June 20, 2007

The choices of Severine: a thought on Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour

Luis Bunuel's film, Belle de Jour, has rightly been called a visual poem. There is a sense in which fantasy and reality merge, as metaphor piles upon metaphor, for the viewere seeing through the film to what it says is as complicated as perceiving what a poem means. Bunuel fuses narrative and dream together deliberately in his tale of a Parisian wife who out of boredom and frustration becomes a prostitute working in a brothel- she may not even do that- the film may be the story that it lays out itself to be or it may be an even grander vision- a gedanken, a thought experiment that lays bare what this woman really desires, what she really needs. Perhaps most emblematic of all is a scene in the brothel, a Japanese client turns to each prostitute and offers them a chance to experiment with a little casket which contains something that buzzes, one prostitute turns away in fear and terror, but Belle takes up the challenge- Bunuel cuts to the Belle's body lying on the bed that the client and his box have just vacated- a maid comes in and Belle rears up her eyes with a look of sexual satiation upon them but why we have no clue and what that denotes no idea.

Ultimately I don't wish to speculate until I have thought more about this beautiful poem of a movie- but there is something that I think does emerge and does make sense. This is a film in part about freedom- Severine's most free act is deciding to become a prostitute, everyone assumes throughout the film that she does it for money but in truth she needs no money, she decides to do it because she is free to do it. She decides to do it to demonstrate her own sovereignty- for her husband's friend Husson the act of becoming a prostitute demonstrates her undesirable maturity, it demonstrates that she is not a child, not a school girl, not pure.

This facet of the film is fascinating because of the way it is related to Severine's ability to love her husband. At the begining of the film she says that she loves him, but its easy to sense a relationship in real trouble- there is a void symbolised in the fact that they sleep seperately, he is precise and correct but not passionate in his behaviour to her. By becoming free Severine becomes free to love- and increasingly in the trajectory of the film she does fall in love, she comes closer, she rests her head on his breast and becomes a lover- but interestingly that's not what her husband wants. He wants children, he wants a conventional marriage and doesn't really understand her- at one point he thinks she is having an affair whereas actually her mind is loyal though her body is not.

There is something interesting in that idea woven into the film of the contrast between a conventional marriage which restricts freedom and love which requires freedom. For Severine it is impossible it seems- and via various parts of her past including sexual abuse by a plumber in her childhood there might be reasons- to mix the two. This isn't a complete description of what the film is about or means- there is much more to it than this- but its one very interesting thread running through it- in a sense Bunuel is drawing out a theme that is evident in all our relationships, by the time they become secure do they become meaningful. Is it possible to say choose to like an old friend- or do we only choose to like those that we have no obligation to? And if our likes are based on obligation what meaning do they have?

What is a love that is inevitable, a friendship that is an obligation