Many refer to Belle de Jour as Luis Buñuel’s erotic masterpiece. I say it’s neither, but it is nonetheless a classic entirely worthy of the treatment is has received by The Criterion Collection. Their new Blu-ray release rights the wrongs of Miramax’s subpar DVD treatment that followed an arthouse revival of the film more than a decade and a half ago. It also contains numerous useful features that help put this sometimes bizarre, unsettling film in context.
Maybe I don’t understand the true meaning of eroticism, I’ll admit that – but this movie ain’t that sexy. Anyone looking for shock and scandal is sure to be disappointed when they discover a movie that could just about pass for PG-13 by today’s standards. I realize 1967 was a very different time. Regardless, the film remains very much adult in nature and quite complex. As for masterpiece, I prefer the more unhinged surreal hilarity of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but that’s just a matter of taste. Belle de Jour is a harder film to warm up to.
The story centers on Severine (Catherine Deneuve), an apparently frigid young housewife. Her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) is a blandly handsome doctor who is understandably frustrated by – yet remarkably patient with – his wife’s aversion to physical intimacy. But Severine is secretly a masochist, preoccupied by violent, degrading fantasies. Buñuel’s deft storytelling offers no obvious signals to cue the viewer about which sequences are reality and which are fantasy. This has a disorienting effect, often resulting in intentional confusion. Severine ventures out to a brothel after hearing about it from a friend of her husband’s. Initially very reluctant, she decides to become a part-time prostitute. Nicknamed Belle de Jour by the brothel’s madame (Geneviève Page), Severine spends three hours each afternoon servicing men that fulfill her masochistic desires.
Marcel (Pierre Clementi) is a tough guy john who quickly becomes Severine’s most devoted customer. A little too devoted in fact, as his obsession leads to Severine quitting the brothel. Marcel, possibly the film’s most conventional character (though he’s still a distinct oddball), proves to be quite a loose cannon and spirals out of control with his desire for Severine. By no means does Belle de Jour end up degenerating into a typical love triangle scenario, as Pierre’s reactions to his wife’s behavior are very hard to read. She desires danger and borderline abusive treatment, not the politely civilized lifestyle offered by Pierre. Severine is a difficult character to like, making her a difficult protagonist to sympathize with. This is compounded by Deneuve’s supremely inscrutable performance; her icy gaze rarely betraying any emotions she might be feeling.
Belle de Jour has been done proud on Blu-ray by Criterion with a very attractive MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer that preserves the film’s 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Already that’s a big improvement over the non-anamorphic DVD that Miramax released many years ago. For anyone who defended that particular DVD, claiming that somehow the nature of the original 1967 production precluded a high-quality visual presentation, now is the time to start eating crow. Sharpness is noticeably much greater on the new Blu-ray. Some of the close-ups have a nearly contemporary look, they are so clean and crisp. Belle de Jour had a very muted color palette to begin with, but the old DVD really looked washed out. Flashes of bright color, such as Severine’s red outfit during the fantasy sequences, are significantly more vivid. The only minor flaw I detected was a subtle shifting in color in a number of shots, just enough to be barely noticeable.
Criterion always does the right thing when it comes to the audio portion of vintage films, as far as I have seen. That is to say, when it was mono originally, they keep it mono. No artificial surround sound mixes for movies that were made long before the surround sound era. Belle de Jour is no exception, as the original mono mix – in French – has been restored. The LPCM mono mix has been remastered and is presented in pristine form. Dialogue is free of distortion. Subtle effects are clearly audible. Criterion has done an excellent job of presenting Belle de Jour probably better than it has ever sounded before.
A number of supplemental features help shed some light on this difficult-to-understand film. The commentary track by Michael Wood, a college professor and author of a book about Belle de Jour, goes some ways towards interpreting Buñuel’s vision. Wood does not shy away from admitting when even he is at a loss to analyze specific elements, suggesting (probably correctly) that Buñuel likely threw in some of the more bizarre moments as non sequiturs. A twenty minute featurette, newly produced for this release, is basically a cross-cut interview of two women who apparently figure as experts on both this movie as well sexual issues. I don’t know, I just found them kind of annoyingly pretentious and didn’t get a lot out of their discussion. Far more interesting is a new interview with Buñuel’s screenwriting collaborator, Jean-Claude Carriere. Also worthwhile is a vintage interview with Catherine Deneuve. As is customary for Criterion, the lengthy booklet is as valuable as any of the video features, loaded with further insight into this fascinating film.