Friday, March 13, 2009

Belle


[One of the first articles I published at Senses of Cinema, too old to revise. The film is still unavailable for home viewing.]

Andre Delvaux's Belle (1973)

Recently, having seen Visconti's The Leopard (1963) after a thirty-seven year interval, Stanley Kauffmann expressed shock that his opinion of the film could have changed so drastically. How could he find so much to disparage in 1963 that he now found excusable, even laudable? He speculated that criticism is inherently "diaristic," that even when we attempt to apply Olympian ideals to any given work at hand, we are actually being far more subjective than we think. Rather like grocery shopping on an empty stomach, we are directed by the contents of our guts as much as our heads when we attempt to form even the most abstract judgments.

With this in mind, I present to you my shamelessly subjective reclamation of a film that is as good as lost. I can just hear it, crying out to me from the vault in which it rots. How or why on earth I happened to see it one evening twenty-two years ago at an Alliance Francaise screening in Denver is another of film-going's great mysteries. In those days, long before video, catching a film as it was passed around from theater to auditorium to classroom projection was, as Truffaut remarked in La Nuit Americaine, like seeing a train in the night: if you aren't there to see it pass by, how can you tell that it was there at all? It is no accident that film is an event that transpires in the dark.

After delivering a lecture at a poetry society meeting in backwoods Belgium, Mathieu Gregoire, a happily married archivist, takes the scenic route home one impenetrable night through the primeval Walloon Fagnard forest. In the darkest, deepest part of the forest he hits a large dog with his Volvo, but discovers he hasn't killed it. He returns the next day with a shotgun but cannot find the animal. He hears a whine from the nearby woods and discovers that the dog is alive, but mortally wounded. Following at a safe distance, he tracks the poor dog to a ruined farmhouse. There he encounters a beautiful but strangely mute young woman who is presumably the dog's owner. To reassure her, he lays his shotgun aside and follows her around the farmhouse. Just as he realizes she has backtracked him, he hears a shotgun blast from the other side of the house. He hurries back only to find the woman standing over the dog she has just mercifully killed. Sobbing, she hurls the gun at Mathieu and rushes inside. Mathieu walks back to his Volvo and drives home.

Thus begins Andre Delvaux's 1973 film Belle. It has infiltrated my dreams, both sleeping and waking, rather as Mathieu was ensnared by his strange Beauty. Jean-Luc Bideau, who would make a career playing schlemiels, plays Mathieu Gregoire, the role of his life. Daniele Delorme plays his long-suffering wife, Jeanne. Adriana Bogdan plays the enigmatic woman whom Mathieu christens "Belle." Ghislain Cloquet, himself a Belgian, who photographed Bresson's Balthazar, Mouchette, and Une Femme Douce, gives the locations precisely the brooding mystery Delvaux required. And Frederic Devreese wrote the appropriately haunting score. The film was nominated at Cannes for 1973's Palme d'Or. It lost to Jerry Schatzberg's Scarecrow and Alan Bridges's The Hireling, neither of which were nearly as compelling or original.[*] But then, Cannes is no more infallible than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (do I hear a drum roll?).

Mathieu returns home. He tells no one of his encounter with the strange woman. He goes back to his studious but airless life in the archives of a provincial town, cataloging several centuries of births, marriages and deaths. Days later, he goes back to the farmhouse in the woods only to discover the mysterious woman lying in an upstairs room deliriously ill. He recklessly rushes back into town and returns with medicine and food. She recovers. Emboldened by his restorative powers, Mathieu teaches her his name and, realizing she doesn't comprehend him, he calls her "Belle."

Over the next several weeks, Mathieu finds excuses to be away from home and work. Before long he doesn't even excuse himself, but his disappearances become the subject of curiosity rather than suspicion. After all, where would someone like Mathieu find the requisite passion for anything so outlandish as infidelity? And with whom?

Mathieu's daughter is soon to marry a hippie-ish lout whom he disapproves of. Jeanne, his lovely, loving wife senses something has disturbed the stolid contentedness of her husband. In one scene, a friend asks Jeanne to play something on the piano. She begins to play a stately piece, when she happens to notice, across the room, how Mathieu is staring rapturously into space, lost in his secrets. On the soundtrack, at the moment when Jeanne looks at Mathieu, the piano music is joined by a disembodied soprano vocalise, passionately repeating the tentative notes Jeanne had played.

Fissures begin to appear in Mathieu's scrupulously average façade. His lectures in 17th-century French poetry become more passionate and demonstrative. He quotes from the incandescent love sonnets of Louise Labe and Maurice Sceve with a startling but unaccountable urgency. His audiences - mostly the usual provincial types - become indignant with his near-pornographic recitations. He attempts to confide in a colleague, Victor, only to discover that he is merely a pervert.

Amid his domestic and professional struggles, Mathieu discovers that a swarthy foreign man has suddenly joined Belle in their idyllic love-nest. And Belle has apparently told him everything about Mathieu. He makes trouble for Mathieu, even "borrowing" his Volvo for a spin through town. Not about to submit to a ménage a trois, Mathieu quickly resolves that this hairy interloper must go. With Belle's collusion, he shoots him with the same shotgun used on the wounded dog. Mathieu musters the courage to pull the trigger at the decisive moment, but he can't figure out what to do next. Belle strides forward, throws a tarp over the body and screams "Volvo!" Together, they dump the body down one of the many bogs nearby.

Back home, his daughter marries, and Mathieu sees her off at the train station for her honeymoon. Aloof throughout the ceremony, Mathieu suddenly embraces her and flees. He impetuously drives back to the farmhouse only to discover that Belle has disappeared. With events closing in on him, he drives toward town and is shocked when he realizes that the local gendarme is following him. But rather than confess to a broken taillight when pulled over, Mathieu confesses to murder. He leads the police to the hole in which the body had been dumped, but all the poor deputy can dredge out is the carcass of a dog. Distracted, Mathieu thinks he may have confused one hole with another, and one carcass with another, consoling himself with the promise that by Spring, with the thaw, the truth will reveal itself and Belle will return. The film closes with Mathieu standing on the brink of the hole ["un trou" rather than "le trou"], totally lost at the impasse where his apprehensions and delusions have led him.
Was it a set-up? Was Mathieu the ultimate dupe of the foreign woman and her foreign man? Or was it all a dream that Mathieu had last night?

In a cultural context, Delvaux had created a work entirely congruent with the concerns of two of Belgium's greatest dramatists, Maeterlinck and Ghelderode: the juxtaposition of the medieval with the modern, the dressing up of primeval concerns in modern dress - the pursuit of a mysterious woman by a schlemiel in a Volvo.

All this said, with allowances made for a faulty memory, I must admit that little in the way of motivation was offered by Delvaux for Mathieu's surreptitious double life. Jeanne was patently lovely and in love with her husband. His daughter may have been a trifle flaky, but the man she married, while unkempt, was far from what one might consider a bad choice. And the life of an archivist in provincial Belgium must have had its own rewards, what with local records going back to feudal times.

Then why did Mathieu succumb so quickly to the dubious yet pulchritudinous attractions of this unwashed foreign Beauty? And why did it become such an overpowering escape for him? The surrealist Amour fou explanation of the irrational male attraction to a beautiful yet speechless woman is insufficient. Mathieu was already married to a beautiful and articulate woman who obviously loved him. There is always the entomological explanation - the male who mates with the female within her lair only to be eaten by her. And yet men and women are somewhat more sophisticated in their matings.

And yet. And yet. Such are the doubts that a jealous memory sometimes elicits. The characters in a film, unlike those on stage, always seem to have lives that came before and that continue after the film has ended. We cannot leave poor Mathieu, as Andre Delvaux - or Belle - did, standing on the brink of a frozen bog, anticipating what the Spring might reveal of his faithlessness.

September 2000

*[2009 Note: In fairness, The Hireling is a superb film.]

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