Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Belle d'hier

Germaine Greer has a very interesting piece at the Guardian comparing the Howard Hawksian woman of the 1940's, as personified by Lauren Bacall, with the passive French sex kitten, as seen in the personage of Catherine Deneuve. I'm not sure I see the point of the article. To me it is comparing apples to oranges. A different time, a different continent and very different sensibilities. It is not merely the women who are contrasted here, but the directors and the cultures and eras in which they lived.

But for me the interesting part of the article is the section in which she describes Deneuve's two films with Luis Bunuel, Belle de Jour and Tristana. The point she makes, that Deneuve was a perfect empty vessel for Bunuel's fantasies is accurate and insightful.
Belle de Jour (1967) has a reputation for being one of the sexiest films ever made, simply because Deneuve behaves throughout like a pre-adolescent girl. Through the prism of the 21st century, the film seems oddly contrived; what is now a cliche - the child who, subjected to the sexual advances of an adult, then becomes a frigid woman who is only turned on by squalor - is coyly exploited as a series of fetishistic images that juxtapose her fantasy life with her actual life. As Severine Serizy, Deneuve moves through the imagery of what are meant to be her own fantasies like a sleepwalker. By her own account, director Lous Bunuel could not relate to her at all and never told her what he wanted. Unconsciously, she gave him what he wanted, which was as little as possible. The fantasies were his, after all.

The decision to have her dressed by Yves Saint-Laurent adds a bizarre dimension to the nonexistent plot; we seem to be living within the pages of a glossy magazine, with product placement everywhere. Everywhere Severine goes, she is conspicuous by her catwalk presence, from her shiny patent leather pumps to the helmet that holds in her mane of Barbie-doll hair. The sex scenes in the brothel consist of her stripping to the full armour of suspender-belt, knickers, stockings and padded brassiere, and allowing ugly men to kiss her. In one extraordinarily unsexy sequence, she is required to process through the rooms of a ducal chateau dressed in nothing but a cloak of black georgette and a crown of white roses. She trots ahead of the camera like a lamb to the slaughter. She should have used a body double; it is typical of her passive obedience that she didn't. Lauren Bacall would never have done that for anyone, would never have stripped and had them shoot her bare arse from the back as she trotted through take after take. The Hawksian woman would have decked any man who asked her.

Bunuel used Deneuve again in Tristana (1970), a far better film than Belle de Jour but much less successful. Again, his real subject was not Tristana but himself. What activates the film is Bunuel's deep hostility to the hypocrisy of Spanish provincial society. Deneuve acts as the surrogate for his child self, the innocent orphan who is seduced by her guardian, who tries to express her own sexuality with a younger man who uses her; mutilated and helpless, she is forced to regularise a union with the man who took her virginity. What remains in the memory is not the shocking last scene or Deneuve's performance, but Bunuel's evocation of 1930s Toledo, seen as through the lens of childhood, wonderfully shot by Jose F Aguayo. Again, Deneuve's impassivity is exactly what Bunuel needs. It is the still point in his turning world.

Read the whole thing here.

[Via Altercation]

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