Belle de Jour: Bunuel turns a trashy soap opera plot into rich satire

Luis Buñuel, “Belle de Jour” (1967)

It’s got a trashy premise – a rich doctor’s wife “plays” at being a prostitute for a few hours each day – but Buñuel turns the soap opera plot into a blackly humorous and tragic satire about the upper classes and their uneasy relationship with sex, power and control. Lead actor Catherine Deneuve plays Severine, recently married to Pierre Serizy (Jean Sorel) who works as a hospital specialist and who often brings much of his paperwork home, a situation that suits his young wife as she is sexually frigid with a secret history of childhood sexual abuse. We see her early on in the film with little to do at home (a maid does the housework) so she goes shopping a lot, walking around her neighbourhood a lot and having frequent migraines so she goes to bed early a lot. When asleep Severine has strange dreams about being sexually humiliated and beaten by her husband and various working-class ruffians.

Pierre and Severine have a mutual friend Husson (Michel Piccoli) who is attracted to Severine and who one day mentions to her the address of a discreet high-class brothel where a middle-class housewife Severine knows as a casual acquaintance happens to work. Initially Severine is repelled by the idea but, curious as to whether working as a prostitute might remedy her sexual frigidity and perhaps make her a “normal” sexually functioning woman, she approaches the brothel madame, Anais (Genevieve Page), who agrees to take her on as a part-time prostitute under the pseudonym Belle de Jour.

After a couple of hesitant starts, Severine starts to enjoy her work and quickly becomes a favourite with Madame Anais and the various wealthy clients who exhibit all kinds of sexual fetishes, including whipping, incest and necrophilia. Severine’s weird sexual dreams gradually cease and she starts to become more loving and intimate with her workaholic husband who soon becomes the one looking for excuses for avoiding sex. However one day two gangsters turn up at Madame Anais’s brothel and the younger of the two, Marcel (Pierre Clementi), quickly becomes obsessed with Severine. Severine herself is attracted to Marcel as he fulfills her fantasies of being abused by disreputable or lower-class men but is forced to leave the brothel when Husson turns up and sees her there. Nevertheless Marcel uncovers her identity and where she lives and Severine is unable to prevent and avoid the clash of her separate identities and existences as Belle de Jour and Severine Serizy and their devastating consequences.

For a movie with a threadbare and unrealistic soap opera plot, “Belle de Jour” can be moving due to its rich detail and the various issues and themes that lurk in the background. Identity and control are major themes: Severine already is adept at hiding her sexual fears and fantasy life from hubby Pierre who thinks she is just shy and child-like and treats her accordingly, so it’s not hard for her to hide her other identity as Belle de Jour from him. However she has no control over Husson and Marcel who uncover her double life. Severine’s reaction to control and being controlled is complicated: the movie hints at a past history of sexual violence; she allows her husband to treat her like a pet; she is submissive to Marcel’s sexual violence; and her sexual fantasies, initially at least, suggest guilt feelings about being rebellious or being of a privileged background. At the same time she controls Pierre and Marcel’s access to her body by playing victim and while Pierre is happy to go along with this, Marcel refuses to play along and his refusal leads to tragedy.

Severine’s clients also have issues dealing with identity and control: there is the respected gynaecologist, used to commanding respect, who gets exasperated at Severine’s inability to spank him and walk all over him (literally); there is the businessman who imagines himself a ladies’ man but is actually crude and there’s a hint that he rapes Severine as he can’t have her any other way. On a bigger scale, Bunuel plays with audience expectations of how a movie narrative should proceed: there are flashbacks here and there to Severine’s childhood; her daydreams and fantasies intrude into the film without warning (save for cats’ meows and tinkling bells near the end) and exit just as abruptly; and Bunuel and Deneuve herself, who in the 1960’s had a reputation as an blonde ice-queen siren, revel in turning that reputation inside-out. Even the entire film itself is a dreamworld where Bunuel takes pot-shots at religion and class differences, and inverts social and gender control mechanisms. The prostitutes control men’s access to their bodies and the men are controlled by their lusts and desires. Marriage as an institution locks two people who can’t communicate with each other or relate as equals into an endless barren prison.

The details of the film are so layered that each repeated viewing reveals something new. The focus on Severine’s legs and shoes at times not only suggests a fetishistic obsession on Bunuel’s part but reveals Severine’s psychological state and her social status. Her dreams are full of masochistic religious symbols and imagery: in one dream, dragged from a horse-drawn landau that’s just gone through a long tree-lined grove (hint, hint), Severine is then stripped, tied to a tree and lashed; in another, after a herd of bulls with names like Remorse and Expiation charges through a field, Severine is shown tied to a post in a crucifixion pose and pelted with mud and ordure. The apartment where the Serizys live is luxuriously furnished and Severine nearly always looks the stereotypical high-maintenance trophy wife with carefully coiffed hair and porcelain looks. Deneuve’s flat minimal acting and blank expressions actually reveal more of Severine’s state of mind and moods than a more emotional style would; her interaction with Madame Anais in particular, discreet though it is, suggests a mutual lesbian attraction

I suppose one day I’ll watch this film yet again and find it outdated, twee and quaint but that day seems a long way off.

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