In the opening scenes of You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, a roll call of France’s most celebrated actors of stage and screen from the past four decades are contacted with the sad news of the passing of a playwright, the author of an updated reworking of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The playwright, Antoine d’Anthac, is fictional, the creation of real-life French playwright Jean Anouilh in the play Cher Antoine ou l’amour rate, which director / co-screenwriter Alain Resnais drafts to stand in for Anouilh as the author of his play Eurydice. The actors are real – among them Mathieu Amalric, Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azéma, Anne Consigny, Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Piccoli, and Lambert Wilson – playing fictionalized versions of themselves. In this incarnation, they have all appeared in productions of Eurydice on the Paris stage and have been invited to the playwright’s country mansion for his wake, which in this case is a posthumous request to watch a fresh interpretation performed by a young company to judge whether they are worthy of staging a new production.
You could call it a film within a play, or a play within a film, but neither really captures the Russian nesting doll quality of the deft merging and doubling of the two arts. I see it as living theater meeting the cinematic imagination of Alain Resnais, who wraps Anouilh’s two plays around one another for a new creation.
“I’d like everything to be perfect,” moons young husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) to his beautiful wife Séverine (Catherine Deneuve), trotting down a country road in a horse-drawn carriage in the opening of Belle de Jour. “If only you weren’t so cold.” Her apology doesn’t merely fall on deaf ears, it inflames him to sadistic sexual retribution, like something out of a Victorian melodrama by way of the Marquis de Sade. She’s hauled out of the carriage by the two drivers, dragged through the woods, bound and gagged, stripped and whipped, and finally ravished by the servants, at which point her expression changes from the wide-eyed stage terror of innocence abused to the surrender to physical ecstasy.
“What are you thinking about, Séverine?,” asks the same voice, now offscreen and, in a sense, in another movie. “I was thinking about you,” she answers with a sweet but aloof smile, sitting in bed in their city apartment like a porcelain princess while her doting husband readies himself for bed. But the spell is broken and the reverie over. The fantasies of her imagination do not cross over into her real life, where she sleeps alone in a single bed by her choice, the frigid wife of the opening seconds once again. He inches in for a romantic overture and she once again rebuffs him. A year after marriage, she’s still unable to give herself to her husband, a cultured, proper virgin with lurid sexual fantasies behind her physical coldness.
Luis Bunuel’s cheerfully brazen satire of sexual repression, social decorum, and erotic fantasies is in the running for Bunuel’s kinkiest film, and that’s saying a lot. You could say that Belle de Jour stars two Catherine Deneuves: the dreamy, romantic young innocent of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and the uptight, anxious sexual repressive of Repulsion (1965). Buñuel didn’t cast the actress — she was pushed on the director by the producers, Raymond and Robert Hakim, and Deneuve had the impression that he took her with some reluctance — but he uses that cool, aloof Deneuve quality as a defining quality of Séverine, the beautiful young wife of a gallant but often absent (emotionally as well as physically) husband. On the surface she’s the picture-perfect bourgeois wife of a respected young surgeon with an almost reflexive disapproval of every break with respectability and dignity she sees or hears about, especially when it comes to Pierre’s friend Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli), a “rich and bored” provocateur and gleeful chauvinist who doesn’t let Séverine’s disdain prevent him from constantly propositioning her. Yet she escapes her own resistance to physical contact with her husband through similar fantasies and finally follows them to a real-life Paris bordello hidden away in an urban apartment, where she signs up for an afternoon shift (thus her working name: Belle de Jour).
Italian auteur Marco Ferreri’s films profile a modern consumer culture that is not simply empty but diseased, deadening emotions and driving people (specifically men) to acts of excess. The epitome is La Grande Bouffe, his grotesque 1973 men so bored life they decide to end it all in one final orgy, a food-and-sex blow-out, but you can find the seeds of that in the 1969 Dillinger in Dead, recently restored and rereleased in a revival run and now on DVD from Criterion.
It’s not a gangster film but an eerie character study of an industrial engineer (Michel Piccoli) over a long night where boredom and ennui and alienation (he’s in the middle of designing a gas mask) take their toll. Set almost entirely within the walls of a cluttered modern apartment filled with cultural detritus, Piccoli’s character plays like a spirited kid in a life-size toy box while his gorgeous but emotionally disconnected wife (Anita Pallenberg) medicates herself to sleep. He watches (and then interacts with) home movies, cooks up a snack, grabs a quickie with the maid (Annie Girardot), but the toy that fascinates him most is a handgun (which he cleans in olive oil) that may have belonged to Dillinger (or is simply wrapped up in the gangster’s mystic, which becomes both as his tool of liberation and of his ultimate act of arrogance and human contempt.