Mar 31, 2015

Belle (1973)

If there is one theme that seems to tie together all the works of the great Belgian master auteur André Delvaux (The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short, Rendez-vous à Bray), it is that virtually all of the male protagonists of his films are weak intellectuals of the mentally feeble, sexually underwhelmed, pathologically passive and/or cuckolded sort. While I think Delvaux is indubitably one of the greatest and most underrated post-WWII auteur filmmakers as a man whose lesser works are even still at least minor masterpieces, I have to admit that I oftentimes get the urge to slap the shit out of the prosaic pansy ass protagonists of his films, especially the mustached Walloon wuss lead of the director’s fourth feature Belle (1973) who epitomizes virtually everything that is insufferable about intellectuals and academics. Indeed, the film might feature the most radically repugnant of all Delvaux’s male protagonists, as the character is a passively incestuous cuckolded coward and hopelessly banal beta-bitch whose much shorter coworker openly flirts with his wife in front of him and who has deep and undying erotic feelings for his debutante daughter. A pedantic romantic at heart of the failed poet sort that works as a literary professor and archivist who gives talks on outmoded 16th-century poets that only he seems to understand, the protagonist ultimately has an unexpected yet rather timely reawakening of the heart and soul upon randomly finding an eponymous feral-like foreign blonde babe roaming around the High Fens moors in East Belgian on the German border.  Of course, as one can expect from a Delvaux flick, one never knows whether or not Belle is a fetishistic figment of the protagonist's imagination or a living and breathing real-life forest femme fatale.  Clearly inspired by reading too much ancient frog poetry and perpetually worsening midlife crisis, the poindexter protagonist eventually becomes insanely jealous and obsessed with murdering his wood nymph mistress’ longhaired injun-like (boy)friend. A work that Delvaux described as being heavily inspired by Gérard de Nerval—one of the most essentially Romantic, albeit suicidal, of French poets who was once described by frog decadent poet Charles Baudelaire as having “delivered his soul in the darkest street that he could find”—Belle is the seamlessly oneiric tale of a middle-aged intellectual fool’s one last desperate attempt at chasing romance, passion, and life itself. Delvaux’s only film not adapted from a contemporary novel but based on an original script, the film successfully achieved the director’s self-described goal by creating an cinematic narrative the features an, “…alternation of reality and dream, one flowing into the other with no end.” Indeed, by the end of the film, it is impossible for the viewer to separate fact from but fantasy, but it is ultimately irrelevant as the protagonist’s patently perturbed and pornographically romantic psyche is what Belle is really about, as a work that poetically depicts the pathetic and deleterious extremes that most men, even those of the highly intelligent, seemingly level-headed, and relatively successful sort, will go for premium pussy of the ostensibly ‘mysterious’ sort. A work about a classicist who resents receiving the intellectually revolting gift of structuralist twaddle by the likes of Gérard Genette and Roland Barthes from his much hated future son-in-law, Delvaux’s film also creates a dichotomy between classic and modernist Occidental culture as a work that features immaculately woven hodgepodge of aesthetic influences ranging from Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Caspar David Friedrich to Paul Delvaux and René Magritte. Undoubtedly, if Delvaux was a master at something that few, if any, other filmmakers were capable, it was homogenizing the aesthetically ancient with hopelessly contemporary as Belle quite exquisitely demonstrates, though I have to assume the filmmaker had more respect and appreciation for the former as a man with an old soul who could not help but feel the taint of modernity. 

 At the beginning of Belle, less than happily married middle-aged protagonist Mathieu Grégoire (Swiss actor Jean-Luc Bideau of Alain Tanner’s Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976) and François Girard’s The Red Violin (1998) aka Le violon rouge) receives a warm reception after giving a speech about Polish-French poet Guillaume Apollinaire where he describes how Dostoyevsky came to the Spa in Liège in Wallonia with the intention of gambling instead of writing. After the speech, some elderly old fart asks Mathieu when he plans to publish his work and the protagonist has to remind the seemingly mentally feeble fellow that it was not written by him but Apollinaire. While it is obvious that Mathieu would prefer being a real poet of distinction instead of reading and writing on the works of others, it is nearly impossible to make a living writing poetry in Belgium, or as a minor character insightfully states later in the film, “In Belgium, you can only publish poetry at your own expense or in magazines.” Instead, Mathieu is a literary professor turned museum archivist who spends a good portion of his time working with an annoying and ambiguously gay turd of a borderline midget co-worker named Victor (Roger Coggio) who incessantly flirts with the protagonist's wife Jeanne (Danièle Delorme) right in front of his face. Of course, since Mathieu is more sexually attracted to his adult daughter Marie (Stéphane Excoffier of Jos Stelling’s De wisselwachter (1986) aka The Pointsman) than his wife, he does not seem to mind too much.  Probably due to his unsavory sexual attraction to her, Mathieu finds in nearly impossible to communicate with his daughter Marie in a civil fashion and instead mocks her for looking supposedly ‘common’ because she wears brown stockings instead of white ones.  Although Mathieu is naturally unable to act on his sexual desire for his daughter, he will soon meet a strange foreign woman in the moors of High Fens located in the most uninhabited area of his province of Liège that will give him a much needed outlet for his incestuous urges. 

 At the beginning of the film after giving his Apollinaire reading, Mathieu goes outside the building where he gave the lecture and stares at his prized white Volvo while in a seemingly possessed state. Just because he feels like “driving around,” Mathieu heads to High Fens and almost crashes his car after an animal unexpectedly jumps out in front of his car. Upon investigating, Mathieu finds large drops of blood on the ground but cannot find the animal, so he decides to travel back to the very same location the next day where he hears an animal whimpering. Eventually, Mathieu spots a wounded German Shepherd that leads him to a ruined old cabin where he is quite startled to see a beauteous young foreign woman named Belle (Romanian actress Adriana Bogdan, who also appeared in Delvaux’s second feature Un soir, un train (1968) aka One Night… A Train) who does not speak French. Mathieu attempts to chase Belle and inform her that her dog needs to be put down, but before he can do it the delectable little dame kills the canine with a shotgun, immediately tosses the weapon in a bush as if she is repulsed with herself, and then begins sobbing hysterically. Assumedly inspired by his encounter with Belle, Mathieu goes home and, although neglecting to tell them of his strange encounter with the lady in the forest, proudly informs his wife and coworker Victor that his next big reading will be on French poetess Louise Labé, passionately stating, “The Beautiful Rope Maker…lover of ice and fire…Sixteenth-century sonnets. ‘I live, I die, I burn and I drown.’” When Victor expresses his concern that Labé may be too obscure for most people, the protagonist stoically, if not somewhat nonsensically, replies, “Physical love is their bread and butter.” That night after accusing his wife of carrying on an affair with Victor, Mathieu has an ominously orgasmic dream where takes his naked daughter to a train station and shamelessly makes out with her in front of some stranger onlookers. During the dream, Mathieu also tells his daughter how Belle “lost her dog,” thus establishing a link between the protagonist’s progeny and the wild woman in the woods.  Indeed, Mathieu may have created Belle in his own mind as an outlet for his seemingly unquenchable incestuous libido.

 Of course, Mathieu soon goes back to the moors and is disheartened to find Belle in a bedridden state in the attic of the terribly dilapidated cabin, but he wisely uses the opportunity to show the strange beauty his affection for her by nursing her back to health and she ultimately repays him with some passionate carnal action. Mathieu also loves Belle’s company because, as he states, “I can tell you everything because you understand nothing and say nothing.”  As a lovely looking lady the more or less lets him do what he wants with her, never complains, and listens to whatever he has to say, Belle is a figurative (and potentially literal) dream-girl, but of course, like all women, she eventually expects something from the protagonist.  While Mathieu’s sex life seems to have improved seemingly infinitely since starting his fairytale-like affair with Belle (at the beginning of the film, Marthieu's wife looks bored to death while he performs cunnilingus on her), his home life takes a turn for the worst after the protagonist learns that his beloved daughter is engaged to be married to a yippie-like four-eyed dork of the physically frail and obscenely gawky sort. Of course, Mathieu is also beyond displeased when he returns to Belle and find a young American-Indian-like fellow covered in animals furs that is simply known as the ‘stranger’ (Valerio Popesco) in her company. It does not take long before Mathieu begins getting murderously jealous of the stranger and when the Indian-like wildman borrows his Volvo without asking and subsequently brings him back the a bottle of wine as a “present,” the protagonist smashes said bottle of wine against the wall and calls the fellow a “base creature.” As a result of the stranger ‘borrowing’ his car, Mathieu is late for his reading on Louise Labé and perplexes his friends and family when he does the speech while his shoes and pants are obviously covered in dry mud. To make matters worse, young college students begin heckling Mathieu while he is giving his reading, but that does not stop him from stating regarding Labé in an impassioned and almost pornographic fashion, “’New without love’ could have been her motto…But also ‘never without pain.’ Because in the 16th-century there are few more moving words: I live, I die, I burn and drown. I quake with cold and perish with heat. My life so hard and yet so sweet. At once I shrivel and I.” Naturally, the reading concludes abruptly when Mathieu thinks he sees the stranger in the audience and becomes both angered and startled and thus loses his track of thought, so Victor interrupts and starts taking questions from audience members that results in a college student mocking the protagonist for “speaking on a subject that doesn’t interest us.” Of course after making a fool of himself, Mathieu decides to chase down the stranger and does not waste any time attacking him and knocking him down a set of stairs in front of a hundred or so people. Unfortunately for Mathieu, the man he attacks is not the stranger but a fellow from an area called Robertville with a similar fur coat and haircut who decides to press charges against the protagonist. Ultimately, Mathieu later opts to get involved in something a little more criminally oriented than a public brawl.  Indeed, regularly banging a backwoods blonde bombshell has given Mathieu a serious sense of testicular fortitude that he has probably never felt before in his entire life.

 After the nightmarish aborted reading from hell, Mathieu’s future son-in-law gives him books by Genette and Barthes, but the protagonist hilariously scares him away by looking at him with sheer and utter contempt as if he is the world's most slimiest asshole.  Undoubtedly, Mathieu seems resentful towards the young man not only because he plans to marry his beloved daughter and take her permanently away from him, but also due to his dubious literary tastes. To prove to Mathieu that he is not a queer, Victor takes the protagonist to his home to show him what he describes as his “collection.” Somewhat strangely, the “collection” that Victor speaks of his a bunch of different brushes he has locked away, with the character creepily stating while fondling a black brush in a fetishistic fashion, “Coarse, dark hair. For the hollow in the hips and the curve of the buttocks.” Ultimately, Mathieu, who is into real sex and not frivolous fetishistic bullshit of the sexually dysfunctional sort, becomes so exceedingly enraged by Victor’s considerably curious behavior that he smashes every single mirror in his coworker's room, thus putting their already dubious friendship in jeopardy. When Mathieu finally gets the gall to kill the stranger and heads to the moors with a shotgun, Belle does the job just before he gets the chance just like she did with the German Shepherd before. After killing the stranger, Belle yells “VOLVO” and the two proceed to load the corpse into the car and drive it to a pond where they dispose of it. Later that night, Mathieu warmly embraces his wife, tells her that he loves her more than ever before, and then strangely states, “Life is passing me by. It has no purpose.” 

 Needless to say, Mathieu is equally saddened and angered after seeing his daughter off at a train station after she is married, especially since she demands money from him and does not even say a proper goodbye. When Mathieu goes to see Belle later that day, she also demands money as well, thus establishing a clear link not only just between the protagonist’s daughter and the potentially imaginary chick from the woods, but also the female species as a whole. When Mathieu’s boss Marcel asks him to drive to Robertville to answer some question in regards to the young man he attacked after his botched Labé reading while two police detectives curiously follow them in a separate car, the protagonist fears the worst and meekly confesses to killing the stranger. When Mathieu shows the police detectives the pond where he sunk the stranger’s corpse, he is delighted to discover that the only carcass they find is that of the German Shepherd. Of course, Mathieu goes looking for Belle again and in the process someone steals money out of his car glove compartment that he planned to used to start a new life with his mistress, thus leading the protagonist to conclude that he was setup by his ladylover and the stranger right from the beginning. After all, Belle strangely insisted on shooting the stranger and his corpse was not recovered from the pond, thus indicating that he might actually still be alive and only faked death. That night while lying in bed, Mathieu obsessively states to himself, “She couldn’t do it. She didn’t trick me. She killed him for me, together with me. We carried him together. Drowned him together. In one of the pools at Pont Noir. A pool at Pont Noir.” To confirm whether or not Belle betrayed him, Mathieu goes looking for the stranger’s corpse again on a snowy day and is quite delighted to see the fellow’s hand and fur coat under the ice in the pond. As Mathieu states in a delusional fashion with a half-crazed smirk on his face while staring at the stranger’s hand under the ice, “She really did it for me. It’s all true. She didn’t deceive me. As long as she comes back.” Of course, it is not only rather dubious as to whether Belle will come back, but also if she ever even really existed in the first place. 

 Undoubtedly, after watching Belle, I could not help but obsess over how so superlatively stupid some men, especially those on the brink of a midlife crisis, act when it comes to the fairer sex. Of course, the fact that Delvaux’s film features surreal fantasy elements only highlights the absurdity of the fact that a stuffy middle-aged dork who is about as charming and handsome as a high school principle actually thinks that an exotic young blonde beauty would have ever genuinely fall in love with him and is not just using him for her own ends. Naturally, the film also underscores the seeming worthlessness of poetry and all the culture and education in the world when confronted with both visceral lust and pure love, as the protagonist is willing to throw away everything that he has ever worked for in his entire life for some hot chick that he just met in the woods who does not even speak the same language. Indeed, protagonist Mathieu is one of the most intelligent and respected men in his small province, yet his actions completely defy the most fundamental aspects of common sense, thus reflecting the Achilles heel of the male gender that so many members of the so-called fairer sex have counted on exploiting since the very beginning of time. Certainly there are few things more cold, calculating, and craven than beautiful (and oftentimes not-so-beautiful) women, as western woman owes her special status in the world not through being persecuting by a largely imaginary patriarchy, but by learning from virtual birth how to manipulate men to their life’s advantage. While western society tells us that women are looking for love, it is really men who suffer from the weakness of being hopeless romantics who are oftentimes so blinded by the prospective of love that they will not even notice they are about to fall off a figurative cliff that is only a couple feet away from them. Although he may have been a tad bit biased since he was supposedly a ‘sexual invert’ (aka fag), Viennese philosopher Otto Weininger was certainly on to something when he recommended that men should have as little to do with women as possible, but then again, it is hard to refrain from one of the most imperative ingredients that make life worth living, not to mention the fact it has result in many create works of art like Delvaux’s Belle. To go back to Weininger, he once wrote, “The deepest, the intelligible, part of the nature of man is that part which does not take refuge in causality, but which chooses in freedom the good or the bad,” which certainly be said of the protagonist of Delvaux’s film. Indeed, for better or worse, the lead character of Belle finally becomes a real man at middle-age, which certainly cannot be said of a good number of western males nowadays. 

-Ty E

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