A bold and stunning effort by Bunuel that explores with psychological depth both sexual repression and expression from the perspective of a sexy but frigid young woman.
Dir. Luis Bunuel
1967 | France | Drama | 100 mins | 1.66:1 | French
M18 (passed clean) for sexuality and mature themes
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Genevieve Page
Plot: Frigid, beautiful young housewife Severine cannot reconcile her kinky, sadomasochistic imagination with her everyday life alongside dutiful husband Pierre.
Awards: Won Golden Lion and Pasinetti Award (Venice); Nom. for Best Actress (BAFTA)
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature – Sexuality, Desire
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: National Museum of Singapore – Perspectives Film Festival 2012
First Published: 20 Nov 2012
Widely considered a classic, and one of Luis Bunuel’s most well-known films, Belle de jour is a psychological examination of a woman who is sexually repressed but finds that bit of self-belief that brings her to find solace in prostitution.
Not that this film is righteous about prostitution, but Bunuel sees prostitution as a kind of intimate process for Severine (Catherine Deneuve) to come to terms with her conscious self. The result is a film that is a weird mix of humour arising from strange sexual situations, and eroticism that is visually subdued but frequently disturbing.
Deneuve, who is known for her roles in films such as Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), gives a superb performance that will go down as one of her very best, and this is despite being only about 24 years of age at the time of shooting.
She plays Severine with a kind of sexual maturity that is engrossing to watch. Of course, being sexy in a sexy French film helps. However, Bunuel takes sex not at face value, but treats it as part of routine. This is the shocking value of Belle de jour, a film that sees eroticism, deviant or otherwise, as normal.
“I have an idea. Would you like to be called Belle de jour?”
Bunuel also pushes the thematic boundaries even further by dealing with the female’s simultaneous attraction and repulsion towards sexual deviance as evident in a few hallucinatory sequences whose diegetic sounds would eventually play an important function in the film’s bewildering epilogue.
Is Severine finally free from her morbid, fantastical imagination? Or, and this is a terrifying psychological scenario, is she unaware of being trapped in a continuous hallucination where her own imagination of self and conscience does not exist anymore?
Shot by the great French cinematographer Sacha Vierny of Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) fame, Belle de jour takes a fairly realist approach in capturing both Severine’s outer and inner ‘lives’, despite the strangeness of the latter.
Many of the interior scenes shot are almost always bathed in a brownish-gold light. Moreover, the walls of the interior setting where Severine serves her clients share a similar colour tone, as if alluding to the colour of titillating skin.
As far as Belle de jour‘s depiction of prostitution and sexual fantasies is concerned, it may be considered tame by today’s graphic standards, but Bunuel shows that divulging matters of the mind is always sexier than revealing flesh.