegesis should be differentiated, however much it provokes such decoding.  Wood discusses how two other authors, Maurice Drouzy and Raymond Durgnat, have listed sequences in the film, noted upon what level of reality they register, and the formal clues that clarify the scenes’ “reality status.”  Wood re-lists eight sequences that prove particularly unstable in this regard.  However, Wood separates himself from the other authors by showing that definitive identification of the reality status of each scene is not as legible as the other authors posit.  He does not dismiss their work outright, as the film visibly functions to register such divisions while it simultaneously disrupts their absolute separation.  Wood intelligently ascribes this to two major components.  The first is Buñuel’s heavy use of Freudian tropes and symbols, mediated by his equal disavowal of psychology.  The second is a condition of cinema itself, being a medium that is on some level always fictional.  As Wood says, the film provides “only images,” that exist convincingly as either fantasy or reality (55).

Such thinking guides the fifth chapter of the book as well, where Wood examines the provocative end sequence of the film in great detail.  He describes how the end depicts a double conclusion, a set of events that seemingly position themselves in direct opposition to one another.  How to reconcile the impossibility of both endings?  Instead of drawing a conclusive reading about end of the film, Wood cleverly uses the occasion to make a greater claim as to the meaning of the film as a whole.  Instead of trying to draw a conclusion of the film’s uncertainties, Wood more intelligently and usefully positions the film as a picture of uncertainty itself.

The final chapter of the book examines how Belle de Jour works in relation to Buñuel’s other “late” films.  Wood complicates notions that his late films are characterized by a supposed “serenity,” stating that any such sentiment is nevertheless intertwined with a lingering sense of cruelty as well as narrative disruptions.  Although these motifs and formal devices characterize Buñuel’s films throughout his varied career, Wood retains the idea that there is a “late Buñuel.”  What differentiates these late films from all the former is their particular concern with high society and bourgeois culture, as evidenced by the French.  The fashion consciousness and high minded-ness of Belle de Jour pervades throughout these late films.  Wood concludes then that Belle de Jour marks a specific breaking point in Buñuel’s reworking of his interests.  In this break, Buñuel begins commenting directly on the society in which he lived at the time.

Impressively, Wood’s book successfully synthesizes a great number of ideas and sources into this short volume.  Anyone who has seen Belle de Jour, much less tried to write about the film, knows that it deflects unified comprehension.  Wood’s description and analysis of various moments in the film illuminates this sentiment.  In his eventual analysis, Wood indicates that although there are any number of specific readings one may have of Belle de Jour, no specific one has precedence over another.  Thus, his own conclusions are wonderfully ambivalent and inspire further consideration on the part of the reader.  Wood’s resigned unsettling of Belle de Jour accompanies his regular interjections regarding the way the film interacts with many other sources.  As it would be impossible to give a definitive reading of the film, it is that much better described by its interactions with other texts.  Wood’s knowledge of the scholarship about the film is considerable, seen at once in his bibliography.  Yet, he only brings this knowledge to bear when appropriate, to illuminate specific points.  The relation he draws between Belle de Jour and other Buñuel films is insightful, even disregards the importance of Buñuel’s Mexican films.  What appears as more of a revelation results from Wood’s comparison of Belle de Jour to films of other directors. As noted, Wood describes at length how the film compares to the original novel.  Of equal importance is the manner in which the movie combines a number of talents, including the actors, the producers, and the cinematographer, not to mention Buñuel himself, into a strikingly original film of lasting importance.  It is in this contextual mode that Wood pictures the film as a whole.

While it may not necessarily break any critical or theoretical ground, Wood’s book assembles a great number of significant ideas and related resources in its pages.  The book is neither a starting point nor an end in itself; it does not introduce Belle de Jour nor does it exhaust the film.  Wood knows that this film in particular defies exhaustion.  The real contribution of Wood’s book lays not in any particular facts cited or specific ideas raised.  It is Wood’s attitude toward the film, his perpetuation of the film’s importance, that marks the grander ambition and significance of his work.

Daniel Herbert is a scholar of contemporary media culture with particular interests in media industries, geography, and cultural identities. He is assistant professor of Screen Arts & Cultures at the University of Michigan.

 

Book Details

Michael Wood.
BFI Film Classics: Belle de Jour.
London, UK: BFI Publishing, 2000.

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