The Surrealists of the ‘20s created art by combining elements without rhyme or reason to achieve maximum emotional power. Their basic premise was something along the lines of: “Hey, I like these things! Why not mix them together?!” Salvador Dali’s 1933 painting “Portrait of Gala with Two Lamb Chops Balanced on Her Shoulder” is a perfect example of that philosophy.
Watching his movies, it seemed to me that Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s nonsensical love of gorgeous French women and creepy crawly bugs made perfect sense! So here’s how I see how he put the two together, surrealistically, symbolically, and sometimes literally.
Actor/filmmaker Jeanne Moreau is a French icon. Her beauty and charisma burned the screen in the “Nouvelle Vague” films she appeared in. For me, her greatest role was in Luis Buñuel’s 1964 classic, ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’, in which she played Celestine, a Parisian maid who starts working in a very bourgeois provincial estate in the 1930s. She witnesses class snobbery, human hypocrisy, shoe fetishism, sexual harassment, and if all that isn’t enough, she has her hands full with a murder mystery.
Buñuel’s exposé of social malaise and his vivid depiction of a sickening caste system are more relevant today than ever. Just ask any live-in Filipino nanny here in Toronto and she’ll confirm that! Or simply spend a few minutes watching the reality TV show, ‘MasterChef’, and witness the perversely narcissistic behavior of two of its judges. Crappy or not, programs like that one do a good job showing the Machiavellian condescendence the upper classes have towards whomever they believe is below them. Which brings me back to Buñuel: for me, the snobby characters in ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’ who flaunt their expensive clothes and jewelry, and walk all over people are the real bugs! Which also brings me to…
Catherine Deneuve is the epitome of French elegance and glacial sex appeal. (She also had a daughter out of wedlock with a married Italian actor, Marcello Mastroianni.) In his tell-all autobiography, ‘Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda’, her ex-husband, director Roger Vadim, described Deneuve as a manipulative, shopaholic, temper tantrum-throwing diva. That, by the way, was his book’s least affectionate depiction of his trophy wives.
I have no doubt that Deneuve is the perfect French bourgeoise and I believe that she was perfectly cast to play Severine, a frigid bored housewife who decides to take on a day job as a prostitute in Buñuel’s first color film, ‘Belle de Jour’, from 1967. That wonderfully provocative movie explores the dark side of sexuality: sadomasochism, domination, degradation, and bondage. ‘Belle de Jour’ also shows the inability of some people, like Deneuve’s titular character, to truly connect with others on a deeper level. Severine lives in her fantasy world instead of reality and as a result, pays a big and sad price. I’m not saying more because if you’ve never seen that masterpiece, buy, rent, or download it pronto!
Like ‘Diary of a Chambermaid,’ ‘Belle de Jour’ and its depiction of human disconnection still speaks to us in the often impersonal digitalized era we now live in. Along with alienation, Buñuel shows how the obsession with maintaining appearances can leave you trapped. Like Severine, some people hide their true natures beneath the fake façade of respectability, only to find themselves living a double life.
So, how does Buñuel’s fascination with insects fit in with ‘Belle de Jour’? Well, watch this excerpt from the movie for a clue.
That buzzing noise sure sounds like bees to me!
Coming up soon: more of Luis Buñuel’s French broads ‘n’ bugs!