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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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There was a time when perversion was an acquired taste, savored only by an elite, knowing few. Indiscretion was still discreet, confined as it were to the private suite or even more rarefied domain of secret, personal desires. Belle de Jour (1968) is Luis Bunuel’s ode to a Grecian urge - a work of glossy, impeccable smut. Bearing the subtle, provocative taint of the director’s Surrealist past, Belle de Jour treats the viewer to a voyeuristic delight by peeking through the keyhole into the subconscious, irrational fantasy world of its troubled heroine.

Indiscrete Charm

Deneuve charms in Belle de JourAt first glance, Severine (Catherine Deneuve) is a pillar of imperturbable (yet turbulent) rectitude. As always, Deneuve is sublime in her evocation of vapid remoteness. She is the picture of prim and proper restraint, straight-laced and buttoned up with pious severity from the house of Saint Laurent. Yet surging beneath the glacial, immutable exterior are the mute desires of a raging, frigid nymphomaniac. Severine is repressed yet obsessed, and her unassailable propriety and porcelain beauty make her a delectable target for the most provocative humiliations imaginable.

The film opens innocently enough. The mood is tranquil and the pace is calm as Severine and her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) amble down what appears to be a backcountry road by horse-drawn carriage. The bucolic scene is ripped asunder, however, when Severine is suddenly pulled from the carriage, dragged through the woods, and flogged. Her air of serenity never flags, however, and it soon becomes apparent that this outrage is of her own (if not her director’s) creation. Despite the shocking abandon of her fantasy, her self-control as she submits to it is so complete that she seems impervious to her own pleasure. To a certain degree, Severine’s humiliation alludes to a state of passive fervor and sexual martyrdom (for the masochist, indulging in sin is it’s own atonement). Always immaculate, she is ennobled by her degradation. Even when strung up by her wrists from a tree and splattered with mud, she’s imbued with a beatific air of transcendence.

Nocturnal Omission

In a moment of seamless discontinuity, the film jump cuts to the interior of the couple’s bedroom, where all is not as seemly as it seems. Severine and her spouse are as clean cut as Waterford crystal. They’re the image of bland perfection, and both project an air of icy chic whether attired in the accoutrements of aprés-ski or a crisp pair of pajamas. Each of them dutifully mouths the platitudes of spousal devotion with monotone conviction, and their most intimate moments sound like a first-time line reading from a printed script. On the surface, their union is superb in every respect with the exception of the marriage bed, which remains unruffled. This glaring nocturnal omission hints at the likelihood that their relationship has never been consummated. Severine begs Pierre to be patient until she’s overcome her nervousness; any day now she should be ready to give in to his conjugal demands. Yet her chastity is little more than a subterfuge for concealing her true yearnings. Even though she’s married to a man who’s attractive, attentive, and affluent, her secret fantasies reveal that she would rather be caressed by a whip than the simpering tenderness of her mate.

Severine is a tightly wound coil of poise, and her life shatters one day when she sends a bottle of Shalimar perfume (Guerlain’s timeless evocation of “the abode of love”) crashing to the floor. Skittish and distracted, Severine follows a compulsion trigged by a confidential tidbit of conversation: there’s a house in the neighborhood that’s not necessarily a home. Severine pays a discreet visit to Mme. Anaïs, an immodest “modiste,” whose upper-crust bordello operates under the cloak of a private dressmaking shop. Mme. Anaïs sizes her up, unzips her with her eyes, and offers her a job on the spot. The interview concluded, Severine shyly embarks on a prelude to an afternoon of fondling as she observes her new coworkers ply their trade. It’s a short leap from the catwalk to the cat house, and in no time Severine is modeling for clients in little more than her lily-white underthings. Although a touch reluctant and petrified at first, Severine quickly adapts to her day job and soon becomes the most sought-after beauty in the establishment. Sleepwalking through married life and moonlighting by day, Severine has found her calling as a swing-shift call girl.

The Power of Sleaze

Our heroine’s sinful sanctuary is punctured by the arrival of a dangerous new client. Pierre Clementi is dreamy as the nightmare lover Marcel. He’s a vicious thug and sexy beast whose gold-capped teeth and brass-knuckle overbite bespeak a tarnished record. Dripping with criminal allure, Clementi shows no clemency in his manhandling of demure Deneuve. The film achieves its full erotic power at the very moment in fact when she submits to his rough embrace, and it’s a bracing, salacious sight indeed to see her delicate flesh besmirched by such a visceral, shady character.

An uneasy symmetry ensues when Severine’s clandestine worlds collide. Her cover blown, Severine watches helplessly as her secret lover hunts down and pulls the trigger on her unsuspecting husband. The showdown raises a number of uncertainties, however, to the degree that the dueling challengers to her affection suggest the inverse qualities of the other: is the outlaw the devoted mate, or is it the husband who’s an ineffectual brute? If Pierre was crippled by the attack, why does he suddenly rise from his wheelchair as if he’d never been wounded? The film concludes on an inclusive note, leaving the entire film in doubt. None of what we’ve seen might have happened. Or perhaps it did. Convergence diverges.

Insidious Kinky

Belle de Jour is all the more scathing due to its audacious understatement and lack of obvious style. Bunuel’s self-effacing effrontery is more insouciant than scathing. Transgression is committed for the sheer joy of impish impropriety. With its smooth, staccato rhythm, the film is a spool of erotic tableaux, daydreams and impromptu fantasies. Appearances, expectations, and the safety of polite behavior are often confounded as the parameters of what’s considered socially acceptable are always in peril. Benign snippets of conversation can suddenly shift to cruel outbursts of the most unspeakable verbal sniping.

The succession of interludes functions as a structuring device, as if the film were propelled by its own perversity. All activity is driven by compulsion and fetishistic impulse. An uneasy suspense ensues, arousing a sense of impending depravity. The implication, perhaps, is that the intrusion of sexual thoughts is not a disruptive event. Rather, desire punctuates and undercuts every aspect of quotidian activity, both conscious and subconscious, from benign social intercourse to religious ritual. In Belle de Jour, the jarring juxtapositions of fact and fantasy follow the absurd logic of a dream, creating an inexplicable equilibrium of irrational plausibility. Sexuality is most certain when it’s reached its peak of perplexity.

Picture Quality

The picture quality is admirable to the degree that it maintains the film’s richness of color contrasts. The autumnal amber tones and cobalt blues give the picture a sumptuous glow, which illuminates the fundamental dichotomy of abandon and restraint in “Belle de Jour.”

Occasional flurries of white specks can be perceived, but they do not detract from the overall clarity of the transfer. It should be noted in passing, perhaps, that a slight amount of surface debris is not necessarily detrimental to a movie’s pictorial integrity. In this reviewer’s estimation, scratches, spots, and missing frames can sometimes confer “texture” to a print as well as the subtle reminder that film was once a physical medium.

Sound Quality

The Dolby digital mono soundtrack is clear, ambient, and unobtrusive. In any event, Severine’s fantasies speak for themselves, and are just fine without the added boost of sub-woofer wolf-whistles.

Bonus Material

The included trailers are notable due to the contrast of tone and focus between the original U.S. theatrical trailer and the one created for the film’s 1995 re-release. The former is all grainy smut, resembling more of a staggering stag-flick teaser than a respectable art-house come-on. While the latter one is by no means timid about the erotic nature of Belle de Jour, it’s use of still-frame images from the film gives a more respectable, subdued impression.

The main bonus here is a full-length audio commentary track provided by Bunuel scholar Julie Jones, who provides a penetrating, insightful look at Bunuel’s object of desire, without ever coming across as obscure or pedantic. Historic background is deftly mixed with a thematic discussion of material both within the individual film itself, as well as similarities and counterpoints with other works in the director’s output.