Synopsis: The porcelain perfection of Catherine Deneuve hides a cracked interior in the actress’s most iconic role: Séverine, a chilly Paris housewife by night, a bordello prostitute by day. This surreal and erotic late-sixties daydream from provocateur for the ages Luis Buñuel is an examination of desire and fetishistic pleasure (its characters’ and its viewers’), as well as a gently absurdist take on contemporary social mores and class divisions. Fantasy and reality commingle in this burst of cinematic transgression, which was one of Buñuel’s biggest hits.
Belle de jour 8.0
eyelights: its mildly surrealistic quality. Catherine Deneuve. Geneviève Page.
eyesores: Henri Husson. Marcel.
‘Belle de jour’ is the story of Séverine, a sexually confused housewife who spends her afternoons in a brothel, fulfilling the house clients’ fantasies. It is the first of two collaborations between Catherine Deneuve and Luis Buñuel, and remains Buñuel’s most popular work. It has garnered many international award nominations and won prestigious ones (including a pair at the Venice Film Festival).
I remember when I first saw ‘Belle de jour’. It left me both intrigued and perturbed. On the one hand I found it unusual, quite like nothing I’d seen before (it was my first Buñuel). But, on the other, watching a woman get whipped, soiled, humiliated, molested and mistreated didn’t sit well with me at all. As a budding feminist, the idea of seeing a woman subjected to all manners of abuse was unpleasant to the extreme.
But I kept returning to this motion picture, pulled by its slightly surreal, dreamlike quality and the allure of Catherine Deneuve, whom I had not seen anywhere else before: she was beautiful, but withdraw – a perfect ice queen. It took me a while to realize and accept that Séverine was actually subjecting herself to this treatment – that these were her own fantasies, manifestations of her self-loathing.
It is only after accepting that these experiences are what she daydreams of that I could watch this film without feeling any overpowering disgust or pity. While I don’t understand why anyone would allow themselves to be degraded and derive pleasure from it, at least now I can sit back and watch the complexities of her psychological conflicts unfold without decrying what befalls her; she is damaged and is acting out from a wounded place.
It’s never made explicitly clear what has brought her to this place, however; there are hints of child abuse and a religious background, but it’s never properly established. Perhaps Joseph Kessel’s source novel delves into her past more, but Buñuel’s interpretation doesn’t. In fact, in one interview he stated that he himself didn’t know why she is doing it, and dismisses the cues pertaining to abuse. He also left the film’s interpretation to the viewer’s discretion.
Personally, I’ve long thought the story to be a fabrication, that Séverine was escaping to these fantasies, but that they were not actually happening. In my mind, she lead a mundane, gilded existence and didn’t know any other way to get respite from it: feeling confined by domesticity and her own inhibitions, she created an alternate reality, one that was rife with risk and danger but that, being in her imagination, ultimately would be safe.
‘Belle de jour’ blends reality and fantasy no matter which way one cuts it: at the very least, the opening sequence is made up. But I believe that there is more to it.
From my perspective, Séverine is entirely frigid with her patient, devoted husband, Pierre. After hearing that someone she knows works in a brothel, she goes by one out of curiosity, thinks of going in, but never actually works there. She only ends up creating this other world for herself, imagining what it would be like to interact with Madam Anaïs and her girls, as well as the clients. She even invents a relationship with a rough thug and melodramatizes the impact this has on her husband.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
In the end, as far as I’m concerned, not much has changed in her life from the moment that we meet her:
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
That is, of course, only my interpretation, but it’s the one that makes the most sense to me. Séverine is far too reserved and repressed to lead this secret life. Beyond hearing the rumour that someone she knows is working as a call girl, she knows very little of the life, imagining all sorts of things, such as the jovial man who spends a fortune on the girls, the Asian man and his mysterious buzzing box, or even the necrophile. All creations. And safe.
Why else would she be in such demand if she is sexually inexperienced? Because she imagines herself to be. Because, in her fantasies, she can be anyone she wants: she can be desirable, a prized gem. This helps boost her ego, her self-confidence; it helps her imagine that she is capable of being provocative, that she has the ability, psychologically and physically, to be everything that her husband would want .
But it’s not happening for real.
Part of the problem lies in the ending, which has led many to wonder what was reality and what wasn’t. I contend that the mistake is in believing that Séverine imagines Pierre to be well and that life continues as though nothing has ever happened. I firmly believe that the reverse is true: that he is well, and that nothing ever did happen – this is all just a part of Séverine’s extended fantasy. But I can see how the ambiguity could lead to confusion – from either perspective.
In a way it’s reminiscent of ‘Histoire d’O‘, in that the final moment leaves us with the impression that it may have all been a fantasy – although it’s ambiguous enough that it could be interpreted either way. It’s part of what makes the picture so fascinating: irrespective of its source material, ‘Belle de jour’ has a life of its own, a life that viewers imbue it with – it’s not dictated by the filmmaker or the author, a cinematic progeny emancipated from its creators.
Even though I don’t appreciate it as much as I do some of Buñuel’s other works, ‘Belle de jour’ is a veritably engrossing film. And this was possibly the time that I enjoyed it the most; it just keeps growing on me, incrementally. Some 40 years later, it still captivates cinephiles around the world (including Martin Scorcese, who spearheaded a re-release). The story was even followed up recently by Manoel de Oliveira, who brought back two of the main characters in ‘Belle toujours’.
Frankly, I can’t say that I expect to appreciate de Oliveira’s interpretation of the characters and story, but I know that I will give it a chance: Going from ‘Belle de jour’ to ‘Belle toujours’ has such a delicious ring to it that I’m extremely curious to see where it will lead us. Someday. Soon.
Date of viewing: September 11, 2013