“By the end, the real and imaginary fuse; for me they form the same thing.”–Luis Buñuel on Belle de Jour
DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel
PLOT: Séverine is a wealthy young newlywed who proclaims she loves her husband, but refuses to sleep with him. Her erotic life consists of daydreams in which she is bound, whipped and humiliated. She decides to secretly work as a prostitute during the day, taking the stage name “Belle de Jour”; in the course of her adventures a macho young criminal becomes obsessed with Belle, and he sparks sexual passion in her, as well.
- The movie was based on a scandalous (but moralizing) 1928 novel of the same name by Joseph Kessel.
- Belle de Jour marked Buñuel’s return to France after his “Mexican exile.” It was the 67-year old director’s most expensive production to date, his first film in color, and his biggest financial success.
- The director did not get along with the star, and the feeling was mutual. Buñuel resented Deneuve because she was forced on him by the producers. For her part, the actress felt “used” by the director. Whatever their differences, however, they made up enough to collaborate again three years later on Tristana.
- Séverine’s courtesan name, “Belle de Jour” (literally “day beauty”) is the French name for the daylily; it is also play on “belle de nuit,” slang for a prostitute.
- Too spicy for critics in 1967, Belle de Jour won only one major award at the time of its release: the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It now regularly appears on critics top 100 lists (Empire ranked it as the 56th greatest film of world cinema).
- Martin Scorsese was behind a 1995 theatrical re-release of the film.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The ecstatic look on Catherine Deneuve’s face as, tied up and dressed in virginal white, she’s insulted and spattered with shovelfuls of mud (or is it cow dung?).
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although the movie weaves in and out of dreams and reality until we don’t know which is which, by Luis Buñuel’s standards Belle de Jour is a straightforward dramatic film. Even the dream sequences are relatively rational, unthreatening, and easy to follow, making Belle the favorite “Surrealist” film of people who don’t like Surrealism. But something about the dilemma of Séverine/Belle’s divided personality, and her uncertain denouement, sticks with you long after “Fin” appears. The movie’s weirdness is subtle but persistent, like the scent of a woman’s perfume that lingers in the air long after she’s departed the room.
Original trailer for Belle de Jour
COMMENTS: Cinematographer Gil Taylor famously said “I hate doing this to a beautiful woman” while filming Catherine Deneuve cracking up and dreaming about imaginary rapists lurking in every corner of her deserted apartment in Repulsion. I wonder how he would have felt about shooting this same beautiful woman being tied up, whipped and raped, whored-out, and spattered with mud in Belle de Jour.
Actually, he probably would have been fine with it if he wasn’t forced to use a wide-angle lens on her closeups—the source of his misread complaint in Polanski’s film—but stick with the accidental metaphor for a moment. Appearing in these two movies in the space of three years, glacially blond Deneuve risked becoming typecast as a frigid Freudian pinup girl. Unlike Repulsion, however, where a cruel irony emerged from the union of Deneuve’s unworldly beauty with her asexual disgust for men, Belle de Jour allows the actress to be a sexual creature, of a twisted sort. When the beautiful Séverine is abused and degraded in Belle de Jour, it is at her own insistence, in fulfillment of her hidden fantasies.
The unusual name Séverine is the feminine of Severin (meaning “severe”), which Joseph Kessel chose for the self-abusing heroine of his novel as a tribute to the masochistic protagonist of “Venus in Furs.” But besides “severe,” the name also connotes “sever” or “severed”: a woman divided. This secondary meaning is accidental, of course, but it must have pleased Buñuel, for whom the deepest and purest meanings are always a result of coincidence. Séverine is torn between her split desires for chaste love and sexual lust, between her husband Pierre and her lover Marcel, between the comfortable life of a bourgeois housewife and the sensual adventures of working girl, and most importantly between dreams and reality.
Séverine is a dreamy lady—inscrutable Deneuve often looks half asleep and detached from her surroundings even during her waking hours—and through Buñuel’s eyes her subconscious world, full of lucid masochistic fantasies, is every bit as significant as her pampered Parisian reality of ski trips, dinner engagements and tennis matches. Belle de Jour begins with a horse-drawn carriage and the sound of jingling bells, and these two elements (along with cats and lilies) recur throughout the film as a clue that Séverine is in a dream state—although, as we will see, Buñuel only sets up these rules so that he can violate them later. Not counting the finale, there are four scenes that are clearly Séverine’s daydreams. The opening scene features a romantic carriage ride with her husband that turns into a whipping; as Séverine is being beaten by footmen at her husband’s request, she begs him “don’t let the cats out!” (Like “pussy” in English, the French “chatte” has a vulgar connotation as a euphemism for female genitalia). The “mud” fantasy again features Denueve bound, and again begins with bells (this time cowbells instead of carriage bells); more feline references abound, as Pierre asks his rakish friend Husson (Piccoli), “do cows have names, like cats?” Husson features again in the third obvious fantasy, a short bit at a restaurant; being the most absurd of all, it is impossible to mistake for reality and therefore needs no bells to announce it (there is talk of lilies, but no cats). The carriage appears again for the fourth bondage-related daydream, which involves a duel and which marks a crucial change in Séverine’s attitude that sets up the final act.
So much for the obvious erotic reveries. But there are two other sequences, both involving Belle’s kinky clients, and both highly unusual but apparently real, that incorporate imagery from Séverine’s fantasies; the appearance of these dream-motifs make us doubt whether the incidents really occur. The first involves a Japanese businessman who visits Belle at the brothel. He has a box which he shows to one of Belle’s co-courtesans. The box buzzes when he opens it. She shakes her head and refuses him, but Belle accepts his broken-French assurances that she should not be afraid of whatever secret is buzzing inside. When he strips, he flexes his arms and shakes a cowbell, making a sound exactly like the jingling Séverine’s fantasies. The second ambiguous liaison finds a carriage pulling up to a cafe where Séverine is sitting alone. An aristocratic man pops out, walks to her table, introduces himself, and propositions her to come to his manor. His fetish is particularly weird: he wants Séverine to dress in a black see-through nightie and lie in a coffin while he places lilies on her bosom and bemoans his dead love. In the middle of the ritual his butler breaks in and asks, “Can I let the cats in?”
Belle de Jour‘s famously enigmatic ending is the apex of this technique of muddying the line between dream and reality. Buñuel is the master of the ambiguous ending (see also The Milky Way). He sets up scenarios where the audience doesn’t merely chose between equally plausible plot options A and B, but where the contradictions coexist; A and B merge and synthesize into something new and mysterious. Belle de Jour‘s last two minutes, announced by the tinkling of bells, the mewing of cats, and arrival of a horse-drawn carriage outside her Parisian home, are obviously another of Séverine’s dreams. But, the last ten minutes, from the point she’s awakened by a gunshot, may also be a dream, and the final moments only a dream inside a dream. And the resolution, which like a Möbius filmstrip ends where it began, suggests the possibility that the entire movie is a dream. Perhaps the incident with the aristocrat and the carriage and the bells and the lilies and the strange dialogues about cats really happened, and Séverine incorporated all those elements into subsequent fantasies? Who knows? (Not Buñuel, who insisted he did not know what the ending he had written meant, just as Séverine repeatedly explains that she does not understand the reasons for her own compulsions). In the end, the entire plot is thrown into confusion, but Séverine’s character never changes: she began as a divided woman and she ends as a divided woman. But, perhaps she finds a way to reconcile her conscious and subconscious conflicts in her dreams.
The only thing that is clear is that Buñuel views Séverine’s fantasies as a crucial part of her being; they are, in fact, more interesting to him—and to us—than her everyday reality. Her dirty dreams are as much a part of her character as is her bourgeois propriety. And Buñuel treats her dreams with as much respect as her waking moments—and with more love.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The story is a kind of fantasy cryptogram, with countless clues—verbal puns about cats, nonsense syllables, bells, speech with motionless lips, time cues, and so on—as to when we are in a fantasy, and whose… The movie ends with a dark ambiguity about how we are to regard what has gone before, but every detail has been so carefully thought out that seeing it again is like seeing it in another key.”–Renata Adler, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“…a radical work that reimagines some of the director’s earlier surrealist impulses and anticipates the work of David Lynch… Buñuel understood that dreams, the language of the subconscious, often tell us more about ourselves than our reality.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Belle de Jour (1967)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Belle de Jour (1967) – The Criterion Collection – The Criterion Collection release page contains scholar Melissa Anderson’s essay, clips from the film, and links to other items of interest
Belle de Jour::Great Movies – Roger Ebert’s essay on the film for his “Great Movies” series
Belle De Jour – Joseph Kessel’s 1929 (an erotic novel which is by all reports quite different from the movie)
Belle de Jour (BFI Film Classics) – Critic Michael Wood’s companion to the movie for the British Film Institute series
DVD INFO: Belle de Jour was an obvious candidate for the Criterion Collection, and in 2012 they finally landed the rights (buy). The edition features a remastered print; a new audio commentary by Buñuel scholar Michael Wood; “That Obscure Source of Desire,” a featurette with sexologist Susie Bright and Surrealist expert Linda Williams discussing the film’s sexual politics; an interview with frequent Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, who worked with the director to adapt the screenplay from the novel; an excerpt from the French TV show “Cinéma” with Deneuve and Carrière as guests; trailers; and a booklet with an essay by Melissa Anderson and a Buñuel interview. The Blu-ray offering (buy) contains the same features.
The 2002 Miramax release is out of print but may still be available (buy). It has no extras but features a different commentary track, by film scholar Julie Jones. Unlike the Criterion disc, it is not presented in anamorphic widescreeen format.