1 Hr., 45 Mins.
Belle de Jour March 20, 2015
There is something about glamor that is so … unglamorous. Once you get past the pristine mist of designer products, enviably beautiful people, and inexplicable shine, what’s left? Someone who carefully dresses their life with opulent panache can never truly be happy; a few too many Benjamins cannot purchase a coherent existence. Look at all those 1950s housewives: while they might have a husband all the other ladies on the block swoon over, while they might have perfect kids, and while they might have the most picturesque house in the county, behind their cherry red lipstick and gleaming manicured nails is a hollow interior. Choose style over substance and you’ll be left with a designated look, not a feeling.
Séverine (a luminous Catherine Deneuve in her breakthrough performance) is suffering from such problems. She has recently married Pierre (Jean Sorel), a nice enough, handsome enough, rich enough surgeon that leaves her well-off but somewhat fatigued. Her afternoons may as well have tumbleweeds rolling through their mundane rituals, but even when Pierre comes home from work, there is hardly a spark being set off: it seems that once you settle down, you settle down, and if you haven’t married a spitfire, you can’t expect to be continuously knocked off your feet.
Séverine spends most of her days in the grips of sexual fantasy, mostly sadomasochistic and mostly reprehensible. We only vaguely know her background, but Séverine's desires to be punished, objectified, and hated act as the gasoline to her sensuous fire. In a brief flashback, we see her as a young girl disobeying her priest during communion; is it because she is stubborn, barbed, or corrupt? One can hardly say; in Belle de Jour, she is a maiden of glaze that projects more emotion with her slender hands that her face.
In a casual conversation with friends, the very scandalous idea of prostitution is brought up. It’s the world’s oldest profession, but is it as prevalent as it used to be? An outsider makes it clear that, yes, something so taboo is still alive and strong. The tone of the exchange is hardly serious, but Séverine’s dead expression says otherwise. She doesn’t want to say it aloud, but the idea of becoming a call girl brings an adrenaline kick like no other. She isn’t doing anything important in the afternoon; why not entertain herself (and other men) until her husband brings home the daily bacon?
When Belle de Jour turned into an international success in 1967, Luis Buñuel was nearing 70, an age where most directors should be retiring; but at 67, Buñuel is at his most salient and his most stingingly observant. One might initially expect blatant erotica with a film so sexual at its core, but Belle de Jour is even sexier than all those immodest Emmanuelle moneymakers; it holds the power of suggestion like a little girl clinging to an antique China teapot after her grandmother tells her not to drop it. The film doesn’t need, nor give into the urge, to set the screen on fire with slow-motion, sweaty, softly lit love scenes. As audience members, we expect too much; a screen can blur reality until it turns into a massive smudge. We’ve come to believe that if we’re watching an action movie, we’re going to see some witless but thrilling bloodshed; if we’re watching a film deemed to be erotic, there better be some soft-core movement.
But what if the usual frankness was taken away from us, and we had to use our insight to fill in the extensive blanks? No matter how disappointed our inner 13-year old selves become, not showing something that we want to see is much more affecting than pouring sexuality onto the screen like an unstoppable liquid. Yet when a film as pointed as Belle de Jour contains so much mystery and so much surrealism, it’s difficult to be completely focused on whether Deneuve will show as much skin as we want her to (spoiler: she doesn’t). Everything seems to have a double-meaning, an introspective question; our lingering arousals are put on hold in favor of trying to make sense of it all.
There are a few times where Séverine exclaims that she could hardly live if she weren’t also moonlighting as a prostitute, but there’s something about how she says it that suggests otherwise. Is she doing it because she’s dissatisfied, because she’s disturbed, or is it something else? Personally, I think the authority involved is what turns her on. Her entire life, Séverine has mostly likely been looked at as an untouchable beauty that may as well be an object; people are afraid to approach her, scared that they might somehow morph her astonishing good looks. But as a lady of the day, men are no longer wary of her. She is giving her body to their depressing needs, and where most would feel materialized, she feels empowered. She doesn’t have to be known as a surgeon’s wife any longer; she is in control of the success of a romp, and being the focus of a man’s humiliating passion puts her on a pedestal after acting as an ethereally attractive shadow for so long.
By the end of the film, though, it’s hard to tell what has been real and what has been fake. Throughout much of its course, the fantasies and the flashbacks are completely separate, and we think we know what is and what isn’t reality. But the conclusion (which would be unfair to tarnish), is so unpredictably bizarre that it offsets everything. It suddenly becomes a film, open to anyone’s interpretation. That’s what has made Buñuel’s movies last so long; with their abstract themes, it’s hard to truly understand what he’s trying to say, but he gives us enough content to keep us intrigued long after we’ve seen them. Belle de Jour, as simple as it may seem at first, is knotted in its meaning, and the untangling process may take longer than a few days. A