- Director: Luis Buñuel
- Writers: Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carriére, based on the novel by Joseph Kessel
- Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Geneviéve Page, Pierre Clémenti, Françoise Fabian, Macha Méril, and Francisco Rabal
- Accolades: 1967 Venice International Film Festival – Golden Lion
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max or the Criterion Channel, buy or rent with Amazon Video or Apple TV
I added Belle de Jour to my list of movies to watch several weeks ago when I heard about the passing of screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriére. He is considered one of the great names in European screenwriting, working with many of the great directors in many different genres over the course of his career, particularly Buñuel and Fassbinder. He wrote primarily in French but also was involved with major hits in both German and English. He first came to international fame in the mid-1960s through a series of collaborations with director Luis Buñuel, including today’s movie, Belle de Jour. He passed away on February 8 of natural causes.
This is a movie that is very much about sex, but perhaps that is too general. No literal sex or graphic nudity is actually shown (short of a couple quick shots of Catherine Deneuve’s naked butt), yet it feels extremely intimate in a way that a lot of movies with long sex scenes do not. That is because Luis Buñuel understands what most movie depictions of sexuality do not seem to, which is that for many people it is more a mental act than a physical one. This is a movie about the interior fantasy life of a specific woman, and what she dreams about is very particular to her. Buñuel understands that fetishes have no deeper significance sometimes beyond the fact that they are fetishes. When the beautiful Séverine (Deneuve) feels an erotic thrill, she hears noises like bells ringing and cats meowing. There is no deep explanation for this. It is just how she is.
The elevator pitch description of this movie, which perhaps does not do it justice, is that Séverine is an upper-class Paris housewife who begins working as a prostitute during the afternoons while her doctor husband (Jean Sorel) is at work, out of a compulsion she does not understand. The title, Belle de Jour, is the fake name she adopts at the brothel, but it is also, of course, a play on words. “Belle de nuit” (roughly, “Lady of the Night”) is French slang for a prostitute, but Séverine only works during the day. We hear repeatedly that the other girls are in it for the money, but she clearly is not. She does not understand why she does this, but tells one confidante that she can’t stop herself. Once she hears about the brothel, she finds herself inevitably drawn to visit it. We follow her arrival for her first day looking just at her feet as they climb the stairs. They seem to move of their own accord. At one landing she almost stops and turns around, but can’t quite make it before her feet start up the next flight of stairs.
The movie opens inside Séverine’s head, in the first of a series of sequences that allow Luis Buñuel to really play in a surrealist sandbox the way he likes to. The first scene shows a beautiful horse-drawn carriage pulling down a country road, while she and her husband swear love to each other. He briefly remarks that he just wishes she weren’t so cold, and when she tells him off he has the carriage stop and the two carriage drivers drag her off into the forest where she is gagged, tied to a tree, and whipped. Her moans and expression suddenly become those of ecstasy, not pain. Cut to the husband walking out of their bathroom to see her waiting in her own, amusingly chaste separate bed, a la The Dick van Dyke Show. “What are you thinking about?” he asks. “About you,” she replies, “we were in a beautiful carriage.” “Oh, the carriage again,” he says, getting into his own bed.
In 1967, American movies were still getting used to the idea of sex getting depicted in the movies at all, much less “deviant” sex. This was where European directors really brought something that their American or British counterparts just couldn’t, made art about things that some people still weren’t willing to talk about at all. Roger Ebert, writing about this movie, noted that Buñuel understood that, for a woman like Séverine, the erotic thrill comes not from the actual act of having sex with random strangers, but from the fact that she’s walking into a room for the purpose of having the sex with a stranger. That’s why we have many scenes of Séverine and her clients first meeting, but they all end just as things start to get hot and heavy, so to speak. The movie knows that for Séverine, that is the important part.
This seemingly elliptical storytelling is perhaps most in evidence in what might be the film’s most famous sequence. A Japanese man who speaks very little French arrives at the brothel with a small lacquer box. He opens it to show one of the other girls and we hear a faint buzzing noise. She flatly refuses him, but Séverine is intrigued. We cut from him showing her the contents to her slung haphazardly across the bed, face-down and exhausted, with clothing and sheets flung all over the room and draped over the furniture. She has had the time of her life. We never see what’s in the box, and there is no real possible explanation. This is Buñuel playing with us. In another scene, the mistress of the brothel (Geneviéve Page) has Séverine watch through a peephole as another girl entertains a client with very specific tastes, so that next time she’ll know what to do. “That’s disgusting!” Séverine exclaims, but finds herself inexorable drawn back to stare through the peephole. The camera never leaves her face.
Deneuve is incredibly beautiful here, of course, but she also brings a very subtle, lived-in quality to her performance. This is someone, we very quickly realize, whose inner life has, until now, been much more active than her outer life, but now the two are starting to seep into each other in ways she can’t control. She was 24 years old at the time of this movie, and has been working ever since. She is now considered one of the great stars of European cinema. It is difficult to think of any actress in the English-speaking world who could remotely have pulled off this part nearly as well, perhaps because the English-speaking world just wasn’t making movies like this in 1967. Jean Seberg springs to my mind, perhaps because, though an American, she was working primarily in French movies around this time and so it’s easier to imagine her in a part like this.
The reason Belle de Jour continues to endure as a classic in its own right is not because it is about sex, but perhaps because it is not. It is instead about the way people think about sex, in all its messiness. More revolutionarily, it is about the inner fantasy life of a female protagonist, and not one who receives some dire comeuppance at the end or who learns the fatal error of her ways. There may have been some American movies at this time (and shortly thereafter) treating sexuality frankly, but they still viewed it as a subject of shame. To Buñuel, it cannot be shameful, because it’s not something we have any control over. To paraphrase another Ebert observation, his characters often acted like they had choices, but what Buñuel finds fascinating about them is that they do not. They are programmed in ways that don’t make sense to act in ways they can’t help. If Séverine had any choice in the matter, she would stay home in her separate bed smiling beatifically at her doctor husband, having occasional missionary-style sex. But instead she finds herself in a brothel bedroom as a thuggish, uncouth young man (Pierre Clémenti) takes off his belt. She realizes that his front teeth are all silver, and he says he lost them in a fight. She hurriedly blurts out that, for him, there is no charge. She seems to have even surprised herself.