The film Belle de Jour continues Buñuel’s legacy as ‘the great scourge of the bourgeoisie’ (Evans, 1995:3) and continues critiquing the ideal of Spanish morality and Spanish bourgeois values. The film Tristana mirrors Belle de Jour in terms of its focus upon a young female character with her sexuality bound by society, and Catherine Deneuve portrays both characters. The central female protagonist, Séverine, encapsulates Buñuel’s fascination with subjectivity and the subject of the self, since the individual underpins bourgeois society and culture. The female body therefore functions as a site of struggle for ownership of her sexuality and social transformation. The hybridity is derived from the impact of Spain and the notion of Spanishness, since ‘Spain is Janus-faced, one side turned towards religion and other forms of ideological conservatism, the other towards irreverence and iconoclastic interrogation of the assumptions and beliefs supporting the pillars of conformist society’ (Downing and Harris, 2008:31). By embracing this Spanish dichotomy within this indelibly French film, Buñuel mirrors the interrogation of the internal exile present within his Spanish corpus of films.
The character of Séverine embodies the exilic human condition in terms of her fragmented character, oscillating between the opposing poles of purity and perversion. The character has a split personality and maintains a complicated plight, which throws into question the core of being, since it displays the possibility of a human being split into two parts. By applying this to the auteur Buñuel, it suggests that humanity retains the possibility of being fragmented and split, incorporating cultural influences from a homeland and from spaces of exile, whilst being reconciled within the same body. The split self derives from her internal and external lives, which overlap in the repressed space of the brothel.
Séverine adheres to the notion of the place of women within Spanish society, in which ‘turning a woman into a mere appetizing thing represents the most brutalizing form of alienation. It is, in short, a form of prostitution of the self’ (del Pino, in Downing and Harris, 2008:33). The space of the brothel is a contradictory and paradoxical site, which permits the expression of her sexuality, through which she can assert and express herself, but it is a space that promotes her debasement, humiliation and dejection. The brothel is an arena in which she can choose her own name and temporary identity in order to express her repressed desires. This permits the character’s freedom, a trope of the exile, from the oppressive rituals and rules of the bourgeoisie and the hegemony of religion.
The film embraces the discourse of French Surrealism, focusing upon the unconscious and the bizarre and the intermingling between fact and fiction. Time is perceived as surrealist, since Séverine lives her bourgeois life in clock time, but her mind is controlled by the laws of time that have no allusion to reality or chronology. The French Surrealist writers Breton and Proust were interested in notions of time that confused and conflated the past, the present and the future, with no discernable boundary between them. Séverine’s mind is ruled by fantasy and desire, but there is no signposting present between the scenes of her bourgeois life and her fantasies and desire, demonstrating the permeability between reality and dream. This is promoted through sound, for example the sounds of bells and cats indicate the reverie of the young protagonist.
The Surrealist trope of ‘amour fou’ permeates the films of Buñuel’s second periodic exile in France. It is a transgressive desire that maintains the force to undermine and overhaul social divisions. Buñuel embraces this trope in a literal sense, with the characters of his films been driven to folly in pursuit of love and making fools out of both men and women. This is a distinct rupture from the concept championed by the Surrealists, who considered this love to be lyrically uplifting. Nonetheless, in the case of Belle de Jour, the character of Marcel is driven by this ‘amour fou’ for the character of Séverine, who has been servicing him at a Parisian brothel, to shoot and incapacitate her husband, Pierre. This rupture in terms of ‘amour fou’ and a movement towards a disillusionment and pessimism of the French Surrealist concept adheres more to the Spanish literary tradition of the ‘esperpento’ treatment of characters. Buñuel consequently creates a hybridity between the Spanish discourse of the ‘esperpento’ and French Surrealism, therefore aligning his anarchic Surrealist tendencies derived from his period in exile in France to the Spanish literary tradition of his homeland.