One of my favorite unanswered questions in all of the movies is this: What does the Japanese client keep in his box in Belle de Jour?
A little background is in order, in case youíve never seen the film. Belle de Jour is a definitive statement on eroticism, and a deeply personal experience. Catherine Deneuve gives a flat yet evocative performance as Severine Sevigny, a virginal newlywed whose everyday life is broken up by masochistic fantasies in which sheís beaten, smeared with filth, and humiliated by a variety of men. Her husband, Pierre, seems gentle and loving, but Severine remains in thrall to the idea of less wholesome relationships. When Severine probes one of her husbandís friends for information, he gives her the address of a Parisian brothel catering to businessmen. Severine dons black hat, coat, and sunglasses, and wanders through the neighborhood, finally working up the courage to enter the establishment, where Madame Anais agrees to let her work as a prostitute (Severine is just the right type, she says -- fresh and classy). Because Severine is insistent that she must be free to leave by evening, Anais christens her Belle de Jour.
The remainder of the film is broken into episodes, as Severine confronts new and different clients while living a second life at home. For the most part, the customers are vaguely repulsive caricatures: the fellow who fancies himself a ladies' man, and forces himself clumsily on her; "the Professor," a mousy gynecologist who insists on being scolded, whipped, and trod upon. More intriguing is the Japanese businessman who carries with him a small box. He shows the contents to one of the other two prostitutes, who snaps "Not for me, thanks," and turns away in a hurry. When Severine peeks inside, her eyes grow wide and we hear a soft whirring noise. "Donít be afraid," she is urged.
When the man leaves, closing the latch once more on his little box, Severine lies spent, stretched across the bed as the maid tidies her room. She confides to Severine her understanding of what the prostitutes go through; even the maid finds men like the Japanese client somewhat frightening. Severine looks up from the bed with an expression of exhaustion and bliss. "What do you know?" she spits.
Director and co-screenwriter Luis Bunuel is one of the most subversive of filmmakers. His career began in 1939, with Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), a classic of Surrealism that he made with artist Salvador Dali. The first scene featured a razor blade slicing sideways across a womanís (actually an animalís) eyeball. That most offensive of all images, which creates an uproar to this day whenever itís shown to a classroom full of first-year film students, is a challenge to viewers, renewed with each project in Bunuelís long career. Here, he seems to be at first challenging us to identify with Severine and her deviances, convincing us to distance ourselves from them, and ultimately to examine our own responses to her situation.
Bunuel is aided and abetted in this perverse venture by Sacha Vierny, the cinematographer who worked with Alain Resnais on Night and Fog, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and Last Year at Marienbad, and who has lately been salvation for British filmmaker Peter Greenaway, whose films take divine advantage of Viernyís cool, stately image-making. A good deal of Belle de Jourís quiet power comes from the mannered beauty of its compositions, as Vierny catches the light on Deneuveís face just so.
Eventually, Severine pays a terrible price for pursuing her aberrant fantasies, and the film could almost be a treatise on the importance of prudence and fidelity. Itís tempting to assume that Bunuel is blaming Severine for giving in to her own desires and betraying her husband -- blaming Woman for the ruin of Man. Perhaps he is, but itís maddening to try and prove it. The movie is quite clearly Severineís story, not Pierreís. Her status as perpetrator of a misdeed is undermined by her status as a tragic hero (which is bolstered as Bunuel goes out of his way to develop Severineís character). Whatís important isnít what Deneuve gives away in her low-key performance, but what she doesnít show -- the essence that the audience itself has to fill in. Typically, the director gives us something more intriguing and revealing than a simple narrative. Bunuel plays our own judgmental tendencies against our desire for erotic satisfaction, and leaves us in a quandary.
Which brings us back to one of the great questions of the cinema. Whatís in the Asian clientís box is the same thing thatís in Quentin Tarantinoís Pulp Fiction briefcase. Itís the MacGuffin from a dozen different Hitchcock films. Judging from the look on Deneuveís face as she recovers from its effects, it may be, like the Maltese Falcon, the stuff dreams are made of.
But as far as dreams go, itís the stuff thatís outside the frame that matters. Our own moral scheme, shaped by personal loves, regrets, and fantasies, surrounds and permeates Bunuelís deliberately ambiguous value system. Like Greta Garboís at the climax of Queen Christina, Deneuveís face is a mask, and also a receptor for our own emotions. The final truth of this film is that we are forced to do our own moralizing, if we feel it needs to be done -- no matter how skillful the intrusion of Bunuel as auteur, Severineís life-changing experience is unmistakably a function of our own.
* After about two decades of unavailability on video in the United States (save for illegal 16mm dubs or PAL video transfers with no English translation), Belle de Jour's theatrical re-release has been arranged by Martin Scorsese and Zoe, a new subsidiary of Miramax. As of this writing, the film is only showing in Los Angeles and New York (where it has enjoyed tremendous success), but may soon come to a theater near you.