American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
In the days after I first saw Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," another film entered my mind again and again. It was Luis Bunuel's "Belle de Jour" (1967), the story of a respectable young wife who secretly works in a brothel one or two afternoons a week. Actors sometimes create "back stories" for their characters -- things they know about them that we don't. I became convinced that if Nicole Kidman's character in the Kubrick film had a favorite film of her own, it was "Belle de Jour."
It is possibly the best-known erotic film of modern times, perhaps the best. That's because it understands eroticism from the inside-out--understands how it exists not in sweat and skin, but in the imagination. "Belle de Jour" is seen entirely through the eyes of Severine, the proper 23-year-old surgeon's wife, played by Catherine Deneuve. Bunuel, who was 67 when the film was released, had spent a lifetime making sly films about the secret terrain of human nature, and he knew one thing most directors never discover: For a woman like Severine, walking into a room to have sex, the erotic charge comes not from who is waiting in the room, but from the fact that she is walking into it. Sex is about herself. Love of course is another matter.
The subject of Severine's passion is always Severine. She has an uneventful marriage to a conventionally handsome young surgeon named Pierre (Jean Sorel), who admires her virtue. She is hit upon by an older family friend, the saturnine Henri (Michel Piccoli, who was born looking insinuating). He's also turned on by her virtue--by her blond perfection, her careful grooming, her reserve, her icy disdain for him. "Keep your compliments to yourself," she says, when she and Pierre have lunch with him at a resort.
Her secret is that she has a wild fantasy life, and Bunuel cuts between her enigmatic smile and what she is thinking. Bunuel celebrated his own fetishes, always reserving a leading role in his films for feet and shoes, and he understood that fetishes have no meaning except that they are fetishes.