Belle de jour
Catherine Deneuve’s porcelain perfection hides a cracked interior in one of the actress’s most iconic roles: Séverine, a Paris housewife who begins secretly spending her afternoon hours working in a bordello. This surreal and erotic late-sixties daydream from provocateur for the ages Luis Buñuel is an examination of desire and fetishistic pleasure (its characters’ and its viewers’), as well as a gently absurdist take on contemporary social mores and class divisions. Fantasy and reality commingle in this burst of cinematic transgression, which was one of Buñuel’s biggest hits.
A title that’s been begging to be added to the Criterion Collection again (the company previously released it on laserdisc,) Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour comes to Blu-ray in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on a dual-layer disc with a new 1080p/24hz high-definition digital transfer.
The picture, as one would hope, looks absolutely stunning. This is the best I’ve yet seen the film look and it offers an incredible improvement over Miramax’s previous non-anamorphic DVD release (I actually own the Canadian Alliance-Atlantis DVD edition but it is a direct port of the American DVD release.) The image is far sharper and crisper, with finer details present in clothing, in exteriors, and on faces. Film grain is present and looks absolutely natural, colours look to be truer than the previous DVD edition, and black levels are superb. The print has a couple of blemishes including some minor discolouration but they’re very few or at least not that noticeable, especially in comparison to the older DVD which wasn’t awful but was still in need of repair.
In the end the presentation looks like a film presentation. The restoration is beautiful, but the digital transfer itself is clean and natural and just wonderful to watch.
It’s a little edgy in places but overall the lossless linear PCM 1.0 mono track works well for the film. Dialogue is clear and articulate, again with a slight edge in places, and sound effects are also clear but the age of the materials can limit its range. I also didn’t detect any sort of damage in the track.
Supplements are where I’m a little disappointed with this edition. It was a huge hit for Buñuel (which he amusingly blamed on the “whores” in the film) and it is a fairly big release for Criterion so I was probably hoping for some big lavish edition and ultimately that isn’t what we get.
But I guess I should be grateful as it is a significant update over Miramax’s previous leaden supplements on their DVD. That DVD included one of the worst audio commentaries I’ve ever come across. Criterion thankfully does not use that track and instead have included a newly recorded audio commentary by Michael Wood, who wrote the BFI Film Classics book on Belle de jour. It’s a scholarly track of course and can be a bit dry in places but he interjects moments of humour and manages to keep it far more interesting. He looks at the character of Séverine (Belle de jour) and offers his interpretation of her, how Buñuel probably sees her, and even brings up some Freudian theories, while also looking at Deneuve’s performance. He breaks down many sequences, pointing out the subtle touches by the director, and of course offers thorough examinations of the fantasy sequences including his own thoughts on the ending. He also talks about the director’s career, this period of it, the other performers in the film, the camerawork and cinematography, and the source novel, which, surprisingly, the film appears to stick very close to by the sounds of it (I’ve never read it.) It doesn’t really surprise and can go through the motions but I still enjoyed it and found it far more interesting than Julie Jones’ soul-crushing track found on the previous DVD.
Moving on to the video supplements Criterion first gives us That Obscure Source of Desire, an 18-minute video piece including interviews with writer and sexual-politics activist Susie Bright and film scholar Linda Williams. It ends up offering a more Feminist take on the movie, though not entirely. The feature overall looks at female masochism and how it is presented in the movie, with Bright maybe offering a harsher look since the film doesn’t present Séverine in the best of lights (the film still sympathizes too much towards the man she’s cuckolding for her tastes) and because it would be hard to classify Buñuel as a Feminist, yet despite this it’s still highly regarded because it at least gave the character more freedom and, when you look at it (SPOILER), Séverine technically does get away with it in the end. Williams ends up looking more at Buñuel’s use of surrealism in the film and the fantasies that present the characters masochist tendencies, and then even offers a rather interesting look at the film’s ending. I wasn’t sure what I was going to get here but I found it to be a fairly interesting look at the character and the director’s use of surrealism in the film.
Jean-Claude Carrière gives a short 10-minute interview about working with Buñuel on the film. He talks about being approached by the director on adapting the novel by Joseph Kessel, which he had no interest in as he found the book “cheap” but Buñuel’s insistence and ideas intrigued in so he eventually relented. He talks about the long hours and various scripts, and what came out during the development (the script didn’t really come together until the two finally realized the character was actually a masochist.) Most surprising, as I didn’t know this, is that the fantasies that appear in the film were based on actual fantasies the two had heard from women. He then talks about the producers, Robert and Raymond Hakim, who were basically expecting porn, and how their ignorance of the director actually gave him more freedom, and then finishes off with the film’s release and its success (which, again, Buñuel said people were seeing “for the whores.”) Surprisingly brief but getting a first-hand account on the actual script process for the film makes it a worthwhile addition.
Criterion then includes an archival piece, a 7-minute segment from the French television program Cinéma, which aired in December of 1966 and was filmed on the set of Belle de jour. Here Carrière talks a little about first meeting Buñuel and briefly about his work on this script (not to the extent as he does in the previous feature of course) and the various endings they came up with. Deneuve, who appears very briefly, talks a little about her character and her nervousness about working with Buñuel. Not very deep, and it’s suddenly cut off at the end, but a decent addition if only to hear Deneuve’s thoughts.
The disc then includes the original French theatrical trailer and then the horrendously bad original American trailer, which makes it look far more sordid than it actually is. The footage for the American trailer also looks to have come from a video, which is odd because the original DVD presented the same trailer and it looked to come from an actual print. It then closes with the not-as-bad-but-still-bad American re-release trailer, which also looks to have come from video.
The booklet then includes a decent essay on the film by Melissa Anderson and a fantastic reprint of excerpts from a collection of interviews with Luis Buñuel, who talks freely about the film and the making of it, and what it was like to work with Deneuve, whom he wasn’t too fond of working with initially (she was thrown on him by the producers.) What I was surprised by is that he does offer some definite points about what goes on in the film (he rejects the idea that any of the brothel sequences are fantasies) but doesn’t offer full closure on other aspects (what does the ending mean? What’s in that box?) A lot of the material in this interview is referenced by Wood in his commentary.
I am a little let down by the material because there isn’t very much, and considering the high regard for the film, and the fact it’s one of Buñuel’s more popular ones, I was expecting more. But in comparison to the previous DVD it is a substantial upgrade. The commentary found here is far better and the video features all manage to offer sharp insights into the film.
I was hoping for more of a “wow” from the supplements but they’re still decent enough and the stunning, absolutely wonderful transfer more than makes up for this aspect. Criterion has done justice for the film and I can finally get rid of my old DVD. It comes highly recommended.