The name Luis Buñuel is familiar to even those with only a passing interest in movies, largely due to the success of his satiric films of the 1960s and ’70s. But when the great director made his seamless transition from experimental Surrealist filmmaking to commercial narrative work, he did so with the help of a slightly lesser-known talent: screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere.
Carriere was instrumental in helping Buñuel to shape his cynical satires, working closely with the director in the writing of screenplays both original and adapted. The result was a lasting partnership, one that generated six films and even extended to the writing of Buñuel’s autobiography, My Last Sigh, published just before his death in 1983.
The San Francisco International Film Festival presented Carriere with its Kanbar Award for screenwriting this year for a distinguished career in which he worked with some of the world’s greatest directors, including Buñuel, Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle.
Pacific Film Archive will show Be lle du jour (1967), a Carriere-Buñuel collaboration, as part of a series of movies from the International Film Festival at 5 p.m. Sunday, April 30, with Carriere making an in-person appearance. PFA will then follow up with four more Carriere-Buñuel collab orations on May 5 and 6, beginning with Diary of a Chambermaid (1964). Other films in the series include The Milky Way (1968), Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and Phantom of Liberty (1974).
Diary of a Chambermaid was the first film in which Car riere and Buñuel worked together, adapting the novel by Octave Mirbeau. The story had been brought to the screen once before, by Jean Renoir in 1946, but Buñuel refused to see it for fear that it might color his perceptions of his own work. Carriere and B uñuel took certain liberties with the novel, shifting the time period to the 1930s and altering several plot points.
The result would serve as a sort of template for future Carriere-Buñuel collaborations: The film examines and satirizes the dark underbel ly of bourgeoisie society and features a wide-ranging assortment of fetishes, vices, hypocrisies and subterfuge. As with their later fims, Buñuel and Carriere do not judge these characters. They are presented from a certain distance; we watch them, we gain a certain understanding of them, but we are not made to either identify with them or be repulsed by them. Buñuel and Carriere merely present them as they are and allow the audience to come to their own conclusions.
Jeanne Moreau plays the role of the chambermaid as an inscrutable blank slate. The other characters, as well as the audience, are left to project onto her their own interpretations of her motives and emotions. When she first comes to work at the Monteil estate, she is somewhat defiant towar d these decadent aristocrats, flouting her mistress’ rules and looking upon the family with condescension. Yet gradually her behavior starts to change, and it is difficult to understand why. When she eagerly goes to bed with a suspected child-murderer, we wonder whether her lust for him is genuine or just a device by which she hopes to frame him. Or perhaps it is both; perhaps she is seeking justice while conveniently satisfying her own particular fetish.
Only at the end does it become clear that somehow, for reasons unexplained, the chambermaid has decided to become one of them; that, whether due to opportunism or some darker motivation, she has managed to ensconce herself in a throne-like bed in her own castle-like mansion, safely and blithely indiffer ent to the rising forces of fascism in which her new husband plays a significant role. In the end she is as bored, stagnant and self-indulgent as the family she once mocked.
The Carriere-Buñuel themes take a darker and more personal tone with Belle du j our, starring Catherine Deneuve as the frigid wife of a young surgeon. They are happy together, but they keep separate beds even a year after their marriage. Gradually we learn that the young bride, Severine, is anything but frigid and in fact has an acti ve fantasy life. It’s just that conventional lovemaking within a marriage is not sufficient to arouse her libido.
And this is where the familiar themes come in.
Belle du jour is about fetishes, appearances, fantasy and restraint. Severine is overwhelmed by fantasies of being taken by force, of being humiliated, abused and denigrated in strange rituals. Flashbacks suggest that these desires stem from incidents in her childhood, but the fetishes themselves are wisely never explained, for nothing robs a fetish of its allure than an attempt to explain it.
Severine’s fetishes, which are often subtly infused into the fantasy sequences, seem to bring her to a frenzy like a Pavlovian dog: the ringing of bells, the mewing of cats. In her dreams she is objectified and treated cruelly to a soundtrack of primal sounds.
Her desires lead her to take a job as a prostitute, arriving at the whorehouse each day dressed in black, as though in mourning for the life she is leaving behind, and returning home each day by 5 to her unsuspecting husband.
One scene involves a man entering the whorehouse with a little black box. We do not see what is in it, but it is enough to cause one prostitute to refuse to do his bidding. Severine accepts, however, enticed by whatever fe tish he carries in the box. And his excited ringing of a tiny bell only seals the deal, coaxing an excited smile from her.
Deneuve is often discussed as simply a great beauty, but she is far more than that. Her acting in Belle du jour is subtle and effec tive. She is able to consistently demonstrate the duality of Severine’s existence: the trepidation, shame and fear combined with passion and desire, as well as the bliss of masochistic fantasies fulfilled.
The film’s conclusion is ambiguous and probably has a number of valid interpretations. At first glance the final 20 minutes seem like a 1930s American film under the Production Code, with a wild woman bringing ruin to herself and to those she loves because of her lurid behavior. But another interpreta tion takes the film in quite another direction. Severine has her fetish: to be defiled, abused and humiliated. Hussan, a friend of Severine’s husband, has his fetish: to defile his friend’s seemingly virtuous young bride. The gangster Severine becomes ent angled with has his fetish: to live the life and die the death of an outlaw, disrupting the social order and going out in a hail of gunfire. And the husband can be said to have a fetish as well: a virtuous wife by day, a sexual animal by night.
The endi ng, with Hussan revealing Severine’s secret to her paralyzed and unresponsive husband, provides a bit of satisfaction for everyone, for Hussan gets the chance to expose Severine’s tawdry dark side, thereby defiling her in the eyes of her husband; the gang ster gets his tragic, romantic death in the streets; and Severine ends up sitting quietly under the mysterious gaze of her husband, exposed and vulnerable, just as in her fantasies—a “slut,” a “whore,” waiting for the “firm hand” to administer her punishm ent. And the husband now has his virtuous and apologetic wife, but an all-new and improved version, for this one just might share his bed.
A final dream sequence concludes the film, with the husband forgiving his wife for her actions. Is this a vision o f the future, or is it a new kind of fantasy for Severine, one in which her husband finally grants her the forgiveness and understanding her guilty conscience craves? Or perhaps it’s simply a new twist on the old fantasies, with Buñuel and Carriere taking one last swipe at the bourgeoisie as they infuse the dream once again with the ringing of bells and the meowing of cats—everything a good society girl needs to keep her happy.
The Films of Jean-Claude Carriere and Luis Buñuel
Belle du jour (1967)
5 p.m. Sunday, April 30
Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)
7 p.m. Friday, May 5
The Milky Way (1968)
9 p.m. Friday, May 5
Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 6
Phantom of Liberty (1974)
8:30 p.m. Saturday, May 6
Pacific Film Archi ve
2626 Bancroft Way
Photograph: Directors Luis Buñuel directs the coachman on the proper technique for ravishing Catherine Deneuve in Belle du jour.›