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DVD Review: Kinky Classic 'Belle de Jour' Gets the Criterion Treatment

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood January 23, 2012 at 10:11AM

Séverine Serizy, the glacial, inscrutable masochist at the center of Luis Buñuel's masterpiece "Belle de Jour," leads perhaps the most irreconcilable of double lives.
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Belle du Jour
Belle du Jour

Séverine Serizy, the glacial, inscrutable masochist at the center of Luis Buñuel's masterpiece "Belle de Jour," leads perhaps the most irreconcilable of double lives. Catherine Deneuve plays the frigid bourgeois housewife by morning and night, and in the afternoons - from to 2 to 5pm, to be exact - she is compulsively drawn to work at the tasteful brothel of Madame Anaïs. Thus Séverine bears the burden of being genuinely in love, and genuinely turned on, but never at the same time. Deneuve's near impossible beauty gives her a porcelain quality -- glazed and cold when in the company of her kind, hopelessly unlucky Ken-doll husband, and ecstatically shatterable when in her fantasy realm.

This fantasy realm is both the very real Anaïs maison (where a portly Asian client brings Séverine to orgasm with a whirring mystery in a box, and a gold-toothed savage attempts to give her face a belt lashing) and the more slippery landscape of her daydreams (among other things, she imagines herself in a carriage, tied to trees, brutally whipped, and pelted with shit). And then there's the image of Séverine as a school girl being fondled by a middle-aged man, which makes the already complex portrait of a damaged, divided young woman even more tricky.

I had the pleasure of seeing "Belle de Jour" in a lovely 35mm print within a day of reviewing Criterion's impressive Blu-ray, which gave me a heightened appreciation for the new high-definition digitally restored transfer. The richly morbid golds and greens of autumnal France, and contrasting sunny primary colors of Séverine's Yves Saint Laurent wardrobe, are upheld beautifully in the transition from film to disc, and Buñuel's sound design retains its haunting clarity.

As to be expected with Criterion, the special feature goodies are top-notch. Of particular note is the short documentary in which film scholar Linda Williams (who teaches a class on pornography on the film syllabus for undergrads at UC Berkeley) and sexual-politics activist Susie Bright discuss the implications of Severine's sexual symptoms, and of the importance of "Belle de Jour" as an ambivalently feminist work. Chcek the 2011 interview with frequent Buñuel collaborator and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, and his interview at the time of making the film for a few prominent contradictions, speaking either to the fallibility of memory or the temptation to exaggerate. Either way, no doubt Buñuel would be tickled.

Watch the nifty "Three Reasons" Criterion trailer for "Belle de Jour" here.
 

This article is related to: Classics, DVDs, Reviews


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.