THE HIGH POINT OF DADA
All significant movements should have their key moment, their key point. It should be a piece which is not only brilliant, but also manages to summarise everything about the movement. Usually this piece will come to be the best known of the movement, but that is not always the case. One example of this is moments in the Surrealist Dada movement.I love Dada. It is simplistic, witty and visually entertaining. From the impossible to place charm of Rene Magrittes paintings to the punning and general humour of Marcel Duchamp, both the aesthetics and the sentiments have always appealed to me. It cleansed away the fuss and excessive detail more associated with Surrealism which ensured the absurdity remained whilst still creating something new. But the piece which for me encapsulates the movement is not actually a piece of art but a film Belle De Jour, the most accessible creation of the filmmaker of Dada, Luis Bunuel.
Bunuels name evokes shock tactics, particularly when it comes to his opening scenes. (The most famous of these perhaps being the opening of Une Chien Andalou, a scene of a womans eyeball being sliced with a razorblade which caused rioting upon its release.) Belle De Jour is no different. Whilst tame by todays standards (it was made it 1967 and was long unavailable) its opening scene of the masochistic Severine, played by a glacial Catherine Deneuve, gaining pleasure from being tied to a tree and whipped certainly raised eyebrows. It is for the best that this is suggestive, rather than an utterly graphic act of sexuality Dada often shocked, but its intention was more to provoke than blatantly shock. The ensuing plotline, adapted from a novel by Joseph Kessler, is also faintly controversial, as Severine takes a job in a brothel to fulfil her newly discovered needs. But it is not controversy which makes this film just a quintessentially Dada film, but its aesthetics. Just like a Dada piece of art, lines are clean and simple, colours and complementary and bright without glaring, and movement is suggested in slight, almost uncomfortable forms. Of course, this cannot be attributed to Bunuel and to Bunuel only. Deneuves performance is so coldly glossy that she has the effect of being a moving painting; Severine is not unsympathetic, but has a level of detachment which is almost unreal. This has come to be something of a template for portrayals of sexually masochistic women to this day. The other important figure in creating this aesthetic is the late Yves Saint Laurent, who designed the costumes. The costumes combine with the interior designs, which manage to be both classical and faintly fetishtic, to build a visceral fragment of Dada. Men are dapper in the suits typically portrayed in the movement; Severine is smart and groomed once again, those clean simple lines make themselves known, particularly in the red dress she wears in those famous whipping scenes.
But the real key in what makes this so quintessentially Dada is neither aesthetics nor controversy. It is important to remember that Dada is simply a tangent of surrealism. But whilst standard surrealism rested heavily on being quite blatantly fantasy, Dada thrives on having more of a question mark hanging over its images. Yes, they are odd. But they usually leave the viewer unsure of what is intended to be real and what is not. Belle De Jour certainly has this effect, which increases as the film runs on. Everything initially seems real, but nothing is every actually confirmed. For me, it is the films closing image which reinforces its role Severine, back in the red dress she wore in the opening scenes, all huge blonde hair and translucently pale skin, tied to a tree as if ready for more whipping. This particular shot could truly be a Dada painting bought to life and the viewer has no idea if it is real or fantasy. It is the summarising point in a film which successfully summarises the whole movement that spawned it. If anyone was to say what is Dada?, I cannot imagine a better example piece.