After Simon of the Desert, Luis Buñuel spent some time trying to adapt “Monk” Lewis’s gothic novel The Monk before abandoning the project in 1966 after producer-brothers Raymond and Robert Hakim asked the director to make a film based on Joseph’s Kessel’s Belle de Jour. (The Monk was later filmed in 1973 by Adonis Kyrou.) In his autobiography, Buñuel described how he found Kessel’s novel melodramatic, but how the fantasies of the titular female masochist (Catherine Deneuve, fresh off the success of Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort) allowed him to indulge himself in exposing bourgeois sexual perversions. Today, Belle de Jour remains Buñuel’s most recognized film, and while it’s not without its flaws, it’s a radical work that reimagines some of the director’s earlier surrealist impulses and anticipates the work of David Lynch, namely Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With me and Mulholland Drive.
The film begins on an infamous high note. Séverine (Deneuve) and her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) ride toward a country estate in a horse-drawn carriage. The distance between the handsome Pierre and the emotionally glacial Séverine is evoked in the expansive shot of their surroundings. “You can be very cruel, when you wish,” he says, at once pointing to the unhappiness of their union and the director’s obsession with Séverine’s control of the pleasure and pain she brings both upon herself and the story’s many men. Against her wishes, she’s tied to a tree and whipped repeatedly by Pierre’s two horsemen. She comes to enjoy her torture and once Pierre determines that she’s been whipped enough, he commands the horsemen to have their way with her. When one man begins to kiss Séverine from behind, the woman goes into an erotic frenzy. And then she wakes up.
More startling than the realization that the film’s opening scene is a fantasy summoned by a woman yet unknown to the audience is that Buñuel’s radical cut to the woman’s waking life reveals that Séverine and Pierre sleep in separate beds. Here, the space between two slabs of furniture says an awful lot about Séverine and Pierre’s marriage. It also says plenty about a film which does little to distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy. This perpetual state of in-betweenness highlights Séverine’s crisis, which is that of a woman caught in a gray zone of moral and behavioral uncertainly, conflicted between complacency and revolution.
One of Buñuel’s talents was the complexity he conveyed through ancillary detail: a doorway or a shot of someone’s leg often spoke wonders about their social condition. (Jacques Rivette is another great director able to expose startling depth of character through literate observation of environment.) Early in the film Séverine trips through her apartment and breaks things; later, the hesitation in her legs as she approaches Madame Anais’s brothel suggests a sea animal nervously slopping its way onto land for the first time. Deneuve’s performance may seem “blank” but it’s actually incredibly thought-out, working on a below-the-neck, emotionally disemboweled level. Her character is constantly evolving, and it’s because of this that Belle de Jour can be jarring: Séverine is the rare bourgie with Buñuel on her side. She’s not cruel or highfalutin’ like the ghouls from The Exterminating Angel and The Phantom of Liberty and her decision to take a job from two to five at Madame Anais’s brothel isn’t motivated by money but by a need to be.
Séverine can’t stand her husband’s good friend Henri Husson (Michael Piccoli) because she doesn’t “like his stares.” Just as controlling as his gaze is his highly presumptuous nature: he can’t imagine why any woman would prostitute herself for anything besides money. He represents rationality, the very thing she’s trying to break away from, and her choice to prostitute herself could be seen as the film’s most significant surrealist gesture. Husson first mentions Madame Anais’s brothel to Séverine, and it’s at the whorehouse that she meets a series of women who appear to be selling their bodies in order to support their families. When Husson catches Séverine (alias Belle de Jour) working at the brothel, she’s noticeably shamed and—because he doesn’t sleep with whores for their virtue (he’s fallen in love with the supposedly pure Séverine outside in the “real” world)—he removes her from his life. He justifies his behavior easily enough but Buñuel cunningly equates the man with the oppressive patriarchal order that disallows her to derive pleasure from the fantasies she finally seems to be acting upon.
There’s a scene in the film where Séverine entertains a local Duke (Georges Marchal) by posing as his dead daughter and lying in a coffin. In The Last Sigh, Buñuel explained how a scene of a “mass celebrated under a splendid copy of one of Grünewal’s Christs” had to be removed by the censors. Throughout Belle de Jour, Buñuel cuts to flashbacks that try to identify the source of Séverine’s hang-ups: a blue-collar worker groping her as a little girl and, some time later, the girl receiving Communion. These flashbacks are gratuitous, conveying a facile sense of Catholic guilt pressing against the present like a blanket. The film doesn’t need them, but could the restoration of the “Grünewal Christ” have made these bits seem less glib? The film’s dream logic doesn’t exactly excuse them, but why damn the film for what amounts to 10 seconds of celluloid anyway? In the end, it is Séverine’s dream sequences (or are they dreams-within-a-dream?) that reign supreme. All of them deliriously point to her deepest fantasies and anxieties, namely a scene that has Husson and Pierre throwing mud at Séverine in a pasture after Husson has just pointed out his two prized bulls: Remorse and Expiation.
Buñuel wondrously conveys how the patriarchal rule of the film’s real world spills into the fantasy world Séverine creates for herself: Rather than take ownership of her pleasure, she blames Husson for planting the seed of prostitution into her head, and when she falls for the dreamy, metal-teethed Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), she finds that her encounters with him inside the brothel are not unlike those between a wife and her abusive, controlling husband. The film’s final rhetorical shift is foreshadowed when Pierre is inexplicably transfixed by an empty wheelchair outside an apartment complex. When Buñuel reveals that the whole of Belle de Jour may have been a dream, he permits Séverine to have the last laugh via a radical wish fulfillment. In the end, she defies her patriarchal oppression by moving fantasy into reality just as things get too prickly in dreams. Buñuel understood that dreams, the language of the subconscious, often tell us more about ourselves than our reality. Belle du Jour comes to understand this language too and, because of it, perseveres.