March 20, 2012

The Chatterley Effect

Spoilers? NSFW? I can't tell anymore.

I fell down a psychic wormhole recently while writing about Luis Buñuel's Belle De Jour (1967) for Film Freak Central. It was one of those chrono-synclastic infundibula that can convince a potheaded college student he's living out the theories of Carl Jung, or at least the lyrics of later Police songs from before Sting went Adult Contemporary. Fortunately for science, it's a long time since I was a potheaded college student, but since all time is now I'm gonna just roll with that vibe.

Belle De Jour is about Séverine, a moneyed Paris housewife whose sexual frigidity with her husband leads her to explore her fantasies of sexual submission in secret — as an afternoon prostitute in a fairly exclusive brothel. She also fantasizes at length about being abused, bound, raped, and otherwise sexually humiliated. Here's what I wrote for FFC, with select video scenes interspersed:

Belle De Jour occupies one of those strange synchronistic points of literature and history, which intrigues me almost as much as the film itself. The source novel, by Joseph Kessel, appeared in 1928, the same year as D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.

The two novels bear striking similarities, or rather, reflect each other in striking ways. Constance Chatterley acts on sexual frustrations after her husband is paralyzed; Séverine's decision to act results in her husband becoming paralyzed. Prior to this, the young prostitute Mathilde (Maria Latour) says she entered the oldest profession because (like Constance) her beloved was injured and couldn't work; and Pierre contemplates an empty wheelchair with the air of a man whose grave has been trodden.

In Chatterley and Belle De Jour, there's a surrender of a high-class woman to a lower-class man (or, for Séverine, more than one). In each, there's a fetishization of nature, mud, ordure. (Most of Séverine's fantasy abasements take place outdoors.)

… In terms of sex as psychology, both Lawrence and Kessler's novels were preceded by Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle, later the source for Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, which finds a man exploring sexual abandon in hopes of assuaging his marital conflict.

"Traumnovelle" means "dream story," and while there are no dream or fantasy segments in Kessler's Belle De Jour, Buñuel the great surrealist injected them into the screenplay he developed with Jean-Claude Carrière. All these literary and cinematic monuments were built in the shadow of Freud, of course, who tore down the sexual prisons of the past century. Séverine becomes, then, a Freudian adventuress, a lineage she shares with dear Constance Chatterley.

I went on in a later paragraph to mention Buñuel's producers on this project: "Robert and Raymond Hakim, past financiers of Jean Renoir and Claude Chabrol and, just prior to Belle de jour, Roger Vadim's La Ronde." A bit of judicious IMDbing, and who pops up as the source author of La Ronde? Arthur Schnitzler, that crazy Viennese (like Freud) who wrote the 1897 play Reigen on which it was based.

This was after I'd moved on to other ideas and thought I was done with Schnitzler entirely. Brrrrr.

Belle De Jour's parallels with Chatterley — published the same year, both proceeding from a woman's sexual dreads and desires, both involving an incapacitated male partner — led me to think about the other areas of film where the Chatterley effect came into play. Since pop culture and literary studies are often a process of working backwards, I first encountered the paradigm in Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996).

Von Trier's delvings into sexuality are well-explored, much-admired and frequently reviled by now, but in 1996 he was a new force. New bride Bess McNeill, a Scottish lass who believes herself divinely inspired, is coaxed by her husband into sexual trysts with other men after he's paralyzed in an oil-rig accident. It's prurient interest on his part, a belief that by hearing her accounts of illicit sex he may continue to experience something like a carnal life with her. Bess, drunk with fleshly desire for her husband and directed by "the voice of God," believes this is a sacred duty. As in Chatterley, we have a man symbolically crippled with a wife who plunges into earthy, even violent sex. Only the motivations (and the upshot, with a spiritual reward for Bess' carnal martyrdom) are different.

Romance (1999) was director Catherine Breillat's breakthrough. It can be seen as a legacy of Belle de Jour, much more frank in its heroine's migration toward masochism — even pornographic, to the point of employing porn juggernaut Rocco Siffredi in a dramatic role.

The male motivator in Romance is crippled in a different way: Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), a beautiful male model, is sexually disinterested in his girlfriend Marie (Caroline Ducey), cruelly withholding himself from her. He claims to be uninterested, even repulsed, by the entire idea of sex, but that doesn't stop him from flaunting his gorgeous wares to nameless women in clubs while Marie watches, and in his worst moments even bragging of the desire he arouses.

“He dances because he wants to seduce. He seduces because he wants to conquer. He wants to conquer because he’s a man.”

(I don't know if Breillat intended this to mean anything in terms of character or symbolism, and I'm going to hell for bringing it up, but Stévenin also has a cinematically unimpressive penis. Most guys suffer by comparison with Siffredi, but the contrast is quite stark. Bless everyone involved in this movie for their willingness to share their bodies for art.)

Like Buñuel's Séverine, Marie indulges in at least one artfully directed flight of fantasy, especially after Paul impregnates her in an embarrassing, abbreviated tryst:

The experience of pregnancy in the medical system increases the disjunction she feels between sex and love, body and mind. This is most overtly represented when Breillat cuts from a close-up of a cumshot on a woman’s belly to a nurse squirting a similar-looking gel onto Marie’s belly for an ultrasound. ... The most outrageous and perhaps overly didactic representation of this is Marie’s fantasy of a hellish brothel where women’s top halves are indoors, treated to a pristine white heaven of chaste love and affection, while their bottom halves are outside, protruding from a red-lit hellish fortress where anonymous, dirty men fuck them without a care. This scene emphasizes that Marie’s struggle is widespread, and not only an individual problem. She is just one of many women here. — "Masochism in Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste & Catherine Breillat’s Romance," Jon Davies

Year ago I visited D.H. Lawrence's burial chapel, in northern New Mexico. The tubercular British artist bought a ranch near Taos in 1924, and lived there just two years before returning to Europe. He died in Italy in 1930, but his ashes are interred here, brought back the the United States by his widow. This writer, who tried so hard to interpret a woman's erotic mind, was branded a pornographer for it by everyone save E.M. Forster. But his "pornography" already walked abroad in the waking world, in Kessler, in Schnitzler. Now it's our cinema, and those carnal thoughts that overflowed onto the page en masse circa 1926 are ours, unashamed. Lady Chatterley lives, and loves.

(Cross-posted from Soul Smithy.)


Amie said...

Beautiful, Jefferson. I loved reading this! (and clearly need to re-watch both Belle du Jour and Breaking the Waves)

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