Barbie as masochist: Buñuel and Deneuve

Belle de Jour: Severine and the carriage driver.

Catherine Deneuve was only twenty-three years old when she starred as Severine Serizy in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967).  Deneuve is one of those actors whose appeal has less to do with the versatility or dynamism of her talent than with a certain onscreen presence that, when properly harnessed, produces extraordinary effects.  The enigmatic blankness of her expression, her impeccable poise, her cool, low voice are put to perfect use by Buñuel in Belle de Jour, in which she plays a woman paralyzed by the repression of unorthodox sexual fantasies.  Severine is, at twenty-three, already trapped in an upper-middle-class bubble she finds stultifying, married to a “nice” (read: bland) surgeon who gives her chaste goodnight kisses and sleeps in oversized baby-blue pajamas.  She bristles at his touch, not because she’s frigid but because she secretly wants a very different type of sex with a very different type of man; in her fantasy life she imagines being dominated by rough trade, whipped and fucked by coachmen, defiled by farm laborers. 

Pierre's PJs.

It is a kind of reverse image of the character Deneuve had played two years earlier in Repulsion, Roman Polanski’s considerably bleaker study of female neurosis.  Both films suggest that their heroines suffered abuse as children (a brief, almost subliminal flashback in Belle de Jour shows Severine being fondled by a workman in paint-stained overalls).  But where Repulsion’s Carol has grown up into a woman who cannot bear the touch of any man, Belle de Jour takes Severine in another direction, as if the two films proceed from the same starting point and then diverge onto two different forking paths.  For Severine, the abuse seems to have “opened a door” (Linda Williams’ phrase) to a very pleasurable, if taboo, realm of masochism and kink.  Deneuve’s blandness and blankness float over the gulf between the separate spheres of Severine’s life: on the one hand the skiing trips and Yves Saint-Laurent clothes and lunches, all photographed in Eastmancolor to look like a photo spread in Paris Match, and on the other hand the afternoons spent at a brothel submitting to the whims of thugs, businessmen, “foreigners”—also photographed to look like a photo spread in Paris Match, because of course this is a Buñuel film.  (In one of the film’s most quintessentially Buñuelian images a client’s ratty socks rub up against Severine’s designer shoes.)  

According to Melissa Anderson, Buñuel advised his actors “don’t do anything.  And above all, don’t perform.”  That may be why Deneuve was ideal casting for Severine.  Her flat affect is of a piece with the tone of Buñuel’s films, in which perversity simmers beneath banal surfaces.  Buñuel used Deneuve the way a child uses a Barbie doll to act out stories.  She looks like a princess out of a fairy tale, a model out of a catalog, a shop-window mannequin.  When we first see her riding in a carriage with her husband, we could be in the world of a romance novel, a perfume commercial, or “Cinderella.”  Then, as she’s dragged from the carriage and her dress is torn away to expose her perfect Barbie-doll back, and the carriage drivers lash her with whips while the husband looks on approvingly, it becomes clear that we’re in the world of Sade’s Justine.  It would have been a mistake to cast a lustier actress as Severine; the part needs the aloofness and the detached quality of Deneuve in order to give meaning to the intensity of her repressed desire. 

It’s possible to see Belle de Jour as a misogynistic fantasy of revenge against privileged, uptight “bitches” like Severine, the suggestion being that all such women need is a good rogering by the local handyman.  But it’s also possible to see the film as a delicately shaded (and remarkably accurate) portrait of a budding fetishist’s journey to self-discovery.  The erotic appeal of Severine/Deneuve in Belle de Jour doesn’t have to do with the suppleness of her body or the specific details of the sex she has, neither of which Buñuel shows us much.  It has everything to do with the knowledge that behind the serene Barbie-doll mask—a mask that only really slips once in the film, when we see Severine basking in the afterglow of her own ravishment—lies something insatiable.   


The Films of 2018: Zama

Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel Zama is dedicated “to the victims of expectation,” and it tells the story of one such victim, a Spanish magistrate stationed in a far-flung South American colony with nothing to do but anxiously await news of a transfer from his king.  The years pass; he nurses desperate, unconsummated lusts; his letters to his wife back home go unreturned; petty indignities mount.  The transfer never comes.  And so Don Diego de Zama’s vainglorious dreams of fame and fortune are slowly eaten away by inaction and several runs of very bad luck.  It’s a spare, bitter little book about the nightmare of imperialist bureaucracy, narrated (somewhat unreliably) by the deluded and self-pitying Don Diego himself.  Though set in the late eighteenth century it resembles the work of such modernist writers as Kafka and Conrad, not least in its trenchant ironies, chief among these being that even as Don Diego is repeatedly conscripted, ignored, and taken advantage of by everyone around him we never have much sympathy for him because he’s such an ineffectual putz.  


Mapping Todd Haynes' "Poison" (1991)

Bodily abjection, social abjection: the diseased Dr. Graves and his devoted companion Dr. Olsen in "Horror."

Queer monstrosity.  In the “Horror” segment of Todd Haynes’ Poison a mad scientist is accidentally infected (poisoned?) by liquefied sex drive and becomes a carbuncular ghoul.  But much like Frankenstein’s monster he winds up a figure of tragic sympathy rather than a villain.  Nothing and everything about “Horror” is queer: on the surface of things Graves’ attraction to the pert Dr. Nancy Olsen couldn’t be more normal, and yet it’s overlaid with the tropes of a coming-out story, as Graves grapples with feelings of abjection, shame, and self-loathing.  As Graves’ body begins to rot he is declared a menace to the community, his apartment surrounded by protestors, as if he’s an AIDS patient.  Is this Haynes flipping the script, defamiliarizing heterosexual norms?  Is he saying that sex itself—any sex—the source of the “panicky fright” from which, according to the film’s epigraph, “the whole world is dying”?  “Hero” also turns on the supernatural transformation of its protagonist, except that little Richie Beacon turns into an angel instead of a monster, ascending in flight where Graves plummets to his death.  

A lover's quarrel: Broom and Bolton in "Homo."

Frenemies.  The lines between friendship, sex, and violence are very thin in Poison, and they cross each other sinuously.  At first it seems that Richie is a victim of school bullying, until it turns out he has been bullying his friend in order to get him to retaliate against him—a brilliantly perverse convolution.  Broom and Bolton, the prison cellmates of “Homo,” violently taunt and tussle with each other until Broom twists away and plants a kiss on Bolton’s mouth that is both a declaration of love and an act of aggression.  Broom will later fuck Bolton in much the same way.  For Genet, whose writing all of Poison is inspired by, homosexuality operates according to a libidinal economy radically different from that of heterosexuality, one in which loving someone and hurting them, and being loved and being hurt, are not so very different things.

Graves behind bars.

Crime and punishment.  Richie—troublemaker or saint?—is punished at home and at school; Broom and Bolton are career criminals who spend their lives shuttling from one reformatory/prison to another; Graves is first accused of being a fraud and then of being a menace to society, visually framed on his fire escape as if behind bars.  Leo Bersani called Genet a figure for “the gay outlaw,” which is to say the gay subject as outlaw.  In Genet’s world homosexuality was always already a crime and crime was always already sexualized.  Genet insists on and revels in such transgressions: the appeal of homosexuality is precisely that it takes place on society’s margins, away from the sunlit world of straight normality, and the prison is always an eroticized space. 

"Hero": Richie gets spanked.

“The child is father of the man.”  Queer and oppressed children/misfits/outcasts run throughout Haynes, especially in the early films.  They’re also revealed to be perverts in training.  (There is as much Freud as Genet in Poison.)  Richie Beacon is a pint-sized masochist who gets off on being spanked by his father as well as by his school chums.  As a youth in a boys’ reformatory, the budding criminal Bolton is literally spat upon by his tormenters in a Maxfield-Parrish garden.  (A little girl also spits on Graves.)  Childhood experiences leave fingerprints on the sexualities of Haynes’ characters that deepen and form permanent imprints.  What’s most unique/shocking/interesting about Haynes’ scenes of childhood humiliation and pain is his suggestion that they can become sources of pleasure for the abused person.  The spray of spit that falls on Bolton’s face like rain becomes a shower of petals and confetti, and his mouth is open in an expression that is somewhere between joy and a scream.

Spit and flower petals.



Top: Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2009).  Bottom: The 39 Steps (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1935).

Quentin Tarantino is more likely to name de Palma as one of his influences than he is Hitchcock, but upon re-watching Inglourious Basterds (2009) this weekend—a film in which references to Notorious, The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, etc. abound—I was reminded of just how much Hitchcock there is in Tarantino.  That Tarantino has, like Hitchcock, risen to become a true Hollywood auteur, the cinematic equivalent of a brand name, seems to me only one of the connections they share. 

Melanie Laurent (with Tarantino's camera) surveys the cinema lobby in the movie-premiere sequence.

Set pieces.  The first two hours of Inglourious Basterds build toward an elaborate climactic sequence in which, during the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film at a cinema in occupied France, Our Guys contrive to blow up Adolf Hitler and his cronies.  In Tarantino’s virtuosic use of crane shots and cross-cutting and a restless, swooping camera, the sequence hearkens back to the Albert Hall assassination in The Man Who Knew Too Much and the party scene in Notorious.  Both Tarantino and Hitchcock specialize(d) in set pieces that lend themselves to what Hitchcock called “pure cinema”—i.e., the art of using camerawork and editing to generate dramatic tension so visceral that dialogue became superfluous.  Set pieces are also useful for demonstrating the filmmaker’s own mastery.  Watching the movie-premiere sequence in Inglourious Basterds, or the Del Amo mall heist in Jackie Brown, or the assassination of the Crazy 88s in Kill Bill, you feel like there’s no place Tarantino’s camera can’t go, and nothing he can’t do.    

"Nazis" and "Jews"

Race/history as MacGuffin.  Inglourious Basterds is “about” Nazis and Jews in the same way that Notorious and Saboteur and Foreign Correspondent are: Nazism and Jewishness are plot devices useful only for generating conflict and tension at the narrative level.  (This is not a criticism, only an observation.)  At the beginning of Hitchcock’s career in the 1930s and 1940s, he made his villains spies for/agents of the Axis powers; at the end of his career in the 1960s they became spies for/agents of the Soviets.  National identity and international conflict provided him with reliable MacGuffins.  (If Hitchcock were making films today he would no doubt make his villains international terrorists.)    Tarantino’s use of Nazis in Inglourious Basterds seems to me much the same.  Like Claude Rains’ Alex Sebastian, Christoph Waltz’s Colonel Landa is a brilliant character and/but a pretty shallow portrait of a Nazi officer, a Baddie lifted straight out of a genre movie.  Tarantino gets away with it because his film is presented as an homage to the cinematic tradition from which such stock types derive.

The cinematic apparatus.

Audiences/entertainment/fantasy.  It’s in their manipulating of the tension between entertainment and reflexivity, between pleasure and discomfort, that Tarantino and Hitchcock are able to be let off the hook for whatever sins—self-indulgence, fetishization of violence, historical/cultural myopia—they may be said to be guilty of.  Their films are ingeniously devised crowd-pleasers at the same time that they’re object lessons in the seductive deceptions that cinema offers.  Hitchcock and Tarantino’s movies please crowds at the same time that they remind us of the contingencies of that pleasure, and if they cannot be said to correspond to “reality,” then they have all the more to tell us about the uses of fantasy.



"L'Eclisse": The dark side of the moon

Monica Vitti and Alain Delon in L'Eclisse (1962, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni).

Eleven years after his death Michelangelo Antonioni’s reputation as one of the great filmmakers remains more or less intact—but I find him to be underrated as an observer of intimate relationships.  Antonioni usually gets talked about in relation to ennui, modernity, alienation, architecture, space; he doesn’t as often get talked about in relation to love, marriage, or sex, even though all of his major films are about couples.  Each of the films of his loose trilogy of the early 1960s (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse) eventually trains in on a relationship that is in some liminal state of crisis, either beginning or ending or somehow doing both at once.  When I rewatched L’Avventura a year ago I was staggered by just how perceptive it is about the experience of embarking on a new relationship, as both partners oscillate between states of desire, uncertainty, anxiety, and disinterest.  L’Eclisse (1962) is a variation on that same theme, a love story in which the lovers come to the (mutual?) realization that they’re not right for each other, and go their separate ways into the dark of a forbidding night.

The relationship between Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Piero (Alain Delon) in L’Eclisse is less passionate and dramatic than the one in L’Avventura and less weighty than the one in La Notte, and so perhaps is rendered with even more subtle ambiguity.  They meet at the borsa (he is her mother’s stockbroker) and have a long afternoon “date” in which they circle around each other haltingly, like a pair of animals.  Piero seems to want her; she seems not to know what she wants.  She is coming off of a recent breakup to a man (her fiancé?) who continues to pursue her in a way that verges on stalking.  So this new beau, handsome and strutting, is both attractive and someone for whom Vittoria can’t seem to work up much excitement.  She finally gives in to him sexually, and they spend much of the next day in a giggly bliss-out.  High on what would now be called “new relationship energy,” they spontaneously make a vow (or a promise they know to be empty?) to each other to spend an eternity of tomorrows together, to begin at eight o’clock at their usual spot.  As soon as they part we see doubt fall over both their faces like a curtain, and when eight o’clock comes neither one shows up.  


L’Eclisse ends with a final sequence of vast mystery, a long montage of shots of the street corner where Vittoria and Piero were supposed to have their rendezvous, as dusk creeps in and shadows lengthen and night falls—the night that in Antonioni’s two previous features brought on panic and desperation.  I like to think that the title (“the eclipse”) refers to Vittoria’s shifting emotional state, in which hesitancy shades briefly into pleasure and happiness and then shifts back into hesitancy like the sun crossing the path of the moon.  But it could just as easily refer to the temporarily crossed paths of Vittoria and Piero, whose brief fling is observed by Antonioni with the curious detachment of a scientist.

In the context of today’s hook-up culture, with its “flaking” and “ghosting,” L’Eclisse feels more modern and relevant than ever.  Or perhaps it’s that the relevance of Antonioni is actually timelessness.  The shadow of the moon has been eclipsing the light of the sun since the beginning of the universe, and it will likely continue to do so tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and the day after that, and the next.  


The Films of 2018: Hereditary

These days the most interesting horror movies have been coming from independent filmmakers, many of them first-timers.  Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out were all debut features.  To that list we can now add Hereditary, an effectively creepy—if not entirely coherent—supernatural thriller by newcomer Ari Aster, which sports a bravura performance by Toni Collette.  She plays Annie, an artist struggling to come to terms with the death of her intensely “private” mother, whose quietly bizarre funeral service opens the film.  Unfamiliar mourners stand around the open casket flashing curious smiles at Annie and her family; one of them reaches in to matter-of-factly touch the lips of the corpse.  The nature of Annie’s mother’s secret past comes to exert a powerful influence over the remaining members of the family, including Annie’s two children, who find themselves compelled by ghostly flashes of light and beckoning figures.   


Poem for Ethan Edwards

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (dir. John Ford, 1956).

John Wayne’s face is the side of a Monument Valley crag,
A slab of rock worn down by snow and sun;
A cut of leather run with creases, the blade of a knife
About to save you or kill you.

In the time it takes for a woman to blow out a lamp,
For a horse to tumble down the side of a hill,
It goes from haggard and mean,
The eyes glittering with fire,
To a cut of leather, warm and sun-bleached,
The eyes wrinkled at the corners like a dad’s.
They’re squinting with joy;
His mouth is no longer the blade of a knife.
It booms with the laughter of a man who has forgotten 
About tainted blood, ruined women,
Things seen in caves,
In a smokehouse,
In a war.

A hero is just a killer who,
In the time it takes to lift a girl off her feet,
Decides to cradle her like a white doll
(Let’s go home, Debbie)
Instead of blowing her away into red dust.