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Francisco Rabal

Belle de jour

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

Belle de jour is a circular film, curving its way surely and urbanely through fantasy, memory, and whatever reality one can distill from Buñuel’s surrealist solution. Probably the first bone of contention among critics of the film is how much reality, how much fantasy, and where each sector is located in this suave Buñuelian landscape. Depending on the reading, Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine/Belle de jour may have fantasized the whole of the film with no anchors in reality, she may be engaged in an act of exorcism which finally leads her to a kind of normality, or she may have ultimately ruptured the fragile barriers between her conscious life and the world that shapes itself out of the darkness behind her brain. Whether Buñuel is hypnotist or mesmerizer is moot; whether he has plunged his heroine into the darkness of insanity or caused a sunrise, a coming to terms with reality, is also open to question. Considering the bland banality of Séverine’s “reality,” itself a kind of madness which Buñuel has never ceased to send up with a discreet but nonetheless devastating charm, can acceptance of such a life be considered enlightenment? Her fantasies may be kinky but they’re certainly more fun, more richly devised and experienced, than anything that home, hearth, and hubby can provide. Perhaps what Buñuel has mesmerized Séverine (and us) into is a serenely crazy delight with the complete dissolution of distinctions like reality and fantasy into a rich warm soup blended of both. Buñuel knows what kind of spell movies may cast, and that we as viewers are not unlike Mme. Anaïs’ clients who buy the opportunity to frame and move and light their most private, cherished fantasies. Like Séverine, we turn from the peephole and exclaim in righteous disgust, “How can anyone sink so low!,” a half-smile of perverse fascination playing about our lips. We should not feel diminished for all that, for Buñuel’s discreet and amiable charm is all-encompassing; he subjects no one’s fetish to contempt, only to the goodnatured amusement of an old roué who is surprised by nothing, but is endlessly delighted with the conventions of bourgeois perversity. Consequently, we do not move from scene to scene in Belle de jour impelled by a sense of urgency that Séverine “get well” or go crazy with a vengeance; rather, we are satisfied with permission to participate in the picaresque sexual adventures she either fantasizes or realizes in her pilgrimage from neurotic innocence through exotic sin to that ambiguous endgame played within her mind.

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Viridiana

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

Buñuel doesn’t try very hard to allay suspicions that the visible fetishistic oddments so abundant in his films are simply the byproducts of any number of peculiar fantasies and “private” obsessions in which the director is indulging himself to the exclusion of almost everyone else. But however much he may be indulging his own peculiarities, his films tend to absorb this “private” imagery in ways which hint at the liberating power of obsession itself. Buñuel’s famous foot fetishism, abundantly evoked in Viridiana, is an unusually good example. To insist on seeing people in terms of their feet is rather like insisting on showing that they have sexual organs, yet without limiting the recognitions to the specific contexts of sexual desire and sexual satisfaction. A foot, as an image, is more neutral than a penis, yet it has the advantage of being the most completely terrestrial part of the body, and a part that has an odd (literally plodding) beauty of its own, unencumbered by any exalted artistic tradition. Most picture-takers concentrate on people’s heads; after all, that is the end of the body that “identifies” a person and contains his “intelligence.” The feet, by contrast, are mute, dumb, and anonymous. A very large part of human experience partakes of these same qualities—something Buñuel not only recognizes but pays tribute as well, by watching quietly and by directing us to watch too.

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Blu-ray: ‘Sorcerer’

“Despite all the problems and setbacks, bruised egos and shattered friendships, I felt then and still do that Sorcerer is the best film I’ve made.” – William Friedkin

After William Friedkin’s career took off with the consecutive successes of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), he used his clout to make a passion project, a reworking of Henri-George Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953) (Friedkin insists that it’s not a remake) that he rather abstractly titled Sorcerer, named after one of the two trucks that set out across treacherous jungle roads with a cargo of unstable dynamite in the back.

It was a resounding commercial failure and it took the luster off of Friedkin’s golden boy image. Forty years later it’s being heralded, at least in some quarters, as an overlooked masterpiece. Distance, along with the film’s unavailability for well over a decade, has allowed viewers to return to it with fresh eyes and a better understanding of Friedkin. I’m not part of the “masterpiece” chorus, at least not to the extent of The French Connection, but I find a terrible, beautiful power in the film’s primal imagery and almost abstracted conflict of man and nature. Like Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate and other passion projects by seventies filmmakers that spun out of control in a perfect storm of ambition, obsession, arrogance, and bad luck, Friedkin’s passion and commitment comes through in some superb filmmaking and riveting scenes and stunning imagery.

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Review: Sorcerer

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

William Friedkin’s last three films offer irresistible temptations to compare his work with that of other directors. John Frankenheimer made French Connection II, a sequel to the film for which Friedkin won an Oscar; and although the spinoff might not have been as well crafted a film as the parent, Frankenheimer’s work had vision and feeling, while Friedkin’s had little more than method. In the same way, John Boorman’s recent muddled effort Exorcist II: The Heretic, while undeniably one of the most monumentally dumb movies of all time, still shows itself to be infinitely more spirited, adventurous, and visually exciting than Friedkin’s The Exorcist, which relied on ugliness rather than personal involvement to create its spell of horror. Comes now Sorcerer, a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear in which Friedkin tries to go Clouzot one or two better, and hedges his bet by dedicating the film to the Frenchman. But for all the information Friedkin gives us about the background of the four social outcasts who come together on a dangerous mission hauling nitro through South American jungles, we never care about them. There’s no denying that some of the episodes are tooth-grindingly suspenseful; but again the tension does not spring from involvement with the characters. The French Connection, for all its borrowings from Pontecorvo and Costa-Gavras, remains Friedkin’s best film, because in it he made no pretense of getting close to his characters, but kept his concern always with plot. At heart, the film was a police procedural, and paid off in much the same way that a Martin Beck novel does. The Exorcist and Sorcerer, by contrast, are simply inappropriate vehicles for Friedkin because they rely on audience involvement with the characters; and, try as he might, that’s the one thing Friedkin has never been able to bring off. Even in his more modest, pre-renown Boys in the Band, a more than serviceable cinematization of Mart Crowley’s play, any caring we do is brought about by the script, and one constantly senses Friedkin’s camera and staging fighting the intimacy that Crowley’s play cries out for.

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