Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan: a symbiotic relationship

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Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando go together like fine wine and ripe cheese. Like platinum and diamonds. Like Kim K and a selfie stick… You get the idea. These are combinations that bring out the very best in both parties, that enhance talents whilst allowing faults to be glossed over. The best kinds of collaborations are a relationship of equals, where everyone plays a part that’s perfectly in tune and perfectly pitched. That’s based on giving and sharing. Often known as an ‘actor’s director’, thanks to his ability to coax performances of great psychological realism out of his leads, it was with Brando that Kazan created characters and scenes that continue to influence and inspire.

The roots of their relationship were founded not in cinema but on stage. Kazan first encountered Brando in a Broadway production of Truckline Café, an ill-fated play that closed after a measly 13 performances in February 1946. Written by Maxwell Anderson, it was directed by Harold Clurman and – crucially – produced by Elia Kazan. Brando had a small role as an ex-G.I. who comes home to find that his wife has been unfaithful; the part included a confession scene during which he admitted that he had killed his wife and carried her body out to see. According to co-star Karl Malden, the rest of the cast sometimes had to wait for nearly two minutes after Brando’s exit while the audience screamed and stamped its feet. This was acting like many in the audience had never seen before. Brando’s raw energy and visceral rage was first awkward and confrontational, then compelling and enthralling.

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Although the play was a dismal failure, it inspired Kazan (and producer/director Cheryl Crawford and actor Robert Lewis) to form the Actors Studio. Not just a reaction to the failure of Truckline Café, the aim of the Actors Studio was to continue the work of the Group Theatre, which had closed in 1941. That company, itself formed by Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Stella Adler, had studied and explored the art of acting – Kazan felt that the progress that the Group Theatre had made was in danger of being lost; his non-profit would function as a private workshop, where actors could work on their craft and be offered on-going training. Of the actors involved in Truckline Café, only Brando and Malden were invited to join. Brando had previously taken lessons with Stella Adler, who encouraged students to use their imagination to enrich their roles, to study nature, art and history because the more they knew, the more choices they would have.

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Brando’s break came when he was chosen over John Garfield to appear in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Running on Broadway and directed by Kazan, Brando was an instant hit as Stanley Kowalski, a violent and aggressive Polish-American who rapes his wife’s sister, the aristocratic Blanche du Bois. The play was an enormous success, thanks mostly to Brando’s intense and powerful performance, which, Kazan feared, was in danger of turning the play into ‘the Marlon Brando show’. Streetcar would run for almost two years, cementing in audience’s minds ‘Brando’, a man filled with uncontrollable, violent rage – a man very different to the peace-loving actor. Once the play was over, it was almost inevitable that Brando would look to Hollywood for his next role – although he would always shun the studio system, and had a disregard for contracts and his own profession.

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After a turn as Ken in Fred Zinnenmann’s The Men, Brando was reunited with Kazan – and the rest of the Broadway cast – for the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire (the only exception was Vivien Leigh, who had played the role of Blanche in the London production). Although Brando is excellent on-screen (more about that in a moment) it should be noted that this is an ensemble production: Leigh excels as the promiscuous yet emotionally unstable Blanche and Kim Hunter brings depth and maturity to her role as Stella, Kowalski’s wife. But the reason why this film always becomes so much about Brando is because his performance marked a before and after juncture, the kind that comes around very rarely. As Rick Lyman observed, ‘simply put, in film acting, there is before Brando, and there is after Brando. And they are like different worlds’. Brando’s performance – sexually charged, animalistic, greedy, rage-filled and tender all at once – was instinctive, and held nothing back. It went against the restraint that was usually found in film performances (from Roger Ebert: compare Brando’s performance with Bogart’s captain in African Queen, released in the same year. He’s rude and crude, but Bogart’s natural elegance shows through). Able to fully embody the role to the extent that it’s impossible to separate Brando from Kowalski: this was a type of super-realism, a riff on reality that went beyond convincing. Brando gave himself up to Kowalski – perhaps a little to well. Earning the less than flattering moniker of ‘Neanderthal Man’, for years he would struggle to escape from the slouching shadow of his own creation.

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Kazan’s skill was in letting Brando give that performance. For not asking him to rein it in, to colour between the lines. Other directors might have been over-awed by the power within Brando, but not Kazan. He fought the censorship cuts that Warner Bros. insisted on, in an attempt to make the film more ‘audience friendly’. Maybe Kazan knew that it was Brando that would carry the film – in his autobiography he was honest about his lack of directorial range, and there’s certainly weight behind those who claim Kazan was over-reliant on dramatic staging and performances, a hangover from his theatrical roots. Yet he made some excellent decisions too: choosing to shoot in black and white, for example, which allowed the film to be suffused with a down-and-out tragedy and seediness.

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Black and white was Kazan’s choice for On the Waterfront too, the third and last film he would make with Brando (even though he offered him roles in Baby Doll, A Face in the Crowd, and The Arrangement, Brando never worked with Kazan again). Watching Waterfront back-to-back with Streetcar (try it, it’s fun) Brando’s progress is obvious. Although it’s almost impossible to choose a favourite and Streetcar is the iconic Brando role, there’s something emotionally wrenching in his performance as Terry Malloy. It’s mostly to do the toughness and tenderness that he’s able to play almost in the same expression, the fact that he can feel conflicting things at once is wholly identifiable and the biggest component of Brando’s ‘realness’.

A crime drama with elements of film noir, On the Waterfront tells the story of Terry Malloy, a dockworker tied up with the local mob. After he witnesses a murder, his views about the mob and their practices change. Gradually, after a growing friendship with the sister of the dead man, he embraces ‘good’ – although that’s put to the test when his brother is murdered. The film was shot over 36 days on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, and many of the actors were locals. The biting New Jersey cold must’ve worked to Kazan’s advantage – all the actors have a pinched, hollow look that would be impossible to fake, an it prevent indulgent over-acting and unnecessary takes.

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On the Waterfront’s most famous scene, the‘ I coulda been a contender’ scene, takes place in the back seat of a taxi. A venetian blind covers the back window, blocking out the world and forcing the audience to focus on the characters. It’s a pivotal moment: Terry reminds Charley that it’s his fault his life is the way it is – had his brother not fixed an important fight, his fighting career could have gone somewhere. An atypical gangster scene, it’s infused with the ties of family responsibility, disappointment and regret. When Charley produces a gun, Terry doesn’t react with anger rather a mixture of confusion, resignation, gentleness and sadness – not the confrontation stance you expect. Everything about the movie is compressed into that intimate, melancholy scene, but also everything about Brando too. About the actor’s performance, Kazan would later comment: ‘if there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don’t know what it is’. But much like Streetcar, this is an ensemble performance. That scene would be nothing without the input of Rod Steiger, whose responses to Brando are textbook perfect, wonderfully understated and heavy with regret. This is a three-way collaboration: Brando, Steiger and Kazan, although in interviews, Kazan took very little credit for the actors’ performances.

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Although undoubtedly the most famous, it’s possibly not the movie’s best moment. I much prefer Brando’s scenes with Eva Maria Saint, which are filled with small human gestures. In one, the two take a walk in a small local park and she drops one of her gloves. The gentleman (the tenderness) inside Terry means that he picks it up, but instead of handing it straight back to her, he puts it on. A small, intimate and commonplace action, but one that’s a Brando trademark. He performs it with ease and simplicity, totally unconsciously. As in his role as Kowalski, Brando understood that it was the small details that bring a character to life. There’s no word on if it was written into the script, if Kazan suggested it or if Brando was improvising, but the latter seems to fit Brando the actor too well for it not to be true. Dockworkers aren’t renowned for their sensitivity, but Budd Schulberg’s screenplay, but Kazan’s direction and Brando’s performance elevated him into something else. Indeed, watching with a contemporary eye, Terry’s decision to embrace what’s right isn’t what draws you in – it’s Brando.

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Kazan’s role was less about managing Brando, but managing other actors’ reactions to him. Starring in her first film, Eva Marie Saint was naturally wary of the actor and aware of this, Kazan was keen to put her at ease. Aware of how uncomfortable she felt with Brando’s virility in a ‘love scene’, Kazan (according to Budd Schulberg) ‘came up and whispered a single word in her ear: “Jeffrey.” With her husband in mind she was able to respond in the love scene. This was a Kazan technique I would see again and again—no wordy directions, just that one right word that would trigger the desired emotions in the performer.’

The fact that Kazan and Brando only made three films together isn’t quite the travesty it seems. Indeed the limits of their collaboration are what make it so special. There wasn’t time for the relationship to sour, for either to outgrow the other and Brando always carried the characters he developed with Kazan with him. In truth, his later performances never approached the same level of finesse – whether that’s due to Kazan or Brando’s disillusionment with acting, it’s hard to say – but together the two changed movie acting forever. Being the actor that challenges convention is hard, but don’t underestimate the will that’s needed to let someone take flight. Brando and Kazan, like all the best relationships, needed each other.

Sources: The King Who Would Be Man / Method Man – John Lahr / Method Man – Claudia Roth Pierpont / Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando

This post is part of CLASSIC SYMBIOTIC COLLABORATIONS: the star-director blogathon hosted by the wonderful CineMaven. There are an incredible breadth of actor’s and directors included in the roster, check them all out here.

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Ball of Fire: Barbara Stanwck as Sugarpuss O’Shea

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A slightly slower-paced screwball than Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire is, nevertheless, a thoroughly enjoyable wisecracking movie. Many of the elements that make a classic Howard Hawks film might be somewhat diluted, but the dialogue and comic timing of the lead actors is perfectly pitched. Playing a professor and a nightclub singer respectively, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck deliver sassy one-liners with aplomb, even if their on-screen chemistry doesn’t quite pass muster.

Those sharp one-liners came courtesy of Billy Wilder – working in collaboration with Charles Brackett, Ball of Fire marked Wilder’s last foray into screenplay-only films. After completing this movie he moved into a writer-director role (and provided us with classics including Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard). Wilder took the Ball of Fire gig with the condition that he’d get unlimited access to visit the set to observe Hawks at work – although reports suggest he was unimpressed with the final version.

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The story, a take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, revolves around a group of professors who are working on an encyclopaedia. They live and work together in a somewhat claustrophobic house, with little interaction with the outside world – until Professor Bertram Potts (Cooper) goes on a field experiment whilst researching American slang. During his jaunt into the real world he meets Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanwyck) and is captivated by her performance of ‘Congo Boogie’. He invites Sugarpuss to participate in a round-table discussion the following day, and is surprised when she turns up on his doorstep later that night after she initially refused to participate. She’s decided that the professors are the perfect cover for a woman who’s avoiding the police, and brazenly invites herself in. The adventure that follows is predictable but also charming, and a wonderful fusion of intellect and physical impulses.

Ball of Fire is one of the few Hawks films that lends a level of heroism to intellectual characters. Most of the director’s other films deal with ‘active’ professions (think pilots, race-car drivers and cowboys) rather than men of science and learning. Here we have not just one but eight of them (indeed the gravitas that Hawks needed to give the characters for them to be convincing probably contributed to the film’s slow pacing), each one incapable of understanding women, much less being able to negotiate *whispers* sex. The widowed Professor Oddly, shy and timid, describes how his treatment of his own wife: “I kissed her hand each night, astonished at my own boldness”. This childish and simplistic view of relationships is really absurd but as Robin Wood notes in Howard Hawks, when viewed as a collective their actions take on a certain dignity.

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Alongside Wilder’s script, the film’s highlight is Stanwyck. Interestingly, both Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard turned down the role, and Hawks considered other actresses (including Betty Field and Lucille Ball) before deciding on Stanwyck. In truth, she was the perfect choice for the role, able to convey a combination of sass and tenderness. Even when she treats Potts badly, the audience is always on her side. It helps, of course, that Stanwyck looks the part too – her wonderful costumes were designed by long-term collaborator and friend Edith Head, who knew exactly how to fix the actress’ figure ‘flaws’ (the main problem was a long waist). Head first dressed Stanwyck for Internes Can’t Take Money (Alfred Santell, 1937) – when Stanwyck told Head that she couldn’t wear fancy clothes, the designer replied, “Of course you can wear them.” From then until the ’50s, Head dressed Stanwyck almost exclusively, following her from studio to studio. She also designed many outfits for the star’s public appearances. Although Ball of Fire only required five costume changes, each look adds depth and meaning to Sugarpuss, keeping the audience guessing about ‘who’ she really is. Which one is your favourite?

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Look one: show-off sequin stripes 
Stanwyck’s opening outfit is as showy as her stage routine. The glittering, sequin dress included a striped bustier with chiffon sleeves and a cut-out waist and a fringed skirt – both details designed to emphasise Stanwyck’s assets (legs and waist). A typical nightclub singer she’s as dazzling as the sequin she wears – everyone’s eyes are on her, except for Bertram Potts, who’s absorbed in his notebook, desperate to catch every example of slang he can. They are quite simply from different worlds – a comparison that’s drawn through their contrasting costumes but also through his awkward behaviour. This isn’t Potts’ natural habitat – and he isn’t much more comfortable backstage, where his close proximity to Sugarpuss ties his tongue in knots. Sugarpuss’ outdoor wear (a large fur coat and a chiffon headscarf) is suitably glamorous, but the professors aren’t prepared for the barely-there garment that’s underneath, or for her to peel off her stocking. She’s using every trick in her not insignificant arsenal, and they’ve fallen hook, line and sinker.

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Look two : butter wouldn’t melt
A simple, demure and ladylike outfit that’s the polar opposite to the opening number. There’s a schoolgirl charm to the elegant blouse (complete with a monogrammed sleeve) and softly pleated skirt with a wide striped waistband but, ever the ingenue, Sugarpuss manages to inject some sass and scandal. She brazenly asks the professors to help her with the outfit’s zipper, causing much consternation amongst the collective. Her vivacious flirting (surely a quality only Stanwyck could bring to the role) by turns charms and flummoxes them, and housekeeper Miss Bragg is mightily vexed.

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Look three: casual daywear, O’Shea style 
This outfit is very similar to the previous ensemble: a fluid-fitting blouse paired with a pleated skirt, cinched at the waist. This time the stripes appear on the blouse and the  belt has metallic loops and a looped chain. Whether Head was dressing Stanwyck up or down, she always knew how to make the most of her figure. It probably helped that Head and Stanwyck were good friends. The designer successfully turned the ‘plain Jane’ actress into a sex symbol for The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941), Head employed a few costume tricks to improve Stanwyck’s naturally trim figure (namely widening the waistbands at the front and narrowing them at the back) and the public saw the actress in a whole new light. The Lady Eve bought the designer the acclaim that had eluded her since she took over from Paramount’s legendary head designer Travis Banton in 1938. In Edith Head’s Hollywood, Stanwyck recalls that: ‘From then on I had Edith Head’s name written into every contract, no matter what studio I was working for’.

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Look three: what, this old thing?
Flouncy marabou feather sleeves, a full length skirt with a trailing chiffon train: they don’t make nightgowns like this any more (or if they do, no-one I know is wearing them). This outfit is a return to form for Sugarpuss, but it’s not showy for showiness sake – Edith Head was more talented than that. This gown is about emphasising contrast, about bringing ambiguities to a character and making us question our assumptions. There’s the obvious contrast between Sugarpuss’ flamboyant gown and the stuffy professor’s house, between her extravagant attire and Pottsie’s sensible (and well worn) threads. Yet other distinctions – the innocent simplicity of her pulled back hair versus the vamp nightgown; the tenderness with which she places the humble but thoughtful ring Pottsie uses to propose on her finger versus the greedy delight with which she had previously received Joe Lilac’s token – suggest that Sugarpuss might not be the gal we’ve pegged her as. That the glamorous facade might conceal a sensitive core, that her good conscience will tussle with her material desires… But then she’s punches Miss Bragg and locks her in the cupboard and harmony is restored. Pottsie deserves so much better! Sugarpuss’ long, shapely legs have adled his brain.

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Look four:
Fitting her fluctuating emotions, Sugarpuss’ final look can dressed up or down. In the car on the way to New Jersey, the day dress is accessorised with a dramatic veiled hat, a fur stole and embellished cuffs (probably bangles) but, as she comes to accept her feelings for ‘Pottsie’, she loses the fripperies until the dress is simply adorned (at least by Sugarpusses’ standards). This is actually to be her wedding dress – despite the urgency of the ceremony surely Sugarpuss would’ve insisted on something more glam. Whether she wants to admit it or not, she’s already given her heart to someone else (hint: he’s name isn’t Lilac).

This post is part of the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck blogathon, hosted by the wonderful In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood to honour the 26th anniversary of the actresses’ death. Check out all the other posts here, and let’s celebrate the career of one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses!

Le Mépris: Godard, marriage and movie-making

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Le Mépris (released in the US as Contempt) is widely regarded as one of Jean-Luc Godard’s most accessible films. It has the feel of a big budget movie, includes some polished and assured performances, and a sublime score from Georges Delerue. And let’s not forget the intense, often-referenced colour palette and the expansive shots of the dazzling Capri coast. Posing several rhetorical questions, it’s a film about filmmaking; Godard’s attempt to challenge the film establishment by reflecting and refracting its foibles back on itself. Much of the film is deliberately self-conscious. There’s a film-within-a-film construct, but even the ‘real’ scenes have an air of knowingness. Look, the director seems to be saying: this isn’t the film, but it’s still a film.

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Based on the novel A Ghost at Noon, by Alberto Moravia, the screenplay is deliciously meta. Playwright and crime writer Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is hired by American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to re-write the script of The Odyssey, directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself). According to Prokosch, the film is ‘too artsy’ and will not be a commercial success. This film about making a film is framed by the disintegration of Javal’s marriage to Camille (Brigitte Bardot). Their marital problems begin when Camille meets Prokosch. He – and Paul – insist that she rides in his car. Camille, not unfairly, feels that her husband is using her to impress the producer.

Although their pseudo-intellectualising and lack of adult qualities makes it almost impossible for the viewer to care for either Paul or Camille, their relationship has a ring of soap opera authenticity. During a drawn out scene in their apartment (it makes up almost a third of the movie’s entire length), the two argue in the way only couples can – without logic or reason, flitting between manipulation and seduction, backtracking and employing emotional oscillation. Camille wears and removes a short black wig, an act of transformation that mirrors her changing emotions for Paul – or is perhaps an attempt for him to see beyond the blonde bimbo stereotype. Of the two, it’s Paul who comes off worse – cunning and manipulative he sees himself as the superior half of the partnership – he’s the successful breadwinner, she’s little more than a ‘stupid typist’. Yet still, he tries to force decisions back on his wife, perhaps only to blame her for making the wrong one. That poor opinion seems to be confirmed when, at the end of the segment, he takes a small revolver from its hiding place on the bookshelf and places it in his pocket. Yet we’re not entirely convinced he’ll use it. Just like his ever-present Dean Martin fedora and jaunty cigar, it’s just for show.

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On thing is for certain: the two do have a chance at happiness, but both seem determined to throw it away by refusing to hear what the other is really saying. But Le Mépris goes beyond the struggle of an arguing couple, that’s the surface story. Beneath it sits references from Homer, and Dante, a reflection on the role of the gods in modern life and how classic stories still have the power to influence the modern day. The exterior of the house in Capri – the iconic Casa Malaparte – is steeped to resemble a Mayan temple, playing up the classical associations. Character’s actions seem to intermingle with classicist stories – when producer Jeremy Prokosch throws film cans in anger, he resembles a discus thrower, a Greek statue bought to life (‘At last you have a feeling for Greek culture,’ Lang observes dryly). Whilst these layers add depth to Godard’s film they are also somewhat elusive. It’s not just that they rely on classical history knowledge to be understood, more that the references are ambiguous and not obviously related to the on-screen action.

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That historical depth sits alongside the more obvious film-in-film concept. Much has been made of how the content of Le Mépris parallels real-life. Does Paul Javal (consciously or unconsciously) represent Godard? Is Camille meant to be Godard’s real-life wife Anna Karina, and Jeremy Prokosch a parody of producers Joseph E. Levine and Carlo Ponti? Although an interesting concept, there’s very little evidence to suggest that this was the case – and even if it were true, it hardly adds any psychological meaning to the narrative. Even if Paul, Camille and Jeremy are representations of real individuals, they remain unrelatable and largely apathetic not because they are flawed, but because they are unconvincing (note that Jack Palance’s ‘unconvincing’ aspects come mostly from the actor – he seems uncomfortable with both his character and the dialogue).

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Indeed of all the players, it’s Fritz Lang that’s the warmest and most convincing – perhaps Godard, who reportedly idolised the director, allowed his emotion to cloud characterisation. Roger Ebert claims that Lang ‘sails through the movie like an immovable object’, and whilst there is a certain stoicism to his character he is also a parody of himself and what he represents. Prokosch references Lang’ past by misquoting an anecdote about how the director refused Goebbels’ offer to make Nazi propaganda films (‘Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my cheque book’), later Lang dismisses Paul’s preference for CinemaScope, claiming that ‘it wasn’t meant for human beings. Just for snakes – and funerals’. Is Lang’s inclusion meant to be a parody of the director’s career? Although imbued with classicism, the film he is creating seems to be muddled and directionless (of course, we’re only permitted to see a few outtakes) Paul and Jeremy are convinced he’s the man for the job. In some sense, Lang represents the purity of art, Jeremy the corruptible influence of commerce – if anything, perhaps Godard is observing that the two cannot exist in harmony, a sentiment that just might’ve been drawn from his experience making the film.

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One theme of Le Mépris that’s impossible to ignore is Brigitte Bardot’s sexuality. Godard plays with her star image; the sheer exposure and knowledge of her body – wrapped in nothing more than a bold red bath towel, exposed during a nude sunbathing scene – renders it ordinary. Because the audience is constantly aware of it, it becomes banal and uncontroversial. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard claimed that Le Mépris’ producer Levine demanded reshoots because, in his opinion, there wasn’t enough ‘Bardot’ in the film. Godard responded by adding an almost superfluous opening scene featuring an extended tracking shot of Bardot’s body that, despite the abundance of flesh, celebrated it rather than fetishized it. Lying in bed with Paul, she draws attention to her thighs, arms and breasts, asking him how suitable they are. He replies that he gazes upon ‘perfection’, reassuring her ominously ‘I love you totally, tenderly, tragically’. The voyeuristic pleasure the viewer takes in the scene is destroyed by the knowledge that Bardot knows she is being looked at, and is keen to make sure her physical attributes match up to expectations. Indeed throughout much of the film, Bardot, with her matching sweater and headband, is less sex kitten, more modest wife.

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You can – and many have – done a great deal of theorising about Le Mépris. In most cases, these explanations of Godard’s intentions are an over-analysis of what exists on-screen and have succeeded only in harming the reputation of the film by exaggerating what it does have to offer. This is a film that’s far from perfect, but what’s good about it exists right there on the surface. It’s a self-indulgent, melancholy song about betrayal. A mediation on romantic tragedy and what happens when you see but don’t understand. A film about cinema that meshes references to other movies with autobiographical elements and observations on filmmaking as a process. Godard tried to prove too much in 100 minutes and he knew it – and perhaps that’s why after Le Mépris he abandoned big- budget pictures and went back to what he was good at. Were it not for the shallow vapidity of Paul and Camille, we might never have enjoyed the intensity of Lemmy Caution and the dark luminosity of Natacha von Braun (Alphaville, 1965), or the unconventional bourgeoisie of Roland and Corinne (Weekend, 1967).

Further reading: Le Mépris: Analysis of mise-en-scène / Things You Need to Know About Le Mépris

This post is part of the Backstage Blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid. Make sure you check out all the other great contributions over the next few day!

Belle de Jour: the gap between reality and fantasy

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Belle de Jour “was my biggest commercial success, which I attribute more to the marvellous whores than to my direction” (Luis Buñuel)

There are very few films that effectively examine female erotic fantasies (coming-of-age sexuality tales, on the other hand, are a different story). Belle de Jour – Luis Buñuel’s exploration of one woman’s inner fantasies and desires – is far from perfect but, almost 50 years after its release, it remains one of the best-known erotic films, thanks in no small part to Catherine Deneuve’s cool, unassuming performance, which is the perfect blank canvas for debauchery. More than any other film from the actresses’ first decade, the role defined the ‘Deneuve’ persona: a blank slate onto which audience and filmmaker’s fantasies could be projected.

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Yet Deneuve’s poised exterior masked turmoil. Filming encompassed everything from nudity to flogging and being pelted with muck, and in a 2004 interview with Pascal Bonitzer she observed: They showed more of me than they said they were going to … There were moments when I felt totally used”. That showing doesn’t just refer to the flesh (Deneuve was reportedly unhappy with that, although in retrospect there’s perhaps not as much nudity as you’d expect in an ‘erotic film’). This is about a character laying herself – and her fantasies – bare. Doing things that both the audience and the character doesn’t expect.

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Based on a novel by Joseph Kessel, the film charts the sexual awakening of Séverine (Deneuve), a refined-but-bored Parisian housewife who spends her afternoons working in a brothel. Unlike her co-workers, she’s not there for the money. She’s there to learn something about herself and better understand her repressed desires which, as the audience learns from the opening scene, border on masochistic. For Séverine, the gulf between fantasy and reality is vast. She fetishes torture, kidnap, whipping. She wants to control pleasure and pain – both her own and that of her partners. In reality, she and her surgeon husband sleep in separate (single) beds, wearing practical night garments.

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Buñuel deals with eroticism from the inside out – Belle de Jour is less about the physical manifestation of desire, more about how it exists in the mind and how those imagined fantasies can blur with reality. Much of the film deals with the dichotomy between ‘truth’ and ‘fantasy’. Consider again that startling opening scene – what we first take to be real and shocking is actually imagined. Yet later, after Séverine starts working at Madame Anais’ discreet brothel, the coach from her fantasies appears in real life, and whisks her away to a country manor where she is required to entertain a local Duke (Georges Marchal) by posing as his dead daughter and lying in a coffin. Is the experience real? Or imagined? In the end, it doesn’t really matter – it’s whatever the viewer needs it to be. Similarly, the small lacquered box that a client brings to the brothel. The first girl is disturbed by its contents. Séverine is initially cautious, but the scene cuts away – deliberately ambiguous. It’s impossible to discern what exactly happened. Of course, what’s in the box is of little consequence. Buñuel cares only about the symbolic truth.

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Although Buñuel was famously resistant to psychological interpretations of his films and the characters he created, there’s a ring of authenticity to Belle de Jour. In fact, real women inspired all of Séverine’s fantasies. During production, the director and his co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière met with psychiatrists, prostitutes and brothel owners to discover female fantasies and how they manifested in the everyday. Perhaps aware that an all-male production team created the movie, it was important to root the movie in real stories. As a result much of the narrative, which appears to be real, is fake. It’s the fantasies that are true. As with much of the film, ‘truth’ is nothing more than a deception.

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Belle de Jour might chart Séverine’s sexual awakening, but she remains an enigma. Short montages (a brief glimpse of her being molested, a communion refusal) may hint at the root, but the truth is never revealed. Why do her husband’s advances repel her, yet gangster Marcel (Pierre Clémenti) swagger attract her? On his first brothel visit, she tells him: “for you, there is no charge”. His metallic teeth, leather jacket, swordstick and arrogant swagger are far removed from her refined, bourgeois world. They embark on an ill-advised affair with tragic consequences, but its Séverine’s attraction to what he represents that allows her to risk everything she has. Really he’s nothing more than a prop, one that’s able to corrupt her vision of who she is simply because he is her opposite.  

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Most, perhaps all, of Séverine’s fantasies put her in the centre, and although she is never exploited, neither is she fully empowered. At the film’s close, the audience isn’t exactly sure what will become of her. She is both vamp and victim; one that pays a cruel price to uncover something that existed beneath the surface. What’s pleasurable might deviate from the socially-accepted norm, but there’s a price to pay for discovering it. And of course, because her liberation is obtained via submission and humility, it’s easy to argue that the film is in fact repressive. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Or perhaps we should take Buñuel’s lead and allow it to be whatever we need it to be.

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Some notes on the costume

One of the most important facets of Séverine’s inscrutability is her impeccable, elegant wardrobe, designed by Yves Saint Laurent. Reports suggest that Buñuel and Saint Laurent had a tough job convincing Deneuve not to wear short skirts in the movie in a time when mini-skirts were in fashion, but the decision certainly worked in the film’s favour – it remains one of the most iconic looks in celluloid history.

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Séverine’s wardrobe works on two levels: the smart military details (double breasted closures and epaulettes) allow her to present a smart façade to Parisian society, but also represent the structure and rigour that she exerts on her own lief. Luxurious fabrics (fur) and unexpected textures (vinyl and leather) hint at her ‘dark side’ but are also perfectly in tune with the bourgeois. Her contradictory nature plays out in the garments she wears. It’s testament to Laurent’s talent though that although the clothes are undeniably beautiful and perfectly constructed they never overtake the scene or the character – Séverine might not be fully in touch with who she is, but she knows how to present the impression of control.

See Clothes On Film and Glamamor for a more comprehensive analysis of Yves Saint Laurent’s costumes.

This post is part of the France on Film blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Serendipitous Anachronisms. Catch up on all the posts here.