Written by: Luis Buñuel based on the novel by Joseph Kessel
Directed by: Luis Buñuel
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Genevieve Page, Pierre Clementi
Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour opens with two short scenes, one a dream sequence and one the snap back to reality, both of which combined tell everything one needs to know about the film. In the first, a carriage turns onto a secluded forest lane and Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) is yanked out by her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) who instructs the two carriage drivers to tie her up and begin to flog her bare back, the camera pans around to show that Séverine is clearly enjoying this. The second scene jumps abruptly to an apartment where Séverine is lying in bed and Pierre is putting on his pyjamas. “What are you thinking about?” he asks, “I was thinking about you. About us” she replies. The two kiss, and go to sleep in their separate beds; this marriage is not loveless, not at all, but it is sexless and Buñuel will spend the entire film exploring sex, love, fetish, illusion and eroticism by exploring but not really expounding upon the state of Séverine’s sexual existence.
Sexually, Séverine is a very complicated woman who has wild, masochistic fetish fantaties but who cannot bring herself to have sex with her handsome husband. She begins to spend her afternoons working as a prostitute in a small brothel, seemingly in an effort to conquer her own sexual reservations and build some confidence. Buñuel intercuts the film, at random, with swaths of Séverine’s fantasy life which contains a set of very specific but unexplained recurring features. Séverine’s afternoons spent in the brothel under the pseudonym Belle de Jour are varied but they amount to one thing: fantasy. Men come in and they need Belle de Jour to be something, anything, and her job is to make them believe, if just for an hour or two, that she is. She fulfills fantasies for men by enhancing the illusion that they already have mostly worked out in their minds, but in doing so Séverine places herself in total control of the interaction and begins to build a strength in her own sexuality.
Buñuel has a deep understanding of just how much of the sexual experience takes place in the mind and the entire film plays at sexual fantasy but never explicates. One particularly interesting scene involves a large Japanese businessman with a small wooden box that, when opened, makes a buzzing electronic sound but the contents of the box are never seen and whatever happens between the man, the box and Séverine is kept securely behind closed doors. Belle de Jour is never a film that teases, because it is clear from the outset that explicit, physical sex is not required in this film; it’s simply not what the film is about. When a man with iron teeth walks into the brothel, Séverine finds in him someone just dangerous enough to pull her fantasy into real life, and not the other way around. Things get a little too real and Séverine stops her work as Belle de Jour; her sort of fantasy is best in the imagination and when it enters her life the excitement turns closer to fear.
Buñuel’s film about a prostitute never shows any nudity, sex or anything at all gratuitous. Elements of the surreal seep in from Séverine’s fantasy life and the conflicted ending suggests…what? That fantasy is not restricted to sex, but is a necessity in all love? all life? Buñuel is certainly not judging or condemning sexual kinks and peccadilloes so what happens to Séverine? Belle de Jour is beguiling, as what appears to be a small simple story is full of tantalizing details. Why are there bell noises sometimes? What about the specifics of Séverine’s individual fantasies? What about that nearly forgotten, frames-long shot of the grown man and the little girl? When you start to scratch at the threads of Belle de Jour you reveal just how intricate it is, and has been the whole time. Belle de Jour is about that which we carry in our minds, and how separate it is from what we share with other people.