FilmWatch Weekly: Transgressions then and now

Just to creep you out: "Belle De Jour," "The Untamed" and "The Endless"

A 65-year-old male director, world-famous, Oscar-nominated, a legendary auteur, makes a movie about a 23-year-old woman rediscovering her sexuality through masochistic fantasies and by working the afternoon shift at a brothel. In several scenes, some of them taking place in her imagination, the woman is subjected to sexual violence. She is tied to a tree and pelted with mud in another.

This is the stuff that Hollywood sexism is made of, right? What hath “Fifty Shades of Grey” wrought? Where does this geezer get off trying to “explain” female sexuality, anyway?

Except that, of course, this is the plot of “Belle de Jour,” a movie five decades old made by one of the most prominent members of the art house pantheon, Luis Buñuel, and starring one of the greatest movie stars of all time, Catherine Deneuve, in the role of Severine, which made her an icon. The film returns to the big screen this week at Cinema 21 in a newly restored, sure-to-be-gorgeous edition that will be as pleasant to perceive at as it will be problematic to process.

Curiously, the transgressions committed by “Belle de Jour” against the mores of its time are different from those aspects which might give pause today. The notion of exploring the inner carnal life of a female character, or even acknowledging such a thing existed, was even rarer on screen in 1967 than it is today—not that Buñuel was ever all that interested in psychological complexity, at least in a traditional sense.

Cinema’s foremost Surrealist, Buñuel’s twin preoccupations were to unsettle perceptions of reality and upset notions of propriety. A perpetual and peripatetic outsider, he worked in his native Spain, Mexico, the U.S., and France during the first four decades of his filmmaking career. “Belle de Jour” was his first foray into anything like the mainstream. The movie was produced by the Hakim brothers, who had parlayed a certain level of sauciness into commercial success in the early ’60s, working with directors like Claude Chabrol and Roger Vadim. Buñuel’s most recent effort, in contrast, had been a 45-minute-long religious parable about a Fourth Century ascetic who decides to live atop a tall pillar in order to be closer to God. Not exactly box office gold.

But the combination of sleek design, stunning color cinematography, Deneuve’s astonishing beauty, and Buñuel’s mischievous streak proved to be a winning one. As “Belle de Jour” unspools, it becomes less and less clear which scenes are happening in objective reality and which take place in Severine’s head. It also becomes less and less clear whether that distinction even matters. It’s this playful (sometimes cruelly playful) ambiguity, as well as the impenetrable mask of Deneuve’s facial expressions, that keep “Belle de Jour” from feeling like mere exploitation or juvenile nose-thumbing at bourgeois conventions—at least most of the time.

If the film were released today, discussion would rightly center on the propriety of the combination of artist and subject matter. Proponents might argue that a male filmmaker has just as much right to satirize patriarchal middle-class mores as anyone else, while opponents might counter that “Belle de Jour” indulges in the very exploitation it ostensibly condemns. Buñuel would probably just shrug and say both sides are right.

In sheer explicitness, of course, “Belle de Jour” can’t hope to compete with today’s transgressive films. For one thing, it doesn’t feature an opening scene with a glistening wormlike creature emerging from a woman’s vagina. That distinction belongs to “The Untamed” (aka “La Región Salvaje,” or “The Wilds”), a provocative mishmash of melodrama and masochism from Mexican director Amat Escalante, which screens for one night only, Saturday, May 5, at the Northwest Film Center.

There’s a meteor that apparently crashes on Earth. (Sorry, astronomy geeks, meteorite!) There’s a woman who appears shortly thereafter and proceeds to wreak sexual havoc on a bored housewife, her gay brother, and her brutish, homophobic husband. Some of the connections don’t become even foggily apparent until the film’s final half-hour, when the dreary family drama gives way to a Lovecraftian freak-out. While both aspects of “The Untamed” have their moments (and the cast is powerfully committed throughout), there’s ultimately not enough substance to justify the sense of unease that Escalante has carefully crafted over the first hour.

A serpentine interloper disrupting the status quo by urging ordinary people to cast off their moral shackles and indulge their desires—this might be literally the oldest story in the book. That’s not to say that it can’t be retold with originality and wit, or even for simple voyeuristic pleasure. “The Untamed,” though, despite earnestness of intent and a gripping sense of menace and unpredictability, relies too much on its shocking visual moments and neglects to back up its creep factor with any genuine insights.

“The Untamed” belongs to a rapidly expanding genre one might call alt-sci-fi. A welcome counterpoint to effects-heavy Hollywood blockbusters, movies such as “Primer,” “Chronicle,” and “Coherence” explore fantastical concepts and conceits on a budget smaller than the caterer’s fees for a “Star Wars” movie. At their best, these films demonstrate that ideas, not spectacle, are what drive good stories. Other times, though, they fall back on the imperfect solution used by scores of low-budget genre flicks: save the good stuff for the end.

Another new film that falls into this trap is “The Endless” (what is it with these one-word titles?), a purportedly mind-bending experience currently screening at The Hollywood Theatre. “The Endless” also continues a recent mini-trend of cult movies—not movies with cult followings, like “Eraserhead” or “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but movies about cults. The recent Netflix documentary “Wild Wild Country” is the most prominent, but 2013’s “The Sacrament” and last year’s Montana-made “The Triangle” both wrought genuine suspense out of Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate-style scenarios.

“The Endless” follows two brothers (Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, the film’s writer-directors) who, ten years earlier, had escaped from a secluded, off-the-grid community (you know, a cult). Unhappy with their mundane lives working as house cleaners, the younger sibling convinces the older to return to Camp Arcadia after receiving an enigmatic videotape from one of their former cult colleagues in the mail. Contrary to the intimations of a mass suicide pact, the community appears to be in fine shape. In fact, the residents seem to have aged exceptionally well…

Looked at as a supersized “Twilight Zone” episode, “The Endless” works—you mostly see the twists in the road approaching, but leaning into them is enjoyable nonetheless. The minimal special effects are employed judiciously and effectively. And Moorhead and Benson have a genuine fraternal camaraderie. There are some valid observations, too, about the way even a UFO death cult can provide a sense of belonging that’s often absent from our alienated modern lives, and even about the way that free will can be as much a burden as a blessing.

Compared with “The Untamed,” or even “Belle de Jour,” “The Endless” doesn’t offer much in the way of transgressive sexuality. But that may be because all the male members of the cult have been castrated. At least, that’s the rumor. You’ll have to watch the movie to find out for sure.

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