Critics and film scholars have spent countless hours analyzing Luis Buñuel’s film Belle de Jour (1967) and the mysterious Asian box that appears in one of the movies most memorable and erotic scenes. As someone who has read a lot of Marquis de Sade’s work, I’ve personally never seen the box as being very mysterious or profound so I thought I would share my own thoughts about the buzzing box for the Luis Buñuel Blog-a-thon currently being hosted by Flickhead.
Many reviews of Belle de Jour seem written by rather chaste critics who often insist on weighing Buñuel’s film down with its clear social implications and debatable morality instead of fully embracing it for the erotic masterpiece that it is. Like most of the surrealists, Luis Buñuel was clearly inspired and fascinated with the work of authors like Marquis de Sade, Octave Mirbeau and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, and traces of Buñuel’s obsession with their work can be found throughout Belle de Jour. From its emotionally distant characters to its masochistic ideas and brothel setting, the film could be read as a checklist of erotic themes found in early French literature.
When I saw Belle de Jour for the first time and watched the scene with the infamous buzzing box I was immediately reminded of the sounds of insects and a brief passage in Marquis de Sade’s erotic classic Philosophy in the Boudoir where he referenced a tale told by the 15th century Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. This titillating tale involves native women in Florida who supposedly made their men place “small poisonous insects in their male members until they swelled up tremendously and caused an insatiable libido.” It also explains that these insects could cause a man “dreadful pain” and “ulcers ” but the negative implications aren’t as interesting as the erotic ones. With this odd tale lingering somewhere in the back of my mind, my first assumption about the buzzing box was that it contained insects that the box’s owner planned to use on himself as a sort of aphrodisiac to pleasure Catherine Deneuve’s character Séverine with.
This somewhat unusual assumption on my part is also fueled by Luis Buñuel’s own personal fascination with insects which appeared in many of his films, but at first glance could seem notably absent from Belle de Jour. Buñuel’s fascination with insects was first shown in An Andalusian Dog (Un chien andalou, 1929) but you can also find insects in his other films such as the scorpions in The Golden Age (L’ Âge d’or, 1930) and the cockroaches in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, 1972). According to Buñuel scholar Julie Jones who also provides the commentary for the Belle de Jour DVD and seems to agree with me about the insect quality of the sounds emanating from the mysterious box, Luis Buñuel associated insects with “the life of the instincts” and even wanted to make a film about insects.
If my casual assumptions are true and Buñuel is referencing the Amerigo Vespucci/Marquis De Sade tale in Belle de Jour it could also easily explain Séverine’s sudden joy in participating in a sexual act with that particular client at the brothel. Séverine is clearly a submissive woman who the Madame Anais has insisted needs a “strong hand.” Her desires seem unquenchable and a long session of intense lovemaking with a sort of “super man” would undoubtedly excite and please her. The untranslated conversation between Séverine and the man seems to indicate to me that he will be the one using whatever is in the box during their sexual encounter, which is why he clearly tells her “Don’t be afraid.” It’s also important to notice how the man guards the box and holds it closely to his body in the film. It’s his secret and his possession, which could indicate that whatever it contains directly affects him even more than those around him.
Buñuel never fully explained the contents of the box within the film himself and seemed to enjoy the confusion it caused among critics and audiences but I think the influence of de Sade’s writing on Belle de Jour and Buñuel in general might betray him here. As I mentioned above, the work of Marquis de Sade greatly inspired the Surrealist movement and Belle de Jour is ripe with references to Marquis de Sade’s novels including Philosophy in the Boudoir where the tale of strange insects and their effects on the male anatomy are alluded to. It is a book that Buñuel read and must have known well and I’m sure his own personal interest in insects would have made the Amerigo Vespucci/Marquis de Sade tale incredibly fascinating and appealing to him. Especially because it so deeply and directly links insects to “the life of the instincts” which Buñuel clearly obsessed over.
Renowned Surrealist Margritte’s artistic interpretations
of Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir
Since I’ve never read Joseph Kessel’s original novel Belle de Jour which Buñuel based his film on I can’t elaborate on my assumptions as much as I would like to, but the inspirations for Kessel’s book seem very clear. It’s obvious that Kessel based his fictitious female character of Séverine on the male character of Severin found in Sacher-Masoch’s book Venus in Furs and he probably found inspiration in the erotic writings of Anais Nin, who I assume inspired the name of the brothel in Belle de Jour and its Madame. With all of these erotic literary references littered throughout Belle de Jour, I think it’s natural to assume that Buñuel’s mysterious buzzing box could possibly be linked to the insects briefly referenced in Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy of the Boudoir.
So the next time you find yourself wondering “what’s in the box” I can only suggest considering insects and their erotic implications, as well as their symbolic importance in Buñuel’s own work.
Books Referenced and Recommended Reading:
– Philosophy in the Boudoir by Marquis de Sade
– Marquis De Sade: His Life And Works by Iwan Bloch
– Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
– The Diary of a Chambermaid by Octave Mirbeau
– Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
– Little Birds by Anais Nin
– The Autobiography Of A Flea by Anonymous
Films Referenced and Recommended Viewing:
– Belle de Jour (1967)
– Un Chien Andalou (1929)
– L’Age d’Or (1930)
– Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d’une femme de chambre, 1964)
– The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, 1972)