Belle de Jour (1967)

100belledejourThere is frequently a problem while dealing with films that are known as “Groundbreaking” and “Iconic” years after their release. This is a barrier I face once again with Belle de Jour, viewing it for the first time nearly half a century after its release: what was at first shocking and liberating is now commonplace.

Just like our last entry, Army of Shadows, Belle de Jour is based on a novel by Joseph Kessel, which was itself published in the 1920s. It seems to have changed little in the transition to screen, except for the fantasy sequences created by director Luis Buñuel. One such sequence opens the movie, with our central character, Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) enjoying a carriage ride in the country with her husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel). Pierre criticizes her for being so cold toward him, and when she tells him not to speak of that, he stops the carriage, has her tied to a tree, whipped, and ravished by his footmen.

hero_EB19990725REVIEWS08907250301ARSéverine does have an intimacy problem, possibly dating back to an incident of molestation in her girlhood. And Pierre is indeed a long-suffering saint, constantly rebuffed and spending the night alone in his half of their Rob-and-Laura-Petrie separate beds. Chance conversations with her friend Renee (Macha Meril) and her shady husband Hussen (Michel Piccoli) leads her to the establishment of Madame Anais (Geneviève Page), a somewhat upscale brothel with only two prostitutes. Séverine becomes “Belle de Jour” (a rather clever play on words, both on “day lillies” and the French expression “Belle de nuit”), who works only between the hours of two and five, coming home before her husband the surgeon.

MV5BMTk1NTg3NjAwNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwOTczNTU2._V1_SX640_SY720_As Séverine waffles on whether or not she will actually commit to her new trade, Anais commands her to get into her room, and when Séverine complies meekly, says, “So. You need a firm hand.” Her first client realizes this, too, and plays to her desire for the rough stuff. So begins her sexual liberation; she even takes on an Asian client with a box whose contents mysteriously buzz, causing the other ladies in the brothel to turn him down – and in fact, in the aftermath of this encounter, we see a genuine smile on Séverine’s face for the first time in the movie. And she begins to warm to her husband, too, much to his amazement and delight.

Two serpents enter this garden of earthly delights: the first is Hussen, whom we were expecting – after all, he’s the one who gave Séverine the address – and the other is Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), a young gangster who represents a sort of bad boy avatar – leather trenchcoat and boots, sword cane, metal teeth – everything Séverine’s dark side desires. They become obsessed with each other, and Séverine quits her job at Madame Anais’ – the Madame thinks it is because of Marcel, and agrees it is a good decision, but it is truly because of Hussen’s discovery of her second life.

Belle-de-Jour-1Everything goes about as one would suspect – Marcel still manages to track Séverine to her home, demands are made, there is tragedy – but it is all so bound up in Séverine’s fantasy life, that we are not sure that the dis-assembly of her otherwise lovely bourgeois life is not another fantasy designed to punish herself, just like the opening sequence. The ending is deliberately ambiguous, and even Luis Buñuel himself has stated that he doesn’t know what the ending truly means.

Buñuel does manage to surprise me every time I approach another of his movies. He is known as one of the greatest of the surrealist filmmakers, and that is a reputation that is roundly reserved. I suppose it is pretty much bourgeois on my part that when I hear surrealism I expect Monty Python wackiness, when in reality (heh), the movement is more about giving the unconscious part of the mind equal representation with the conscious; I read a comment that the carriage bells on the soundtrack are an indicator of Séverine’s fantasies, and while the ambient sound track in the movie is quite sharp and often draws attention to itself, I’m not certain about that assertion.

I’ve also seen it held up as a feminist film, and I look at that claim sidewise as well. It can argued that it is about a woman taking charge of her sexuality, but for that interpretation to work, it has to gloss over practically every relationship in the movie. The only people that actually seem real are the pragmatic Madame Anais and her two girls (Françoise Fabian and Maria Latour), who are friendly and chatty, but have no illusions as to the absurdity and general pathos of their clientele. Humanity is messy, and these women get to see perhaps the best and worst of it.

f6a8cc81d988b2ebf9c3bebf0b8077aba8145830-700Perhaps Belle de Jour‘s reputation as a masterpiece relies on the fact that, of Buñuel’s many surrealist films, it is the most approachable; That Obscure Object of Desire demands constant interpretation, The Exterminating Angel is a puzzle, and my favorite, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, is more like a fabulous funhouse than anything else. Belle de Jour, like its source novel, is more of a standard potboiler with some surrealist spice. In fact, I think of all the movies mentioned above, I would be most likely to recommend Belle de Jour as the entryway to the films of Luis Buñuel, for exactly those reasons.

Belle de Jour on Amazon