Belle de Jour (1967)

Luis Buñuel is the foremost surrealist filmmaker of the twentieth century. Un chien Andalou (1929) is still screened by film students and the curious almost one hundred years after it’s initial release. His career spanned over forty years and he helped push the boundaries of narrative cinema by combining absurdist/surrealist imagery and themes into his work. There is more Samuel Beckett than Louis B. Mayer about him. A wanderlust director who crisscrossed the globe making films in any country he could secure funding. In the late sixties he landed in France to adapt Joseph Kessel’s 1928 novel Belle du Jour for the screen. It was his most commercially successful film, which he attributed “more to the marvelous whores than my direction.” Modesty aside, Belle de Jour was a seminal piece of cinema which was part of the sexual revolution, another voice aiding in the demystification and normalization of sex in society.


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  The banality of marriage


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 Her fantasy
         Belle de Jour follows a young female bourgeois masochist woman, Séverine (Catherine Deneuve), on her quest to explore and engage in her sexual fantasies. She is married to a doctor and is a trophy wife of class, grace and beauty. Her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel), a virtual eunuch of kindness and honor, a boring polite man, who would never dare touch his wife in unsavoury ways, is unable to satisfy her carnal lust for punishment and ridicule. Séverine, upon hearing from an acquaintance, Monsieur Husson, an impish plotting man, that some bourgeois women have taken to prostitution to earn some extra cash she becomes intrigued. She finds a brothel run by Madame Anais, and although shy at first, eventually comes to relish her new part time job as a whore. In order to live her double life she tells Madame Anais that she must leave by five every afternoon, to return to her husband, “Belle de Jour,” beauty of the day, as Madame Anais calls her. Eventually she falls in love with a gangster and the device which brought her to the reality of her fantasies, Husson, threatens to reveal to her husband her new profession. Eventually the lines between reality and fantasy blur, as the two halves of her life start to bleed into each other creating dire consequences.


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  Husson leads Séverine with a suggestion
          Considering the proliferation of sex in cinema, and the availability of porn on the internet it might be hard to imagine why this film is so powerful upon its release. It was one of the first post-war sexually explicit films made as art and political statement rather than pornography or campy thrills (e.g. Russ Meyer). It tried, as the novel had, to explore sexuality, desire, the submissive/dominate culture, and sexual fantasies from a woman’s perspective. Perhaps it is this attempt that makes the film work, as outdated as it might seem to future generations. It also leaves unanswered but examined the notion of child abuse and the effect it has on the adult’s sexual desires. The film merely alludes to Séverine’s sexual abuse by a workman when she was a girl, and allows the audience to decide if this is the catalyst of her fantasies and desires, instead stating it is such. Belle also tackled one of the taboos that still prevails from the Victorian age, the antiquated notion, the perversion associated with a woman enjoying sex, and being the one in control.


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A drastic image of the impotent Pierre shooting euphemistically his wife, and injuring her
           The Husson character acts as the driving force of the film, what has been termed the McGuffin, the nameless force central to advancing the plot, the engine of narrative. The character also represents societal morality and the class divisions on the lines of sexuality. Implicit sex was bourgeois, aristocratic, and moral. Explicit sex was proletariat, common, and amoral. The duality of Séverine both as a bourgeois wife, and a common sex worker serves to help break down the barriers imposed upon sexuality in a classist sense. It is also a treatise on the banality of marriage where order and routine trumps desire. Her husband, unable or unwilling to satiate her lurid desires, renders himself politely impotent.


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The boy scout husband and the enfantin (child like) Séverine
           Séverine is willingly dominated by and dominates men all while being trapped inside a loving but lust free marriage. The brothel itself serves as an escape for Séverine, yet it is a room, in an apartment, in a building. The suffocating atmosphere of the brothel, its narrow hallways and small room’s are reminiscent of her own apartment, two gilded cages.  It is only in her fantasies that she truly escapes, as they all take place outside in pastoral wooded scenes, or framed by vast empty spaces. The claustrophobia of the interiors represents the varied boundaries of society that Séverine must endure, while the outdoor fantasies stress the emptiness of her sexual pleasure. Despite her perceived liberation as a sex worker, she is still trapped by the societal conventions of being a woman.  


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Her first time with a john. Notice the prominent display of her wedding ring.
           The film has a very deliberate feel about it. The schism between reality and fantasy becomes less clear as the film progresses. The film has an understated style, an almost subliminal genius driving the visual style of the film, Buñuel’s subtle magic. Many of the fantasies have a surreal painterly quality about them, almost like moving neoclassical painting. These are used to juxtapose the banality of Séverine’s everyday life in gay Paree. Her clothes, both in style and colour suggest the action and the characters emotional state. She wears red only in her fantasies, except for a scene when her and her gangster boyfriend are plotting, a possibility for her perceived liberation. Her undergarments are always white, representing a naivety or innocence she does not wish to let go. When she is with her husband in their bedroom she is usually wearing pink, suggesting the innocence of a child. In the final scene, after she has been found out, and realizes her perceived moral shortcomings she is wearing a black dress, with a white shirt underneath. There is a touch of the cool blonde about Séverine, the personification of Hitchcock’s fantasy, representing the new post war woman of the twentieth century. A woman determined take control of her own fate.


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Pierre looks on as Husson slings mud at  Séverine in her fantasy


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A final confrontation with Husson in  Séverine’s apartment
           Considering how explicit sex has permeated western culture over the last forty years it comes as little surprise that this film does not register on many critics or audiences radar. Barbarella made one year later contains, on the surface, the same sexualy liberating force as Belle, but it is replete with campy stoner imagery and whimsical vignettes hence its status as a cult classic. Jane Fonda was a post war American counterpart to Catherine Deneuve, they were both sexy, assertive, confident, and talented. As I have discussed before, many provocative and innovative films from the past get lost over the years unless there is a camp or absurdity about them. Comparing Belle to Barbarella one can surmise that Buñuel’s film lacks the cartoonish sexuality of Barbarella, after all there is no Orgasmatron, yet it speaks more about sexuality in society.


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Séverine: If you like I won't charge you.                                                        Marcel: Naturally. Plenty of girls would like to be in your place.


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          Perhaps future generations find it timid or dull. It is one Buñuel’s more accessible films; perhaps another reason for its lost nature amongst today’s audiences, his name is synonymous with the absurd. Belle is delicate and sophisticated; it is an intimate portrait of a post war woman’s attempt to conquer her sexuality, to be in control.  With the politicization of the naked human form in the last two centuries, especially women’s bodies, Buñuel attempts to dismantle the notion that all women are saints or mothers in an explicit way. It was made at a time when women had finally started to take control of own their bodies and reproductive rights from men with the introduction of birth control and legal access to abortions. The power dynamic between men and women had started to tilt to a more balanced position. Buñuel’s pioneering spirit made this film a mature challenge to a woman’s place in society. It also lacked the grotesque cartoonish nudity that would plague cinema in the following decades. It is a story about sex, love, and fantasy set against the backdrop of polite society’s prudish timidity with explicit sexuality. Considering the film was made in the late sixties, the misogynist overtones are hard to escape, but if one looks at the film from that lens, understanding the culture of the era, as opposed to dismissing it, there is a wonderful reward. Belle de Jour helped usher in a new era of taboo free filmmaking, one where sex, sexuality, and nudity could be discussed in a frank and adult manner. Whether or not many other filmmakers chose to attack it with the same tact as Buñuel is open to discussion. It took a surrealist absurdist director to help open the door and he achieved it with class, substance, and beauty. Hopefully in time more will come to watch Belle de Jour and appreciate its delicate portrayal of a modern woman’s exploration of her sexual liberation. If you’re looking for something innovative, provocative, and decidedly European, check out Belle de Jour, it is a beautiful and understated film.

Predator (1986)


I wanted to take a look at a film that was not necessarily a forgotten film or a hidden gem, but rather one that deserves more credit in the annals of cinema. Predator is John McTiernan’s mid eighties sci-fi monster classic and usually gets lumped in and classified as an 80’s macho action romp along with Rambo, Commando et al (anything ending in ‘o’ really). Just another misogynistic outing indicative of the Reagan years, when in fact Predator is a complex and highly crafted film told in the western style of filmmaking. Predator is a film worthy of note despite its genre and raised the benchmark for what audiences would come to expect of the sci-fi and action genres.
The film follows a crack team of rescue commandos sent into the jungle to retrieve a cabinet minister in a puppet Latin America regime. The leader of the team Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is forced to work with his old pal Dylan (Carl Weathers) who now works for the CIA. They are dropped in the jungle and destroy the guerrilla base, only to find out that they have been used by Dylan and the CIA to stop the rebels. There was no cabinet minister to rescue. As they make their way to the rendezvous point, something starts killing Dutch’s team one by one. Realizing they are being hunted by something greater than themselves, something not human, they make a last stand to defeat the creature that is stalking them.

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Beautiful shallow depth of field shot, most likely shot with a telephoto lens

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The composition of this shot reveals the dynamics of the characters, and foreshadows the group's fate. 1. The leader is out front 2. The messenger is behind him 3. The person who is responsible for the situation stands behind and in between 4. The object, the symbolism of fate is behind and screen left 
Shooting in the forest or the jungle is tricky because of the endless green vegetation, compelling composition is hard to achieve. Not many films had been made in a wild arboreal setting up to this point. Predator uses the jungle locale to its fullest by utilizing several camera techniques to break up the visual repetition. There is a solid use of narrow depth of filed, usually in close ups and medium shots, which results in the actor popping off the background, and a lot of tracking, panning, and multi-focus shots. While this might seem basic, no one had gone into the jungle to make a movie like this before and executed it with the same craftsmanship. The African Queen was partly shot in Africa but the two main characters were in a boat, and in Apocalypse Now only once do the characters venture off into the wild jungle. Deliverance and Rambo were two other attempts to shoot in the wild. Once again Deliverance involves a boat stopping on the shore, and Rambo lacks the advanced composition of Predator. The only title that comes close to Predator is The Emerald Forest. There was an old adage in Hollywood, never shoot in the jungle if possible. When Francis Ford Coppola told his mentor Roger Corman that he was shooting Apocalypse Now in the Philippine wilderness, he told him not to do it. Then again Robert Corman once quipped he could shoot an entire movie in a phone booth, then someone actually did that, with middling success.  

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Multi focus shot, McTiernan pushed the staging in this film to the outer limits of the frame
Shooting in a lush green setting, a film has the potential to get visually stale quickly but McTiernan and Donald McAlpine, the director of photography, were able to pull off the difficult task, raising the criterion of what could be shot in this type of location. After Predator’s release there was a spate of movies shot on location in various jungles around the world (Medicine Man, Anaconda, Congo). Gone were the days of the old studio close-up with second unit photography filling in on a rear projection screen. The documentary realism style, Cinéma vérité, and the paired down style of French New Wave influenced the American New Wave of the seventies and Predator is a prime example of the late twentieth century push towards visual realism in film. In science fiction, visual realism helps bring the audience into the film, the more absurd, unreal, and fantastical the plot, the more real it has to look. Something lost on most modern filmmakers, save for Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott.

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Heat vision POV
The special effects for the creature were so influential on the film industry and audiences that they became known as ‘the predator effect,’ and ‘predator vision.’ Predator continued the ensemble film character development template, which started with post war westerns, and brought it to its pinnacle in terms of conflict, character balance, and pacing. There are no clichéd characters such as the cop one day from retirement, the crusty but benign lieutenant, or the kid with a sweetheart back home who is obviously the first to die. These men are trained professionals on an assignment. The main conflict  within the characters is Dylan, the outsider amongst a tightly knit group. Even though Dutch and he have a warm history, his presence is not welcomed on this mission, it’s seen as interference from the bureaucracy, a breach of the group’s autonomy. In the chopper ride at the beginning of the film each character has a moment that helps define and separate them from the others. As the film progresses we learn a little bit more about each of them, and their relationship to one another, such as the bond between Mac and Blain. They served together in the Vietnam War, and came away unscathed during a bloody battle. The predator itself is slowly defined both by its on screen actions, and by the characters it is hunting.  It is slowly revealed that the reason for these mutilated corpses is for the purpose of collecting trophies from the hunt, which influenced the creation of the Hirogen species on Voyager. To use an old cliché, the hunter becomes the hunted; perhaps a nod the early talkie The Most Dangerous Game, a story about an eccentric millionaire who hunts people for sport.

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Minority representation
With the contemporary discussion of minority inclusiveness and representation in film, the cast of Predator is well balanced along these lines. There are two African American characters, one Latino, and one Native American. While all the characters might be clichéd to a degree, no culture is savagely portrayed in a cartoonish manner. Billy the aboriginal tracker, could be construed as a cliché in this sense, but in defense of the film they cast a Native American actor of Cherokee and Seminole descent, unlike say Robert Beltran of Voyager, a Latino playing a Native American character. Anna, the sole female character is not an object of desire, nor the personification of Venus. Eventually see joins the group of men as an equal contributor, even aiding them by discovering the Predator’s blood on a leaf, and helps to rig traps. While it is not the most inclusive of films by any means, it does balance out the cultural fabric of the characters and brings a little diversity to a medium constantly under attack for its overt whiteness.

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The first glimpse of the creature 
The film builds upon two narrative techniques honed in the previous decade. Firstly, don’t show the monster in its entirety until near the climax, and secondly the villains POV (point of view). Spielberg is credited with the first device, “a stroke of genius,” they said. Actually in Jaws the animatronic shark would barely work. It took them weeks to get the thing to move and thrash in the ocean, pushing its appearance back in the shooting schedule; therefore the audience doesn’t see it until the last two acts of the film. For Predator McTiernan chose to use the same device, giving us glimpses of the creature and finally revealing the entirety of the character in the last act with the removal of the creature’s helmet.

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A close up of the Predator, simply a mid story amuse bouche

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The first big reveal near the end of the penultimate act
Point of view shots had mostly been used in the passive sense, as opposed to the active sense. Passive POV shots usually involved a quick cut to the hero’s perspective to follow the action on the screen, allowing the audience to see through their eyes from brief moments in time. Hitchcock uses the passive POV in Rear Window as we watch the action through LB Jefferies eyes in his apartment. In Psycho’s infamous shower scene, there are no real POV shots from the killer’s perspective.  There are only mimicked POV shots, filmmakers had yet to take the next step, probably owing to Robert Montgomery’s failed attempt to shoot the Chandler story, Lady in Lake entirely through Phillip Marlow’s point of view. West World was one of the first contemporary films to use the shot in its active sense. John Carpenter took it a step further in Halloween, using it as device to install fright and terror in the audience. He would set up the victim’s location, and then shoot through the killer’s eyes as he searched for said victim. McTiernan continues this trend of active POVand adds a completely alien perspective by means of a heat vision camera.

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Clever POV shot of Billy and Dutch being watched, as they watch the Predator. Object vs. Subject
Predator uses a lot of popular devices in cinematic storytelling and improves upon them. There’s even a touch of the American western genre’s greatest directors John Ford and Sam Peckinpah in this film. A group of desperado’s on a hopeless mission through the wilderness, being stalked by superior enemy with a singular intent of destruction. Stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers were two of the misogynistic he-men of the decade, therefore Predator was written off by the hi-brow critics of yet another example of pop culture film gone wrong. Predator and James Cameron’s Aliens redefined the sci-fi genre by blending it with action and suspense in a way that had not been done before. Unfortunately the many sequels have diluted the legacy of these films and many critics have reduced it to mild commercial highlights of a franchise series, which today there are dozens. Each franchise seemingly getting worse and worse, the attrition slowly destroying the characters and worlds audiences have come to love. If we remove the sequels, and look at Predator as a standalone film, we’ll find one of the most important American films of the decade, not for its philosophy, characters, or political stance; but for its improvements to cinematic style, its lasting impact on film, and its deft use of the medium. As Marshall McLuhan was fond saying, “the medium is the message,” and Predator is prime example of a good film. Not only is the technique behind the film impressive, but it reached out to audiences, having a lasting impact on our culture.

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“If it bleeds, we can kill it.”