Human sexuality is a strange and wondrous thing, but you’d never guess that if your only knowledge of it came from the movies—Hollywood movies in particular. Unable to show much of what people actually do with each other in bed, for fear of being slapped with the dreaded NC-17, directors tend to rely on what I call the Generic Tangle Of Bare Limbs; once the act is complete, stars’ modesty and/or contracts dictate that it’s time for the next scene, or for one of those strategically uneven sheets that reach the man’s waist and the woman’s clavicle. Foreign/indie films (and, increasingly, American television) are far more daring, but it’s still dismayingly rare to see onscreen sex that much resembles any memorable action you’ve ever gotten yourself. In particular, there’s almost never any sense of what a fundamentally absurd activity it is, from a Martian’s-eye viewpoint. Only movies that explicitly take BDSM as their subject, like The Piano Teacher and Secretary, manage to suggest more than a tiny sliver of the vast sexual continuum, and even those tend to look a lot alike, in that the characters all but vanish into their specific quirks/kinks/fetishes.
Unfortunately, The A.V. Club brass nixed the sex scene I initially intended to examine, from the Israeli film Late Marriage; though it’s not particularly graphic, it’s still decidedly NSFW, and way too long besides. (Great film, though, for much more than just that. Rent it if you’ve never seen it, and especially if you liked James Gray’s Two Lovers, which is pretty close to being an American remake.) Instead, I’ve chosen to tackle the most notorious interlude from another classic of cinematic sadomasochism: Luis Buñuel’s Belle De Jour, in which Catherine Denueve plays a rich housewife whose fantasies about being humiliated and controlled compel her to take a job in a Parisian brothel, servicing some unusual clients. By far the most perverse of the lot is a heavyset Asian gentleman carrying an ornately decorated box, the contents of which we hear, but never see. Only Deneuve seems willing to indulge his proclivity, whatever it is, and her version of the afterglow makes for one of the all-time great unexpected facial expressions.
Obviously, the first question on almost everybody’s mind is “What’s in the box?” And just as obviously, the answer is the same one Tarantino usually gives regarding Pulp Fiction’s glowing briefcase: Whatever you want it to be. (Alternatively, you can substitute the answer to the question of what’s in Kiss Me Deadly’s mystery box: Whatever frightens you most.) Buñuel insisted that it doesn’t matter, and there’s little doubt that he intended for each viewer to supply something suitably unnerving, plucked from his/her imagination. On the other hand, he did choose to direct our speculation to some degree, via that unmistakably insectoid whine-buzz. I’m not personally aware of any outré sexual practices involving live insects, apart perhaps from (and I gotta say, this, I really do not get the appeal of) “crushing,” but the inexplicability of the noise is precisely what makes it such a superb metaphor. Almost everybody has some peccadillo that’s potentially discomfiting to somebody, and the Asian man’s box functions as an embodiment of your secret shame, or your fascinated fear, or possibly both at once.
To compound the mystery, the client apparently speaks very little French, so Deneuve has no clue what he’s telling her. (He has picked up a pidgin approximation of “Don’t be afraid!” somewhere along the line, as that’s clearly the most crucial message he needs to convey regarding the box.) I spent a truly ludicrous amount of time trying to dig up a translation of what he’s saying, to no avail—the actor, Iska Khan, reportedly hails from Kalmykia, a tiny Buddhist republic in Russia, which means he’s of Mongolian descent. And if there are any Kalmyk speakers frequenting English-language websites, they’re being mum about Belle De Jour, as far as I can tell. But again, while it would be interesting to know, in a behind-the-scenes sort of way, there’s a good reason why the man’s dialogue isn’t subtitled. Sexuality is a language of its own, only faintly translatable into any spoken language; it’s crucial that neither Deneuve nor we can understand him. Like all of us, only more overtly, he has an agenda that’s entirely his own, predicated on desires that even he most likely doesn’t fully comprehend. No Generic Tangle Of Bare Limbs is gonna satisfy that.
And it just keeps getting weirder. Denueve starts to remove her bra, but the guy immediately and forcefully indicates that it’s not necessary—just the panties will be fine. Does he not like breasts? Does he need the strap to hold onto for some reason? Did his mother walk around the house bottomless when he was a child? He can’t tell us, and even if he could, he probably still couldn’t. Likewise, what’s the deal with him showing off his guns while jingling tiny balls in the palms of his hands? That seems like it might be some sort of Asian ritual (and it also rhymes sonically with the sound of sleighbells on horses, which Buñuel uses throughout as an indication that we’re in Denueve’s fantasy world), but as to what it signifies, beats me and beats her. Ultimately, all Deneuve can finally do is laugh, in a way that suggests amusement and affection rather than ridicule, which is a fundamental truth about sex that movies nearly always gloss over.
Buñuel then opts to give the couple some privacy, moving into the apartment’s common room and observing some mundane, quotidian interactions between the housekeeper’s young daughter, the madam, and one of the other prostitutes. In a strange way, this achieves much the same effect as Mr. Blonde walking out to his car halfway through torturing the cop in Reservoir Dogs (as discussed in a recent installment of this column): We’re reminded that this perversity/brutality exists side-by-side with others going about their daily routine, reinforcing that it’s part of life’s overall fabric, rather than an anomaly. Another hooker calls for an ink pot, which her own client, “the professor,” requires for who knows what purpose; the madam doesn’t have one handy, so the poor guy will have to make do without. The camera pulls back down the hallway during this shot, linking the two worlds, fantasy and reality, along a continuum, which is Buñuel’s primary strategem, from the film’s opening scene to its enigmatic conclusion.
Finally, we return to Deneuve, lying face down on the bed—whether spent or unconscious, we don’t yet know. The housekeeper picks up a towel with a small bloodstain visible on one side, rights a lamp that’s been knocked over. Shit of some kind has clearly gone down in the interim. But when the housekeeper expresses solicitude, the camera pushes in for a medium close-up as Deneuve rises onto her elbows, looking back over her shoulder with an indefinable expression that’s midway between contemplative and a flat-out smirk. Whatever happened in that room, she clearly doesn’t regret it. And in the scene’s final line of dialogue, she articulates the most germane question about sex, the one most films strive to not just ignore, but actively undermine. Unless you’re one of the participants, which you aren’t, “How would you know?”