Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Blocked by the Belle


I've been in a deep post-thanksgiving malaise, unable to write and everytime I turn around I'm remembering this weird scene from Luis Bunuel's BELLE DU JOUR (1967).

In it, our frigid would-be masochistic love slave, Severine (Catherine Deneuve) has been trying to warm up to the clients at the brothel where she's working during the afternoon, but so far no luck. She responds when they get rough, but then they back up and can't figure her out. So she can't quite get past her frigidity until the arrival of a strange, portly Asian man, played by Iska Kahn. This guy first shows her some weird box, that buzzes, and we never see what's in it. Kimberly Lindbergs at Cinebeats has some keen insight about it being a device imagined by the Marquis de Sade... but it's a pretty disturbing concept (Kimberly is more comfortable discussing it probably because she's not a guy).


Then he starts ringing a small bell, extending his arm out far from his ear, but intently listening to the chiming, his ear cocked comically to one side. Is he chasing the evil spirits out of the room? What's that bell about? All we know is, it amuses Severine. We actually see her smile, trying not to laugh, for the first time in the film. She brushes the bell away and puts her arms around this strange Asian man, in a mix of comradeship and affection.

The next time we see her, she's looking quite ravished. the maid comes in and offers her some solace, she sees blood on the sheets.  Severine doesn't want to hear it; she's lolling in debased contentment. "What do you know about it?" she asks.  She's found her delirious "Severine, your servant, comes in bells please don't forsake him" surrender.

Perhaps the bell is part of the De Sade canon of toys as well, hence the aforementioned line from the Velvet Underground's Venus in Furs, my all-time favorite song. Velvet Underground & Nico came out in 1967. Belle du Jour came out in 1967, and I came out in 1967. Together, the three of us were a dark counter-offer to the dawning hippy free love establishment. But even so, why does this scene stick in my mind in particular? The mixture of goofiness and sexuality? There might be some S/M connotation to all the weird boxes and bells, but if so, Severine is not afraid, only amused, her smile as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa's.

It would fit one of my theories about people with sexual hang ups being more "comfortable" with lovers of different races... the same way any repressed national culture is more open to radical ideas if they come from a foreigner (Hendrix in London, Picasso in Paris, Jane Campion in Australia, for example). This is all based on repression and our universal self-hatred, as when a parent is more likely to trust a complete stranger than their own child. Is that it? So is this a sign I should move to Berlin, where I imagine an artist of my unique stature might be respected instead of reviled? Who knows, maybe it's just the ringing of that infernal bell... Belle du jour!

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