This week I’m covering one of my favorite filmmakers, Luis Buñuel. Buñuel is known as a surrealist. If you’ve ever seen the clip of someone putting a razor blade up to their face, then the camera cuts in close and appears to cut into their eyeball, that was made by Buñuel, from his film Un Chien Andalou. It’s incredibly shocking, unsettling, and effective. He made a lot of films all through the 20th century, up until the late 70s, when he made That Obscure Object of Desire. I’ve covered a film of his before, an adaptation of Robinson Crusoe that he managed to make his own. But today I’m covering one of my favorite films of his, and one of his more famous films.
Today’s films are:
Luis Buñuel – The Exterminating Angel (1962)
Luis Buñuel – Belle De Jour (1967)
Both films are out of the mainstream, and both are wonderful. Let’s get into it.
The Exterminating Angel (1962)
In this film, a group of elite society members gather at a friends home after the opera. They have dinner, talk and laugh, until four in the morning. But instead of going home, they all spend the night. The next day, they keep planning to leave, but they don’t. For some reason, none of them can leave, even though they all want to. None of them understand why they can’t leave, but the situation starts to deteriorate. How can they get out of this room?
The film is written and directed by Luis Buñuel, and I first heard of it when it was referenced in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris. I had already seen a handful of Buñuel films, but the premise of this one just sounded so bizarre. A group of people trapped in a room, but there are no locks. They just can’t leave? But why? I’m glad I tracked it down, because it’s become one of my favorite films.
In the opening, we focus on the servants. We don’t know why, but something is off. They all are planning leave, but they don’t seem to understand why. They all have excuses, but even when threatened with being fired, they still go. Only the butler is left to serve the guests. Besides that, everything seems fairly normal. However, one moment gives us pause. The guests enter the home, then go upstairs to the dining room. But then the same scene is replayed again. It feels like a mistake, but I’m certain it was intentional, Buñuel playing with our expectations.
After dinner, the guests move to another room, where one of the guests plays a piano. Here we see a bit more of the personalities of the guests. Buñuel portrays the guests as cold and unfeeling towards the underclasses. One woman talks about surviving a train crash while everyone with cheaper tickets died. Another woman gets up from the dining table and tosses a glass through the window for no apparent reason. One of the other guests, upon hearing the glass breaking, remarks, “A jew walking by.” These are not kind people. They are privileged and expect the world to work for them, while having no sense of what their privilege has gained them. They assume that they are in that position because they are simply better.
Buñuel was known for making films that focused on class issues. One of his earlier films, Los Olvidados, was set in a poor Mexican slum. This film is focused on the upper class, and our second film today shows the contrast between the upper and lower class. It’s a running theme through his work. The first film we covered from Buñuel, Robinson Crusoe, is also a film wherein an upper class individual is brought low and must survive without the advantages that life gave him. This film has largely the same theme.
At first, no one notices anything is wrong. People keep saying “I should leave,” or begin planning to leave, but simply don’t. Eventually, people start lying down, taking off their tuxedo jackets. The hosts are horrified at how rude their guests are being, but they also don’t do anything about it, eventually lying down on the floor with them, when presumably they have a comfortable bedroom in the mansion. People don’t start to figure out something is wrong until the next morning. The butler brings in breakfast in a scene where we discover the actual barrier of the trap. He had previously been sleeping in the outer room, away from the guests. But once he enters, he cannot leave. The lady of the house tells him to go and get something from the kitchen. He walks to the door, but simply stops, making an excuse as to why he can’t leave. Another set of guests plan to go to a dressing room to freshen up, but again simply stop at the door. Another guest notices and points it out to others. They all start to realize that something is wrong.
Things begin to break down immediately. A man collapses with an illness, but there is a doctor there. Some try to be reasonable, but others are determined to sow panic amongst everyone, refusing to let others take control. Still others essentially remove themselves from the situation, hiding in the closet away from everyone else.
The film is really clever about how it portrays the trap. The doors to the next room are always open, but no one can walk through them. Whenever they try they simply stop at the door.
Things are even stranger outside. The authorities have gathered, they have noticed something is wrong. But they can’t walk in. They also simply stand outside the mansion at the gates, staring in. No one can walk in. The only person who’s even marginally successful is a child who doesn’t even realize what he’s doing. He stops halfway across the courtyard but then runs back.
Time passes in the mansion, with the group running out of food and water almost immediately. After several days, they eventually break into the wall to get at the water pipes. For food, a group of sheep that had been living in the garden wander in. They tie them up and cook them as needed. There’s no explanation of what the sheep are eating, but oh well. There is also a bear who appears to be a pet. In some scenes, the bear is played by an actual baby bear. But in other scenes, the bear is played by a man in a suit, and the difference is painfully obvious.
The film isn’t totally clear how much time passes, at least a month it appears. One man dies of an illness, and a couple kills themselves rather than continue on. The guests begin to blame their host for their predicament, and assume that if they kill him, they might be released. The man selflessly says they don’t need to kill him, and he pulls out a pistol and is just about to kill himself, when one of the guests notices that they’re all in exactly the same place that they were the night they got trapped. They all agree, and act out exactly what had happened that night. Suddenly they realize they can leave.
We might believe that they are all redeemed, but then the film moves to a church scene. All of the surviving characters are at a church service. At the end, the priests attempt to leave, but can’t. When they look around they have noticed the parishioners aren’t leaving either. They are making excuses at the door, trying to get other people to leave first.
Outside, sometime later we see the authorities gathering outside again, as a herd of sheep are sent into the building. The cycle has started again.
So what does this film mean? I would love to write a coherent, 500 word essay breaking it down precisely, but I don’t really know what it means. But let’s see what we can gather from what I do understand.
The film offers no explanations to why they are imprisoned this way, or even how they are imprisoned. It also offers no explanation as to why the servants leave early to avoid the trap. They don’t even know why they left. They return later in the film, trying to help from outside.
It’s possible that Buñuel is showing some kind of divine punishment for their treatment of the underclasses. They clearly don’t have any feelings for people they see as beneath them, as we learn from the first 20 minutes of the film. The title refers to an angel, but we never see any direct scenes that might lead us to believe that.
There’s also the bear that appears at various times. It wanders through the house and appears at key moments. It seems to almost chase the sheep into the room so they can eat, and also leaves the house just before the ordeal ends. Is the bear representative of something else? Protecting them while they’re going through their ordeal? I’m not really sure. But it feels significant.
There’s also the repetition. I mainly noticed the first major instance I saw when the guests go up the staircases twice. From some research it appears that there’s a lot of repetition that I missed. This is certainly significant. But again, I’m not sure.
In general, I think the film is trying to show that the upper class aren’t better than anyone else. That they will devolve into anarchy as soon as their carefully orchestrated lives are disrupted. They manage to survive, but they turn on each other almost immediately, and it only gets worse from there.
Beyond that, I can’t really say. But I would almost be disappointed if this film had an easily identifiable explanation. I imagine that part of Buñuel’s idea was to leave the film up to interpretation, to keep audiences from fully understanding what he was getting at. Not understanding what was happening is likely part of the experience he was trying to create.
I think that’s one of the main reasons I love the film.
Belle de Jour (1967)
This film focuses on Severine, a young French woman whose days are filled with dark fantasies of being abused and tortured sexually by strange men. But in her real life, she is quiet and reserved, even refusing her husband’s friendly advances. When she hears that a friend in her high society world has been moonlighting as a prostitute, she feels helplessly drawn into that world, finding her way to a brothel. Will she be able to keep the secret from her husband, and what will happen if the secret gets out?
The film is again written and directed by Luis Buñuel and stars Catherine Deneuve, who we’ve seen before in the wonderful Umbrellas of Cherbourg. While Cherbourg has the facade of a light and friendly film, with the musical atmosphere, it reveals some darker themes as the film goes on, Belle de Jour gives us none of that pretense. From the start, we see Severine seems unhappy, even lost.
The film opens with Severine riding in a carriage with her husband Pierre. She makes an offhanded comment and he demands the carriage stop. He and the carriage drivers drag her out of the cab and tie her up and gag her dragging her into the woods. Pierre encourages the cabmen to be rough with her. They tie her hands hanging from a tree. The cabmen whip her, then Pierre tells them she belongs to them now, leaving.
It’s a shocking start to the film, but then Severine awakens from her daydream. It was all a sexual fantasy. She is at home with her husband, getting ready for bed. They sleep in separate beds. She asks for a kiss, and he complies, but when he offers to get in bed with her, she refuses him. His reaction reveals this is a common occurrence, and surprising considering the detailed fantasy she was just having. It’s clear that while she has these sexual fantasies, she simply isn’t capable of expressing herself sexually, or asking for the things she wants.
As the film goes on, we see a couple of flashbacks that give hints into the issues she’s having. In one, a young girl is being touched and kissed by a much older man. She is clearly not enjoying it. In another, she is being offered a communion wafer but refuses it, perhaps due to shame at what happened to her?
So Severine is set up as a woman who cannot express herself sexually, and is beset by dark sexual fantasies she can’t control and doesn’t understand. We continue to see these sorts of fantasies throughout the film, usually involving her husband humiliating her in some way. Often times she is tied up during the fantasies. They often include a man named Husson, a womanizer who is Pierre’s friend who she claims to hate.
He is dating her friend Renee, who shares some gossip, their friend has been working at a brothel several times a week. On the outside, Severine is horrified, but we see in her eyes that she is being carried off to another fantasy.
The film begins to show how it is stuck in her mind as she suddenly asks her husband if he’s ever visited a brothel, and later bumps into her friend, and Husson sees them together, asking her if she knew that her friend was a prostitute. He further tells her about his experiences there, even giving her the name of a Madame, and even the address of a brothel.
This is all the information Severine needs. She feels inextricably drawn to the address, and after several false starts, ends up going in. She meets Anais, the Madame, and while she seems hesitant, Anais is not, completing the business quickly, agreeing to Severine’s only request that she leave at 5pm everyday. She gives her the name Belle De Jour, or Beauty of the Day, because she only works during the day.
During her first encounter, she tries to leave, but when the man begins to treat her roughly, as happens in her fantasies, she submits. We see more of these encounters, but the most telling occurs when an asian man arrives with a device we never see. The other women refuse, but Belle agrees. We see her later as the housekeeper comes in, and picks up a towel that has blood on it. She laments how scary their work is, but Belle doesn’t seem scared. In fact, she seems quite satisfied, telling the housekeeper that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
In this scene we see how comfortable Belle is getting with her new life, and how fulfilling it is for her. Even her husband notices a change, seeing how much happier she is. She even gets into his bed unprompted, which he notes almost never happens. This is an awakening for her. It almost feels like therapy. Is it unhealthy? Almost certainly. But being able to let go of her hangups, and deal with her past trauma is an ultimate good for her ultimately. We see several of these encounters, including a bizarre scene where she goes to a large mansion and lies nude in a casket while her client cries over his lost daughter. We also see Husson visit the brothel, telling her that he will keep her secret.
But of course, actions have consequences, and she crosses a further line when a rough criminal comes into the brothel, choosing her. She almost immediately falls in love with him, and he begins seeing her every day. He gets more and more possessive, eventually getting to the point where he follows her home after she leaves the brothel for good. He demands that she spend the night with him at a hotel, or he’ll tell her husband. but she refuses. He sees her husband as the only obstacle to being with her, and he attacks him outside their apartment, shooting him several times. He is shot in a chase with the police, and everyone is baffled by the crime, except for Severine.
At the end of the film, Pierre is blind, confined to a wheelchair. Severine cares for him, telling him that she no longer has her fantasies. Husson arrives unexpectedly, telling Severine that he feels he must tell Pierre her secret, because he believes Pierre is miserable because he has such a virtuous wife caring for him. In the final scene, Pierre is crying, and Severine has another fantasy, this one involves her husband getting up and pouring her a drink, offering to take her on a vacation. It’s not sexual at all, it is her fantasizing about the life she will never have again.
This film must have been shocking in the late 60s. The sexual themes are front and center, and there is a fair bit of nudity and suggested nudity from Deneuve herself. Beyond the sexual themes, they are what would have been known at the time as deviant sexual themes, with Deneuve participating in BDSM activities. And not being forced to participate, but an active, willing, even eager participant. We covered a film with these kinds of themes previously. A Mario Bava film called The Whip and the Body. But this film goes much further.
The film really delves deep into sexuality, and how it can work in the mind. It’s not even treated as a conscious decision. Severine’s body is just telling her what it needs, and she’s responding to it. It’s actually a pretty healthy view of sex. The film doesn’t demonize Severine for having these fantasies, or even acting on them, but only for betraying her husband and allowing the criminal Marcel to have so much power over her. The film’s message is that it’s ok to have these feelings, and it’s ok to express them, and in fact, not being able to express them is shown as the unhealthy choice, which leads to all the dangerous behavior we see in the film.
It’s a brilliant, sexually charged film, and the entire cast is wonderful, but none more than Catherine Deneuve. The woman is a legend for a reason. She manages to play the shrinking violet, nervous about the slightest touch, and transitions into the confident prostitute, able to convince strange men that she finds them fascinating and attractive. Even though she is the cause of all the problems in the film, we feel sorry for her. Yes she did bad things, but she also had bad things happen to her. An exceptional performance.
The Double Feature
It’s interesting doing two films from the same director. Especially Buñuel, who has such a specific style. Both films focus on upper class people, and what happens when they engage in something that we might normally associate with someone lower class.
As is a signature of Buñuel, we also see both films include dream sequences. In The Exterminating Angel, a woman hallucinates a severed hand crawling towards her, going so far as to lunge at it with a knife. And the entire plot of Belle De Jour revolves around the fantasies and daydreams that are plaguing her.
Both films are fairly unsettling. The Exterminating Angel mixes surreal and horror elements, and creates a sense of discomfort. And while BDSM is almost mainstream with media like 50 Shades of Gray around, Belle De Jour still includes some shocking scenes that come out of nowhere until the audience adjusts to Severine’s fantasy life.
This week I didn’t watch the films back to back. It wasn’t the original plan, but it worked out that way. I normally prefer to watch both films back to back. I’m not sure how it affected things. I think it might work in general. Watching the films on back to back days, then an additional day before writing might give me more time to digest things. I feel like I did a good job digging into Exterminating Angel, but perhaps not as good a job digging into Belle De Jour, which I watched just before I started writing the post. Either way, I think some down time between watching the films and writing the post is ultimately a good thing.
So let’s look to next week. I decided to go into a genre I haven’t spent a ton of time in, the romantic comedy. The romantic comedy as a genre gets beaten up a lot because it tends to fall into cliches, but there are some great examples out there. Next week, we’re going to look at:
Preston Sturges – The Lady Eve (1941)
Rob Reiner – When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Both classics, but both very different. The Lady Eve might be more of a screwball comedy, but the line between those is pretty narrow, so we’ll go with it.
Should be a good pairing. We’ll see next week.