Luis Buñuel, “Belle de Jour” (1967)
It’s got a trashy premise – a rich doctor’s wife “plays” at being a prostitute for a few hours each day – but Buñuel turns the soap opera plot into a blackly humorous and tragic satire about the upper classes and their uneasy relationship with sex, power and control. Lead actor Catherine Deneuve plays Severine, recently married to Pierre Serizy (Jean Sorel) who works as a hospital specialist and who often brings much of his paperwork home, a situation that suits his young wife as she is sexually frigid with a secret history of childhood sexual abuse. We see her early on in the film with little to do at home (a maid does the housework) so she goes shopping a lot, walking around her neighbourhood a lot and having frequent migraines so she goes to bed early a lot. When asleep Severine has strange dreams about being sexually humiliated and beaten by her husband and various working-class ruffians.
Pierre and Severine have a mutual friend Husson (Michel Piccoli) who is attracted to Severine and who one day mentions to her the address of a discreet high-class brothel where a middle-class housewife Severine knows as a casual acquaintance happens to work. Initially Severine is repelled by the idea but, curious as to whether working as a prostitute might remedy her sexual frigidity and perhaps make her a “normal” sexually functioning woman, she approaches the brothel madame, Anais (Genevieve Page), who agrees to take her on as a part-time prostitute under the pseudonym Belle de Jour.
After a couple of hesitant starts, Severine starts to enjoy her work and quickly becomes a favourite with Madame Anais and the various wealthy clients who exhibit all kinds of sexual fetishes, including whipping, incest and necrophilia. Severine’s weird sexual dreams gradually cease and she starts to become more loving and intimate with her workaholic husband who soon becomes the one looking for excuses for avoiding sex. However one day two gangsters turn up at Madame Anais’s brothel and the younger of the two, Marcel (Pierre Clementi), quickly becomes obsessed with Severine. Severine herself is attracted to Marcel as he fulfills her fantasies of being abused by disreputable or lower-class men but is forced to leave the brothel when Husson turns up and sees her there. Nevertheless Marcel uncovers her identity and where she lives and Severine is unable to prevent and avoid the clash of her separate identities and existences as Belle de Jour and Severine Serizy and their devastating consequences.
For a movie with a threadbare and unrealistic soap opera plot, “Belle de Jour” can be moving due to its rich detail and the various issues and themes that lurk in the background. Identity and control are major themes: Severine already is adept at hiding her sexual fears and fantasy life from hubby Pierre who thinks she is just shy and child-like and treats her accordingly, so it’s not hard for her to hide her other identity as Belle de Jour from him. However she has no control over Husson and Marcel who uncover her double life. Severine’s reaction to control and being controlled is complicated: the movie hints at a past history of sexual violence; she allows her husband to treat her like a pet; she is submissive to Marcel’s sexual violence; and her sexual fantasies, initially at least, suggest guilt feelings about being rebellious or being of a privileged background. At the same time she controls Pierre and Marcel’s access to her body by playing victim and while Pierre is happy to go along with this, Marcel refuses to play along and his refusal leads to tragedy.
Severine’s clients also have issues dealing with identity and control: there is the respected gynaecologist, used to commanding respect, who gets exasperated at Severine’s inability to spank him and walk all over him (literally); there is the businessman who imagines himself a ladies’ man but is actually crude and there’s a hint that he rapes Severine as he can’t have her any other way. On a bigger scale, Bunuel plays with audience expectations of how a movie narrative should proceed: there are flashbacks here and there to Severine’s childhood; her daydreams and fantasies intrude into the film without warning (save for cats’ meows and tinkling bells near the end) and exit just as abruptly; and Bunuel and Deneuve herself, who in the 1960’s had a reputation as an blonde ice-queen siren, revel in turning that reputation inside-out. Even the entire film itself is a dreamworld where Bunuel takes pot-shots at religion and class differences, and inverts social and gender control mechanisms. The prostitutes control men’s access to their bodies and the men are controlled by their lusts and desires. Marriage as an institution locks two people who can’t communicate with each other or relate as equals into an endless barren prison.
The details of the film are so layered that each repeated viewing reveals something new. The focus on Severine’s legs and shoes at times not only suggests a fetishistic obsession on Bunuel’s part but reveals Severine’s psychological state and her social status. Her dreams are full of masochistic religious symbols and imagery: in one dream, dragged from a horse-drawn landau that’s just gone through a long tree-lined grove (hint, hint), Severine is then stripped, tied to a tree and lashed; in another, after a herd of bulls with names like Remorse and Expiation charges through a field, Severine is shown tied to a post in a crucifixion pose and pelted with mud and ordure. The apartment where the Serizys live is luxuriously furnished and Severine nearly always looks the stereotypical high-maintenance trophy wife with carefully coiffed hair and porcelain looks. Deneuve’s flat minimal acting and blank expressions actually reveal more of Severine’s state of mind and moods than a more emotional style would; her interaction with Madame Anais in particular, discreet though it is, suggests a mutual lesbian attraction
I suppose one day I’ll watch this film yet again and find it outdated, twee and quaint but that day seems a long way off.
Jean-Luc Godard, “Alphaville”, Athos Films (1965)
On the surface “Alphaville” is just one of many episodes in the career of stereotypical hard-boiled trenchcoat-suited detective Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine). Caution’s immediate mission is to search for another agent, Dickson, in the city of Alphaville. Inititally the film plays ball in a straightforward film noir manner with stark backgrounds that take advantage of the black-and-white film, with a choppy cartoon musical motif, just what you’d expect of this kind of film. However, listen closely to the early dialogue and you’ll find Caution’s in a city like no other: on arriving at his hotel, a young woman leads him to his room, informing him all the while that she is his specially assigned state prostitute; he contrives to get rid of her and her hidden pimp-enforcer, only to have another young woman, Natasha (Anna Karina), assigned to him. It becomes apparent that Alphaville is a city organised along purely scientific-technocratic principles formulated by the brilliant scientist Von Braun and carried out by his supercomputer Alpha 60.
The citizens of Alphaville live and behave strictly in accordance with these principles which admit no expression or indication of emotion or reasoning that goes against the city’s rigid logic. Much of the movie’s first half is exposition as Natasha takes Caution on a tour around the city; among other things, he sees law-breakers being punished for being emotional or irrational. Caution progressively drops his nom de plum and his purported reason for visiting Alphaville, and reveals his real mission: to find and kill Von Braun and destroy Alpha 60; in order to do so, he must understand the nature of the city and how it oppresses its inhabitants and Natasha, and ultimately himself
Quickly the viewer becomes accustomed to director Godard’s deliberate use of modernist concrete and glass buildings and interiors, and the bleak highways and neon signage of Paris of the mid-1960’s, both as the cityscape of Alphaville and as a metaphor for the direction Western society is heading in. The speed with which the viewer accepts Godard’s conceit itself may say mountains about we readily accept authority and authoritarian guidelines even when they contradict human nature and impulses. Raoul Coutard’s camerawork enhances the futuristic aspect of the contemporary Paris landscapes: there are long tracking shots of passages that go on and on and on, suggesting the illogicality of a place ruled by pure logic; there is effective use of Paris nightscapes to suggest an all-seeing mechanised Big Brother; and scenes inside buildings are shot in high contrast to emphasise the alien quality of Alphaville.
The most unnerving aspect of the movie though is the voice of Alpha 60 itself: deep, gravelly and just how you’d expect an obese toad grown to elephant height to talk if such a being could talk, with a clicky machine quality as it draws breath. When Caution finally confronts Alpha 60 in a booth, microphones glide around his head move in stiff but sure movements: the movements of a detached, automated order that grinds down its followers. This is a chilling yet comic scene as Caution defeats Alpha 60 quoting lines of poetry – quite strange for a man of his occupational background
Small details in the movie reference recent European history and literary and film sources: Caution discovers Natasha carries a serial number on her neck; the scientist who created Alphaville is surnamed Von Braun after the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun who switched his allegiances from Nazi Germany to the United States in order to realise his dream of manned space flight; the hotel used in the movie is one that was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War; scenes of long passages recall Franz Kafka works like “The Trial” and “The Castle”. The computer voice of Alpha 60 (voiced by a man with an artificial larynx that replaced his cancer-ravaged one) is an influence from a 1930s film. I understand there are several references to Jean Cocteau’s works, none of which I’m familiar with, and one of these is the flight of Caution and Natasha from the oppressive city which is inspired by the Cocteau film “Orphee”, a retelling of the Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice set in 1950s Paris. (Thanks, Wikipedia
I’ve heard “Alphaville” itself was a major influence on Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and I can see many parallels between the two: “Blade Runner” combines film noir and sci-fi elements in having a hardboiled detective in a future society who, like Caution, submits to a computer test and meets an innocent young woman who, like Natasha, is forced by the detective to confront her “robot” reality and transcend it by learning how to love. Like Caution and Natasha, these two characters flee for their lives once the detective’s mission is completed but the “love conquers all” theme is missing and the mood is tinged with the detective’s knowledge that the woman faces an early death which he is helpless to prevent
Admittedly “Alphaville” isn’t immediately enjoyable – it can induce sleepiness in its first half – and it does look dated due to its settings and its depiction of the technology then current. But some of its themes and ideas are perhaps more relevant to our day than in 1965. This may say something about what Godard had in mind while making the movie; evidently he detected certain trends in Western society which he takes to their logical and sometimes comedic, sometimes horrific extremes in “Alphaville” and some of these trends are well on the way to being realised in our times: they may look sharper, glossier, not so clunky but nevertheless they’re on the march. As long as we have corporate fascism masquerading as capitalism to enforce its “logic” across nations and continents, these tendencies such as dehumanisation of people in a technological society and rule by ideology against human nature will continue. For this reason “Alphaville” continues to have historic didactic value and most folks should see it at least once. Some may end up watching it again and again whenever the opportunity arises