Belle de Jour is similar to That Obscure Object of Desire in the sense that our female protagonist withholds herself from her husband, but while That Obscure Object of Desire was deliriously consumed with Flabert’s desire for intimacy, Belle de Jour is a more serious work intent on Séverine’s desires, which she buries into her subconscious until they are only displayed in her dreams. That Obscure Object is more in Buñuel’s nihilistic comedy mode and while it is certainly a puzzling, dizzying film about sexual morality, Belle de Jour surpasses it for sheer psychological mystery.
The opening scene, which begins with a careful long shot of a distant horse-drawn carriage that slowly moves into close-up, is both emblematic of the enigmatic qualities of the film and leads me closer to charting out Buñuel’s style. It is a dream in which Séverine is brutally beaten by her husband’s coachmen after he infers from her introversion that she is cheating on him behind his back. This dream has many interesting implications—not only does she desire masochistic pleasure, but she also anticipates her eventual employment in a brothel and how conflictingly she feels about being found out—and it is also a bitterly realistic dream, lacking any of the usual surreal touches and focusing in abundance on the damp earth and tranquil scenery. I am also coming to understand the particularities of Buñuel’s relatively long-take style. Throughout the film there is an illusion of fixed space. The opening shot begins as a lengthy static shot before a sudden pan, and the camera often begins in a set position before it begins tracking or prowling or zooming in or zooming out, and it is always as if our initial perception of a set space is being encroached upon or distorted. The camera often pans between husband and wife or rotates around an axis between à la Contempt, and it also follows according to Séverine’s gaze à la Madame de…. Buñuel undoubtedly wields one of the most curious, voyeuristic cameras in film history.
There are snippets of flashback into Séverine’s past that I suspect have certain autobiographical flourishes for Buñuel, who was raised Catholic and then came to abandon the faith. All of his protagonists seem predetermined for certain sexual transfixions, and while Flabert of That Obscure Object is a grotesquely comedic example, Séverine is more fully realized and her flashbacks that depict a Catholic upbringing seem like Buñuel delving into his own childhood. Is Buñuel casting a moral light on Séverine’s decisions, either approvingly or disapprovingly? Her actions result in a violent disaster and yet Buñuel clearly looks on his heroine with profound affection. In what I now know to be typical Buñuelian fashion, the outcome of Pierre’s learning his wife’s fatal secret is given to us as a dream. Dreams are the means by which he approaches life and the means by which his characters either cultivate their desires or retreat into themselves.