What’s In the Box?

Belle de jour (1967)

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.

Belle de jour (1967)

Belle de jour (1967)

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)

My Buñuel Blog-a-thon Contributions:
What’s in the Box?
Ode to Marcel
The Fine Art of Fashion: Yves Saint-Laurent

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20 thoughts on “What’s In the Box?

  1. Flickhead says:

    An excellent post, Kimberly.

    Don’t bring any bugs around me!” cries Mrs. Flickhead.

    That woman never did have a sense of adventure…

    Your references are inspiring me to do some further reading.

    In that the characters of Belle de jour exist in varying states of pain (or painful denial), I’ve always been intrigued by Deneuve’s position on the bed after her orgasm, believing she’s found her bliss through sodomy.

  2. cinebeats says:

    Flickhead – My own bug phobia would get in the way of any insects finding their way into my own bedroom! Deneuve’s position on the bed is interesting and was mentioned by Julie Jones on the DVD commentary. I thinks it’s also important to consider that the man tells her not to bother taking off her bra. It’s as if there won’t be time or a need for foreplay with what he has planned, or maybe just the site of bare breasts turns him off? Lots to consider there!

    Fredy – I’m happy to do the dirty work! 😉
    Considering all the reviews I’ve read of Belle de Jour, I don’t think many film critics have bothered reading de Sade’s work, which seems odd to me. I can’t imagine fully understanding a lot of Bunuel’s films without some knowledge of writers like de Sade, Octave Mirbeau and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

  3. Flickhead says:

    Kimberly, have you seen Manoel de Oliveira’s sequel, Belle toujours (2006)? Set thirty-eight years after the Buñuel picture, it stars Bulle Ogier as Séverine and Michel Piccoli reprising his role as Henri. I haven’t seen it, but it could be interesting.

    Oliveira wrote: “Belle toujours occurred to me unexpectedly and, as I had the will to pay my tribute to Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, I was happy to have found a way to do so, perhaps the best, and I started working. What is it about? Taking two of the strange characters from the film Belle de Jour, and make them relive, thirty eight years later, in the strangeness of a secret which was only in the possession of the masculine character and a knowledge that had become crucial to the female character. Thus, passed this time, they meet again. She tries to avoid him by all means. But he stalks her and eventually manages to gain her attention with the intention of revealing the secret that he alone can unfold. They set a meeting, a dinner, where she expects that all will be revealed. During dinner, she, now a widow, awaits the expected revelation: what he had told her husband while he was mute and paralytic because of a gunshot wound fired by a lover of hers. The situation is tense and she ends up in despair without being able to find out what in truth happened. He is satisfied in his sadism and in his particular revenge from the ways of that woman, who deep down desired him but whose haughty ways never allowed him to possess her.”

  4. Jonathan Lapper says:

    Well in my pants it’s “Members Only” – no bugs allowed. Excellent post Kimberly! Concentrating on the buzzing box was a great idea for the Bunuel-a-thon. I think what you say hits the nail on the head, no pun intended. It’s exactly the type of thing Bunuel would think of in reference to the box and I’m glad you made the connection. I had never really thought about in those terms before.

    I confess when I first saw the movie years ago I saw it less as a cinephile and more as a person obsessed with dominance and submission. I love when Severine quickly “shapes up” when her Madame speaks to her sternly as well as the scenes of humiliation that she fantasizes about. Personally I think it’s all much more erotic than any “vanilla” sexual encounter in most movies. I think that’s why the scene in Dressed to Kill in the museum works so well, because again it’s all about control. Of course, if I were making the movies the situation would be reversed and it would be the man under the control of the woman, like The Blue Angel but Severine does ends up in control by the end, if by involuntary means.

    It’s a great movie and years ahead of its time in dealing with such subject matter so honestly, not as a freakish sideshow or as an earnest clinical study. Thanks again.

  5. Gautam says:

    Great post Kimberly- as I’ve admitted before, Bunuel really flies miles over my head. It is incredible with the Bunuelathon, I didn’t realize there were so many Bunuelologists out there. Perhaps I should consider trying some more of bunuel’s work to get aclimatized with his style.

    Thanks for the post.

  6. robertmonell says:

    Another fascinating post, Kimberly. I posted my review of Bunuel’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS earlier as my contribution. One of the main characters obsessively collects insects and there are numerous closeups of him at work on the creatures. I didn’t realize the insect connection via Sade, though. I’ve always thought that all of Bunuel’s films could be considered entomological documentaries of sorts. Thanks, Robert Monell

    http://www.robertmonell.blogspot.com/

  7. cinebeats says:

    Flickhead – I have not seen Belle toujours , but I’m kind of curious about it. I have mixed reactions to those kind of sequels which come out long after the original film made by other directors. I probably should give it a look though since I’m curious about how the director deals with “the box.”

    Ed – As a matter of fact I have. You don’t ever want to watch a mystery film with me because within the first 20-30min. I end up shouting out who’s done the crime and annoying everyone in the room.

    Jonathan – I completely agree with you about the eroticism in the film. It’s a really well-crafted movie, but it’s also incredibly erotic. You barely see any skin, but what you do see is very sexy. Bunuel does an amazing job of exploring the complexity of masochism in Belle de Jour.

    Gautam – I hope you’ll give more Bunuel films I look. I’m sure you’ll come across a Bunuel film that will appeal to you. I’ve only seen a handful of his films myself (all the ones I listed above, as well as That Obscure Object of Desire which is also very good) and Belle de Jour is my favorite.

    Robert – I look forward to reading your post Robert as well as the other contributions. I haven’t seen Bunuel’s Wuthering Heights myself, but I’m sure I’ll find your post interesting.

  8. Keith says:

    Hello Kimberly. Great blog. I love the observations you make concerning insects, de Sade, and Venus in Furs. What a post. It gave me a lot to think about. I had never really seen insects as being erotic before. I haven’t watched Belle de Jour in a few years now. I love it. It’s the movie I fell in love with the goddess Catherine Deneuve during. I enjoyed all the pics you posted. Good job here. It was quite insightful.

  9. cinebeats says:

    Thanks Keith! I think David Cronenberg does an interesting job of exploring the erotic elements associated with insects in his own films, but Bunuel is clearly obsessed with insects as well. I’m glad you can enjoy all the pics of Catherine Deneuve that I posted. She’s stunning!

  10. Brian says:

    A terrific trio of posts on one of two or three contenders for the title of “Brian’s favorite Buñuel film”. I momentarily considered writing a post about Buñuel’s use of arthropods in his films (more for the list: the diagram of a mosquito in Las Hurdes, the preserved tarantula in the Phantom of Liberty, the martini fly in That Obscure Object of Desire), but ultimately decided against it. Good thing, too, as I would have surely missed this instance. I must confess I’ve never read anything by Sade, Mirbeau, or Sacher-Masoch (I have read some Anaïs Nin though). Luckily I don’t consider myself a film critic.

  11. cinebeats says:

    Thanks Brian! I’m glad you enjoyed my Belle de Jour posts. It’s amazing how insects feature into so many of his films… if not all in some small or big way.

    It’s always astonished me how authoritative critics like to sound when reviewing a lot films that they clearly don’t know a hell of a lot about. As someone who considers herself a “zinester” and has always been interested in smashing a lot of the walls put up by academia and critics around cinema, I find myself at odds with 75% of the film criticism I read.

    I really think anyone who seriously wants to study and understand Bunuel would have to make time to read de Sade, Mirbeau, or Sacher-Masoch because like a lot of the surrealists, he bases many of his own ideas, etc. on their work. A casual viewer on the other hand like yourself and myself, should just read them for fun. Mirbeau is my favorite writer of the bunch and I really recommend The Torture Garden, Calvaire and Diary of a Chambermaid. Like Bunuel himself, all these authors enjoy exploring the decadent and cruel nature of the “bourgeoisie” in very transgressive and erotic ways.

  12. Tim Lucas says:

    Terrific essay, Kimberly! What you write reminds me that my first tape copy of BELLE DE JOUR originated from a Japanese release — in French with Japanese subtitles! — and it was actually lacking the scene of the Japanese client with the mysterious insect box! So the scene and its implications must have pushed some very transgressive buttons in that culture.

  13. cinebeats says:

    Thanks a lot Tim!

    Your story about the Japanese video tape is fascinating. It’s funny, but I asked my husband who understands just a little Japanese if he could figure out anything the guy was saying and he couldn’t. He thought it was a Chinese man playing a Japanese man, so the language became jumbled and it was nearly impossible to understand. The actor’s name was Iska Khan which seems to indicate that he might be Chinese so my husband could be right in his assumption. I’m surprised that a full translation seems to have never been done, but maybe that’s because the language is so jumbled that no one can understand it completely?

  14. Yukiko Miura says:

    Hello, Kimberly!
    I truely enjoyed reading your posts about Belle de Jour, as it’s one of my favorite French movies.

    I have its DVD released from Japan but it does have the scene of the mysterious small box. I suppose the scene was cut because Japanese people in the 60’s thought that it was somewhat insulting. Japanese at the time were very serious about how they were portrayed in Western movies. Now we don’t care as much as they did. I found it interesting that he has a card named Geisha club card.

    Well, the language he speaks is neither Japanese nor Chinese nor Korean. Your husband’s thought must be right,
    but for me the language and the actor’s name sound like Central Asian, for instance Mongolian and Kazakhstan.

  15. cinebeats says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts Yukiko!

    Your comments about the language he uses are really fascinating. I guess it really is just jibberish inspired by various combined Asian languages. Obviously this must have been a choice Bunuel made to really confuse audiences.

    I thought the story about the Geisha Club card was interesting. From what I gather on the DVD commentary there was a brothel in Mexico that the director used to frequent called the Geisha Club so that card belonged to Bunuel himself.

  16. james says:

    I stumbled upon your explanation of the box scene trying to find out more about it, and was quite satisfied with your intriguing idea regarding the boxs content, until I looked up the allusion you make to Sade in Philosophy in The Boudoir. Not entirely satisfying, to my great disappointment.
    I have found only one section that refers to the Florida women, and it goes like this:
    “The women of Florida cause their husband’s member to swell and they deposit little insects upon the glans, which produces very horrible agonies; they league together to perform the operation, several of them attacking one man in order to be more sure of the thing. When the Spaniards came, they themselves held their husbands while those European barbarians assassinated them.”
    This is mentioned in an array of murderous women killing men for pleasure. But certainly not for the pleasure the victims bodies may give them. If I interpret it correctly, the women of Florida let their husbands members swell in a more conventional manner before inserting the insect, and this leads to the mens death, but not any significant furthering of sexual capacity.
    Then again, the quote I find differs in great parts from what you write. Vespucci is not mentioned. Also, I wouldnt think the addition of sexual detail was a Freudian lapsus on your part. Do I have an altered edition of Sade?
    Where does your quote come from, exactly?
    Anyways, albeit being a bit dissatisfied, I have even greater respect for Bunuel now. I believe that the enormous sexual quality of the box scene lies in its mystery; a mystery that probably is impossible to solve. After all, I recall reading in Bunuels autobiography that the box and its content are a hoax to that effect; a symbol for the ultimate pleasure we all seek, but that is, in reality, inexistant and impossible to attain. So Bunuel, Im sure, didnt even know himself what the box contained. That to me is the great power of the scene.

  17. Kimberly Lindbergs says:

    James – In an effort to be polite I’ll try and make mysef a bit more clear. First of all, my ideas are merely that. My ideas. I make no claims. Only suggestions. As for the tale itself, I did not repeat what De Sade wrote. If you take the time to read what I wrote again you’ll see that I clearly mentioned that De Sade “referenced a tale told by the 15th century Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci” which is what I quote above. I offered up a list of the books I used to compile my post and suggest you read them all. In particular Iwan Bloch’s book, which contains Amerigo Vespucci’s original story and is what I quoted from.

    Last but not least. To assume that my exact quote was “a Freudian lapsus” is absurd and rather rude. My write-up was created in an effort to share my ideas and discuss Bunuel’s work outside the ongoing premise that the box was just a mystery without meaning or context, which critic after critic has repeated ad nauseam.

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