All art is truth. Something cannot be art if it doesn’t ring with truth. And the truth is usually provocative, usually uncomfortable – that’s why we rarely like facing up to it.
The art of the actor then, is the art of giving a truthful performance. A truthful performance demands the revelation of the actor’s own personality, who they really are. A truthful performance results in the actor giving unique expression to their own, personal view and experience of the world.
In Luis Bunuel’s Belle De Jour, Catherine Deneuve plays Sèverine, a woman who would be the “perfect” beaugeois housewife if it wasn’t for the fact that she’s frigid, and won’t sleep with her husband. While on a skiing trip, she hears about a brothel in Paris. Upon her return to the city, she visits the brothel and takes work there as a prostitute. The madame nicknames her “Belle De Jour”, because Deneuve will only work until the afternoon so that she can be back at home in time for her husband when he returns from his work. At first, Deneuve is extremely nervous about going with clients, but soon relaxes before discovering she has a taste for masochism. Eventually however, a young gangster client falls in love with her, and tragic consequences follow. With Belle De Jour, director Bunuel creates a masterpiece of cinematic rhythm through a combination of blocking, editing and camera movement. The film brilliantly mixes a brightly coloured set and costume design with a cool atmosphere, lending it a slightly heightened quality. The scenes in the brothel are played for subtle absurdity (one of the client’s apparently requests an “ink-pot”) rather than crass realism, thus avoiding the forced sensuality that is the blight of so much contemporary cinema. And, at the centre of this marvellous film, is Catherine Deneuve’s performance as Sèverine/Belle De Jour.
The defining characteristic of Deneuve’s work is her minimalism – she does the minimum in order to express the essential. She moves only when required to do so, and offers a particular response only when a moment in the scene provokes her strongly enough. Otherwise, she is still and impassive. Belle De Jour takes this minimalism to extremity. The character is blank and passive. It’s as though she has no point of view on anything, she accepts everything, like a rag doll. It is only in moments of pressure that she breaks out of this blank-passivity – for example; the defiance she shows when the gangster tries to lash her face with a belt, or her panic when a family friend turns up at the brothel. But these moments are very specific indeed, and she soon reverts back to her default blank-passive-self once they have passed. The specific demands of her role in Belle De Jour then, accentuate Deneuve’s natural, trade-mark coolness. Her individuality is hi-lighted, celebrated even. And the consequent performance is exalted, rising above the norm; it is unique, extreme, unusual, striking, provocative, fascinating and true – it is, in short, artistic.
We express our art most powerfully then, when we accentuate our individuality.
If you’ve got a spare six hours or so, it’s well worth comparing Deneuve’s performance in Belle De Jour to her performances in two other films. In Marco Ferreri’s Liza, she plays opposite her then husband, Marcello Mastroianni. The plot is simple: Mastroianni’s dog dies, so Deneuve takes it’s place by pretending to be a dog. Le Sauvage is a farce, Deneuve co-stars with Yves Montand, and her performance here is positively manic compared to the coolness which we usually associate her with. The acting in both Liza and Le Sauvage is more conventional, and so the comparison helps us to see the accentuation of Deneuve’s individuality in Belle De Jour more clearly.