Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour might be the filmmaker’s most viewed and accessible work, even though for over 25 years, audiences in the United States had no way of watching it. Upon its release in 1967, the movie caused quite a scandal, and due to the sexual content of its narrative (even though Belle de Jour is far from what one could consider a “sexy” movie), it remained unreleased until 1995. That was when Martin Scorsese, in partnership with the then mighty Miramax film company, secured the rights to release Belle de Jour in a number of art-house theaters and later in 1996, on home video in a VHS and Laserdisc edition (a restored version was released on Blu-ray by Criterion in 2012). Now everyone could watch Buñuel’s tale of a young French woman’s brief descent into sexual exploration.
Adapted by Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière from the 1928 novel by Joseph Kessel, Belle de Jour stars Catherine Deneuve, then only 23-years-old, as Séverine Serizy.
Séverine is engaged to a handsome French surgeon named Pierre (Jean Sorel), who no doubt can provide a life of comfort for Séverine, but what can he provide for her in terms of excitement? There is, of course, the weekend getaways to a posh ski chalet where they are joined over dinner by their friends Renée (Macha Méril) and Husson (Michel Piccoli), an older man who openly salivates over her the second Renee is turned away. Séverine finds Husson uncouth and doesn’t understand why Pierre would be friends with such a person.
At home, Pierre hasn’t quite understood why Séverine chooses to sleep in separate beds, but he does so anyway. Pierre, always dressed in full-length pajamas retreats to his bed after kissing her goodnight. She, lying away from him, dressed in a pink nightie, lets her mind go to a recurring fantasy of hers: one where she and he enjoy a fall horse-drawn carriage ride during the deepest, most colorful time of fall. Séverine dressed to perfection in a vibrant red overcoat, her hair the color of the very faded yellow leaves below them, and possessing the face of angels, stares at Pierre who in this fantasy, finds the courage within him to question her aloofness and why she’s so cold toward physical intimacy.
In a shocking instant, Pierre orders the carriage stopped where he then drags Séverine along the leaves and ties her to a tree, stripping her of her chic overcoat and her burgundy dress leaving her back exposed. Pierre then orders the two carriage handlers to whip her violently until the moment when he instructs one of the handlers to approach her from behind and have his way. When the handler does so, she arches her head back, eyes closed and appears to be enjoying the experience. Séverine’s cries during this ordeal are not from pain but from pleasure. Her pleasure. Deep within the recesses of her fantasy, which we soon find out is exactly what this event is. It’s her fantasy and one she feels no need to share with him or anyone.
With this, Belle de Jour announces itself as a film where it’s the main character is controlling her fantasies. One could argue that case of course, merely from the fact that two men wrote the movie, but Deneuve owns this fleshed-out character as much as they do. Her performance is bravely remarkable and completely assured, especially considering that just two years prior, Deneuve portrayed the demure, shy, sexually repressed Carol in Roman Polanski’s Gothic, psycho-sexual thriller Repulsion. These two characters couldn’t be more different; while Repulsion’s Carol is scared of her sexual fantasies, Séverine is fascinated to not only acknowledge them but to explore them.
Carol’s prison was her mind. Séverine’s prison is the life she lives with her husband. She feels boredom at home with Pierre. And perhaps the role of wife (and a young, attractive and stylish one at that.) In one early scene, she receives a gorgeous (meaning expensive) bouquet of roses from Husson, which she lets fall to the floor right away in an “accident.” Then in the bathroom, she upsets an expensive bottle of perfume on the floor and lets it run out. Séverine believes these two incidents are just a mild case of scatter-brained clumsiness. They are more likely, physical rejections of a male’s attempt to paint her as a romantic, doting, feminine partner.
Séverine meets up with Renée who informs her that a friend of theirs has taken a job working at a local brothel. Later, when she encounters Husson at a tennis court (his leering still evident), he mentions the same thing, including the name and location of said brothel—11 Cité Jean de Saumur.
Intrigued, Séverine visits one afternoon. Here, she has left her red, bold, attention-getting overcoat behind and she is fitted in a secretive black, knee-length coat accessorized by very shiny black leather pumps which Buñuel shoots in a very loving close-up as she climbs the stairs to her new life.
Belle de Jour doesn’t announce which year the story takes place but judging by Séverine’s chic wardrobe of Yves Saint Laurent articles (the stylish red fall coat for her moments of domesticity with Pierre, the black coat for her secret visits to the brothel and a brown leather fur-lined trench coat when she’s alone in the city) the viewer assumes this is a modern-day (at the time, late 60’s) story.
Inside, Séverine meets the manager, Madame Anaïs (Geneviève Page) who takes an instant liking to the young women. Séverine agrees to start working as one of Madame Anaïs’s girls right away provided she can leave by 5 p.m. each day to be home for when Pierre arrives. This arrangement earns her the name “Belle de Jour.”
Séverine meets her new co-workers Charlotte (Françoise Fabian) and Mathilde (Maria Latour) who marvel at her designer clothes and surmise that she is not in need of money. There is something else that brought her there and perhaps, Séverine is not quite sure what that is. After a meeting with her first client, an uncouth regular named Monsieur Adolphe (Francis Blanche), she leaves the brothel and doesn’t re-appear for another week. Given another chance by Madame Anaïs, Séverine encounters a well-groomed but portly nameless client (Iska Khan) who carries with him a lacquered box that contains some sort of rapid buzzing item that no one there wants to have anywhere near them—except Séverine. We don’t see their encounter on-screen (or what that buzzing item even is), but when it’s over, she lifts her head, hair disheveled, smirking as if she’s drunk, in a state of rapture by what just transpired.
The buzzing box may remind movie lovers of Pulp Fiction’s mysterious golden suitcase. We don’t know what exactly was in those things, but to the characters, they meant the world. We don’t find out what was in that buzzing box, maybe the movie’s creators don’t even know what it was supposed to be (Both Buñuel and Quentin Tarantino offered the same explanation regarding their mysterious items: they’re whatever we want them to be).
Séverine begins to enjoy the thrill her new adventurous secret life brings to her and finds it manifesting itself in her relationship with Pierre who she is now intimate with. However, her fantasies of being attacked and ravaged by men still remain. One especially nasty one involves both Pierre and Husson who tie her up again and fling huge gobs of mud at her. When her fantasies take hold, we hear the sound of carriage bells on the soundtrack and her outfits are again red which are in contrast to the light, cream-colored outfits she wears to work at the brothel.
It isn’t long before Séverine’s secret life bleeds into her domestic one. One day Husson unexpectedly appears at her work, and both she and he are surprised to see each other but considering his open affection for such places, it’s really not all that surprising. If that isn’t enough, Séverine has become a target of intense, burning obsession from a dangerous young client, a small level hood named Marcel (Pierre Clémenti). Marcel is an intense, messy-haired, gold-toothed partner to an older gangster, Hyppolite (Francisco Rabal) who visits the brothel from time to time. After their first encounter, Marcel becomes dangerously obsessed with Séverine who decides then, her time as a sex worker has come to an end.
Marcel is not about to give up that easy and finds out where she lives—with Pierre. Marcel has let possession overcome him, and even Hyppolite sees it’s not going to end up well for anybody. Now Séverine’s fantasies, secret life, and life as a wife all intersect and collide.
Buñuel plays out his ending to us but is it a real ending for our lead character? Séverine‘s red coat appears in her confrontation with Marcel—the same red coat she wore in her previous fantasies where the men in her life degrade and attack her. Was Marcel just a fantasy as well or was he real? Perhaps he was real to a point and then her fantasy of him became something else.
One interesting aspect to the puzzle occurs shortly after their encounter; for the first time in this film, we watch a scene between Marcel and Hyppolite together in a bar meeting with some other hoods discussing some kind of deal. The deal isn’t important, but what is important is that this is the only scene in the movie up to this point, where Séverine isn’t present. It’s a curious scene which presumably takes place in the real world—the one she lives in before she lets her fantasies take over. But she’s not part of it, unless, this is a fantasy too. Of course, since she’s not in this fantasy, it’s difficult to determine. Another note: there is no music in the bar where the gangster meeting takes place. This is the case for the rest of the movie, which is entirely music free. Music is oddly not an aspect of Séverine’s life—real and imagined.
With jealousy and obsession now involved, Séverine fears for Pierre on two fronts: that Marcel will cause him harm and that Husson will tell him what she has been up to every afternoon. It’s quite a feat for Buñuel to pull off and once it all plays out, the film ends where it began—in a horse-driven carriage on a fall day with Séverine and Pierre as passengers. With those bells heard over the soundtrack.
It’s somewhat understandable to see why this movie took 25 years to reach American audiences. Stories concerning sexual fantasies and surrealist kink were not in high demand during the 1970s. Just look at the XXX movie Travis Bickle took Betsy to in Taxi Driver (1976.) It actually wouldn’t be until David Lynch’s sexually engulfed fireball that was Blue Velvet (1986) which featured a few traits of Buñuel’s non-erotic exploring of the darker side of desire. Even then, it still took the likes of Basic Instinct (1992) which had to open before audiences sent the message to studios that hey, they liked seeing sex on-screen.
As I wrote earlier, Belle de Jour actually doesn’t contain any “sex” scenes. What sex there is within this movie, is implied and from what is implied, we can’t even be sure what transpired was even sex. Like the mystery of what was in that buzzing box, only the filmmaker himself knows for sure what actually happened. Could it merely be an examination of one woman’s secret desires? One not satisfied with her partner, so she seeks out other means of sexual enticement?
When Belle de Jour was finally being rolled out to American audiences in the mid-90s, Stanley Kubrick was in early pre-production of his erotic thriller Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s movie, when finally released within the final months of the decade, explored similar themes as Buñuel’s only this time, it was an American male embarking on a sexual odyssey after feeling unneeded from his wife after she confesses her sexual fantasy of having sex with another man to him.
Both movies end on an ambiguous note as we’re not quite sure what was real and what was imagined. Both are about obsession and desire but more specifically, the need for both lead characters to feel desired. Even though both movies were released 30 years apart, both are two of the 90’s undisputed masterpieces of the effects of buried desires.
Another director, Bernardo Bertolucci, when making The Last Emperor during the second half of the 1980s, created scenes in that epic where alluring Chinese women would roll around together in silk bed sheets silhouetted against burning lights. He remarked at the time he was a filmmaker who wasn’t shy about putting his fantasies on-screen. Buñuel with Belle de Jour put his character’s fantasies up on screen, which he did with the incredible Catherine Deneuve who expertly balanced and exhibited demure iciness and curious kink kitten in her Séverine.
And that just might have been Buñuel’s fantasy all along in making Belle de Jour.