“It is a poetic principle that the freedom of the individual must fight against the restrictions of reality… I am still, thank God, an atheist.”
– Luis Buñuel
Luis Buñuel was hugely interested in depicting the complexities of human relationships and his 1970 film Tristana is the most explicit example of that.
The movie is the story of Don Lope (Fernando Rey) a middle-aged atheist/Marxist who becomes the orphan Tristana’s (Catherine Deneuve) guardian after the death of her mother. While determined to only treat her as his daughter he becomes tempted and forces her into a sexual relationship. He rationalizes this and argues that she’d do worse than that being left on the street.
The girl is disgusted by his sexual advances and is holding a grudge against the old man over it. She secretly goes out of Don Lope’s house and meets a handsome young painter (Franco Nero) with whom he runs away. However, she falls ill and develops a tumor in her leg, under this impression that she doesn’t have much time to live she goes back to Done Lope’s household. Don Lope calls a doctor who suggests that her life can be saved by the amputation of her leg. Thus she survives and stays with the man whom she wants to avenge for taking her virginity as a young girl. Don Lope’s much older and weaker now, reduced to playing cards with priests just to have some company even though he is an atheist.
This movie never becomes a melodrama about a poor young girl taken advantage of by a father figure and disabled by the hands of fate, though it could easily be. The whole situation is appalling and that is exactly what Buñuel wanted it to be – exploring the complexities of human nature and the sadomasochism of human beings.
There are some recurring dream scenes in the movie. One is Tristina’s dream about the severed head of Don Lope’s on a church ball. According to some, that was one of Buñuel’s own recurring dreams: Buñuel was a lifelong atheist just like Don Lope.
To make the situation more disgusting than it already is Buñuel gets the deaf-mute boy of Don Lope’s servant involved in the story as well. He desires Tristana, but the girl who is bitter and cold after the amputation of her leg rejects him but mercilessly tortures him at the same time (revealing her naked body to him from the balcony).
Not many directors can take us to their own private world of nightmares and dreams and show us the ugly side of human nature and still be able to make an excellent movie. That is why Luis Buñuel is still considered to be one of the best directors of all time.
Long before Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut“, there was Luis Buñuel’s “Belle De Jour”: the story of a refined young wife of a reputable surgeon whom out of boredom secretly works at a brothel once or twice a week.
Some critics, including the late great Roger Ebert, believe this film to be the best erotic movie of all times. Buñuel never saw eroticism as something that only exists in nudity and the act of sexual intercourse but rather delved into human imaginations and strange fetishes and shamelessly depicted them in his movies. The audience follows the story of “Belle de Jour” through the eyes of Severine (played by Catherine Deneuve). For Severine sex is a dull act unless she is subjected to a vast amount of attention over it – even violence.
She finds her marriage with a seemingly perfect young surgeon Pierre (played by Jean Sorel) whose response to her refusal of sex is a single good night, to be terribly tedious. Pierre, on the other hand, sees her frequent avoidance of intercourse as a sign of virtue and adores her for that. They have a family friend Henri (played by Michel Piccoli) who is also in love with her seemingly moral character and proper mannerism – annoyed by it Severine always dismisses his compliments and resents him.
In Severine’s fantasies, Pierre demands sex or orders others to rape her, and she loves him for it. Her main fetish is to be dominated and humiliated by her lovers. She dreams about being tied to a tree while Pierre and Henri throw mud at her. She also has other small turn-ons and fetishes to which Buñuel hints throughout the movie – the sound of carriage bells and cats’ meows.
Severine’s fantasies find a way of realization when Henri accidentally tells her about a high-class brothel in which housewives work part time to earn an extra income.
Memorized the address of the brothel mentioned by Henri in their conversation Severine walks in there a few days later and is admitted in by Madame Anais (Genevieve Page)- the owner of the brothel. She gets scared at first and runs away, but the curiosity and temptation bring her back. As she tries to avoid sleeping with a fat middle aged man, Madame Anais pushes her and orders her to do so, surprisingly she promptly obeys her, something that compels her to conclude:” I see you need a firm hand.”
It can be very shocking for today’s audience to find out that there are no explicit sex scenes in one of the most erotic movies ever made. Buñuel’s interest was to show us the weirdest human fetishes and sexual “ fantasies” thus the camera always shies away when it comes to the real act of sexual intercourse. Buñuel masterfully toys with our minds and leaves us intrigued in the scene where an Asian client of the brothel who cannot speak French properly keeps showing the girls an object that looks like a music box. We never find out about the content of the box the only thing we get to see is a bloody bed sheet and Severine’s playful smile – insinuating the client’s fetish with the mysterious box.
One day, two gangsters come to Madame Anais’s brothel. One of them is Marcel (played by Pierre Clementi). He is very young, wears a leather cape, carries a sword -stick and has several unsightly steel teeth. Severine is especially impressed by his bad manners, his taunts, and his gangster persona. Marcel falls in love with her, not knowing that he’s a puppet in her hands, a toy with which she satisfies her sexual fantasies and fetishes – the best one.
Luis Buñuel who is undoubtedly one of the greatest directors of all time was a surrealist who collaborated with Salvador Dali as a young man in “ Un Chien Andalou.” He was very amused by the vast and diverse world of human fantasies and intended to depict that in his movies. He believed that most of us are hard-wired into sexual patterns from an early age and there is no escape from that – Severine also says that it is out of her hands and she’s lost.
Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and Luis Buñuel’s “Belle De Jour” are both about women whose marriages do not satisfy their uncontrollable hard-wired sexual patterns, and their husbands, suffering from the same fate remain clueless. It is all human nature.
Patricia Franchini: Listen. The last sentence is beautiful. “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief”. Which would you choose?
Michel Poiccard: …Grief’s stupid, I’d choose nothing. It’s no better, but grief’s a compromise. l want all or nothing.
Avant-garde filmmaking began with Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” (“A Bout de Souffle”) in 1960. One of the most influential films of French New Wave Cinema “Breathless” was the first movie in which “jump cuts” were debuted. Using jump-cuts means using “cuts within continuous movement or dialogue, with no attempt made to make them match.” This film is unique in showing an unprecedented amount of repulsion towards authority and in portraying young people who absorbed in their self-centered worlds, remain largely oblivious to what is going on in the real world.
Godard’s “Breathless” and Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” directly influenced the youth rebellion of the 1960s. Perhaps, all young killers in Hollywood movies were trying to imitate Michel Poiccard (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
The surprise factor is compelling in “Breathless” as the events taking place in the movie appear very much accidental – as in real life. The two young characters are quite naive and immoral at the same time – as many young real-life criminals are. Michel the leading male character is a car thief who loves Humphrey Bogart and tries to act like a tough gangster that he is not. The young female character of the film is Patricia (played by Jean Seberg) an American in Paris who wants to enroll at the Sorbonne and meanwhile sells Paris editions of the New York Herald-Tribune on the streets. They are both unsure of what they want to become in life. Michel seems to kill just to keep a gangster persona. His tough act appears to be one of the reasons Patricia pursues him- she is also sexually attracted to him.
Michel practices the facial expressions of movie stars in the mirror, dresses like film noir gangsters and never stops smoking. Godard makes fun of chain-smoker leading male characters of movies when Michel takes his last breath, and a cloud of smoke comes out of his mouth. Maybe 26-year-old Jean-Paul Belmondo would appear a bit unattractive to play Michel (a New York Time reviewer called him “hypnotically ugly” at the time). But he plays Michel the way you can’t imagine him to be played by anyone else, and that is how you can tell that an actor is doing a good job. After all, we all know not being dashingly handsome does not stop French actors from becoming huge stars –Gerard Depardieu is one example of that.
Jean Seberg (film’s Patricia) was an American actress who found fame and success in France. Her film debut as St. Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger’s “Joan of Arc” (1957) didn’t go very well in America. In fact, she received terrible reviews for her acting in the movie. Preminger who had discovered her at 18 when she came to his talent search auditioning session made another movie with her the following year (Bonjour Tristesse) to prove the reviewers wrong, but it did not go well either. As a result of that Seberg, immigrated to Europe when she was 21 and was cast by Godard to play Patricia.
Patricia is the most enigmatic character in the movie – unlike Michel. We all know Michel is a young man whom fascinated by movie stars tries to act tough to hide his insecurities. But Patricia’s story is entirely different. She doesn’t find the fact that she might be pregnant to be paramount. She finds out Michel is indeed the cop murderer everyone’s looking for, has a wife and uses various aliases and takes this information with utmost indifference and detachment. One can’t possibly guess her thoughts from her facial expressions either. Her cheating on Michel is also a well-thought test – to find out if she loves him. Her cold-hearted, femme fatale persona is something that many reviewers have failed to point out – except for the late great Roger Ebert.
The film’s process of making was entirely experimental – as it was with most French New Wave Cinema films. Godard and many other New Wave Cinema directors started their careers as critics for an anti-establishment film magazine called Cahiers du Cinema. The whole film is an experiment. Godard wrote the script for each scene the same morning they had to shoot them. Director Claude Chabrol was the movie’s production designer; writer Pierre Boulanger plays the role of the police inspector, director Jean-Pierre Melville plays the writer whom Patricia interviews at a press conference and Godard and Francois Truffaut each play small roles in the film as well – Godard plays the role of the informer. Everyone behind the scene also helped a little in front of the camera– as in a film made by cinema students.
Raul Coutard film’s cinematographer (Godard’s favorite cinematographer) does a magnificent job, especially in the scene where Patricia and Michel are in bed smoking, and the clouds of smoke mingled with the light coming out of the window make it look as if they are sitting on a big cloud. It is the same scene in which Patricia comes home and finds Michel in her bed, they argue, flirt and smoke till she finally lets him make love to her. She presses her face on a painting of a girl by Renoir and asks Michel to judge who’s prettier at the same scene, and Michel sits next to a portrait of a man holding a mask by Picasso.
Godard uses jump-cuts throughout the film. A technique which emerged quite accidentally – Godard took a scissor and just cut everything he thought was boring. Jump-cuts went to become a popular technique amongst filmmakers.
“Breathless” received a spectacular reception from the public and film critics. Filmmakers left the theater questioning all the traditional notions of filmmaking. Godard had changed cinema permanently.