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).
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.
PLOT: At first glance, manicurist Carole (Catherine Deneuve) seems merely to be painfully shy. The early portions of the film follow her in her daily routine, and we grow to realize that her mental problems go much deeper: she daydreams, she seems to be barely on speaking terms with the outside world, she is dependent on her sister (who wants to have a life of her own) to care for her, and she is repulsed by men. When her sister goes on a two week vacation, Carole’s fragile condition deteriorates, and we travel inside of her head and witness her terrifying paranoid delusions firsthand.
This was director Roman Polanski’s first English language movie, after achieving critical success with the Polish language thriller Nóż w wodzie [Knife in the Water] (1962). The relatively recent success of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) undoubtedly helped the film’s marketability, as it could be billed as a female variation on the same theme. But despite dealing with insanity and murder, Polanski’s film turned out nothing like Hitchcock’s classic; whereas Psycho was clearly entertainment first, with horrors meant to thrill like a roller-coaster, Repulsion was relentlessly tense, downbeat and disturbing, strictly arthouse fare.
Ethereal Star Catherine Denueve (who had been the lover of, and given her first break in films by, roguish director Roger Vadim) was coming off her first major success in the lighthearted 1964 musical Les Parapluies de Cherbourg [The Umbrellas of Cherbourg]. Playing a dangerous, asexual, schizophrenic woman in a role that called for little dialogue immediately after her role as the romantic lead in a musical demonstrated her tremendous range and helped establish her as one of the greatest actresses of the late 1960s and 70s.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are many enduring images to choose from, including the hare carcass and simple close-ups of Deneuve’s eyeballs, but the iconic image is Carole walking down a narrow corridor, as gray hands reach out from inside the walls to grope at her virginal white nightgown. (The scene is a sinister variation on a similar image from Jean Cocteau’s surrealist classic Le Belle et La Bette [Beauty and the Beast] (1946)).
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although there are several otherwordly, expressionistic dream sequences in the film, Polanski creates a terribly tense and claustrophobic atmosphere even before the nightmares come with odd camera angles and the strategic use of silence broken by invasive ambient noises. As Carole floats around her empty apartment, silent, alone, and ghostlike, ordinary objects and sounds take on an otherworldly quality. The effect is unlike any other.