While contentedly married to a doctor, Severine cannot bring herself to commit sexually. Instead, she indulges in wild erotic fantasies, leading her, unbeknownst to her husband, to become a prostitute in the afternoons.
It’s the plot that launched A thousand pornos. A respectable housewife, trapped in a marriage that’s at a sexual standstill, spends her afternoons working in a brothel, fulfilling her fantasies while hiding the truth from her husband. As a basic outline, it has inspired everything from the sleazy video hardcore of Lady By Night to the psycho-analytical meanderings of Eyes Wide Shut. In its best-known form, however, it’s the story of Belle De Jour, Luis Buñuel’s classic film from 1967.
Although sex rears its head in almost all of Buñuel’s works, the Spanish director isn’t one for simple titillation. He is far more interested in how our dreams and desires — subconscious or otherwise — are constantly at odds with two-faced notions of decency in polite society. Throughout his 50-year career, Buñuel was continually obsessed with exploding the pretensions of smug middle-class hypocrites — the dictionary-definition ‘bourgeoisie’. Despite his subversive wit and anger, however, these were never scathing attacks. A surrealist in his art but a humanist at heart, he seems to have a fondness for the foibles of his bourgeois characters, saving his more acidic assaults for the clergy. This is certainly true of his attitude to Séverine, the housewife-turned-prostitute played by Catherine Deneuve.
Belle De Jour’s brilliantly deceptive credits sequence wrong-foots the audience from the outset. A horse-drawn carriage clip-clops down a tree-lined country lane. As if to emphasise the chocolate-box romanticism of this image, a handsome man turns to his beautiful wife and says, “I love you more every day.” But as he moves to embrace her, she becomes stiff and cold. Clearly her frigidity has long been a problem in their marriage. And so the man gets two coachmen to drag his wife by the hair into the woods, where she’s gagged, stripped, whipped and raped. A typically misogynistic male fantasy? Not at all. As one coachman nuzzles her neck, the film cuts abruptly to the same handsome husband coming out of an en-suite bathroom into a neatly arranged bedroom, where the same beautiful wife lies beneath the sheets of her single — note, single — bed. He asks her what she’s thinking about. “About you, about us,” she lies. Yes, the fantasy belongs to the woman, not the man. And this daydream, brimming with deep-seated masochistic desires, is the first of many sexual secrets that she will bury from him.
Buñuel hints at the reasons behind Séverine’s frigid state with an unexplained flashback to a childhood memory of her being felt up by a workman. But, again, his interest in her fear of physical sex has a social as well as psychological dimension. Tipped off by her husband’s lascivious friend Husson (Michel Piccoli, a Buñuel regular), Séverine nervously visits an apartment brothel run by Madame Anais (Geneviève Page). Alone with different clients, Séverine literally lets her hair down and Buñuel literally strips away the surface pretensions of bourgeois life. But it’s a symbolic arena, too. She can only submit freely to her urges by choosing sex as a generalised concept. She is liberated by the anonymity and randomness of her clients, the fact that, as a whore, her lovers will always be strangers. At home, she’s suffocated by a caring husband and confined by the rules of society. Working in a brothel empowers her; marriage does not. Her plan only falls apart when emotions intrude, and she and a flashy young thug (Pierre Clémenti) fall into the throes of that particularly French disease, amour fou.
This is the role that cemented Deneuve’s iconic status as Europe’s art-house ice queen. She had been sweet in The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964) and psychotic in Repulsion (1965), but Belle De Jour truly set her up as French cinema’s perfect — and perfectly unattainable — beauty. There’s not a full-frontal shot in the entire film (not even when she walks down a corridor clad only in a see-through black veil) but the film’s erotic charge is incontestable.
For Buñuel, the film marked a turning point in an odd, globetrotting career. Born in 1900 in the Aragón region of Spain, he was educated by Jesuits and studied philosophy at the University Of Madrid, where he became a friend of the artist Salvador Dalí. Together, in France in 1928, they made the famous surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou. Buñuel’s subsequent filmmaking career would take him to America, where he worked as an archivist in New York and made Spanish-language remakes of Hollywood hits for MGM. He then made a string of popular films in Mexico during the late 1940s and through the 1950s, before being invited back to Spain by General Franco himself. Given free reign by the fascist dictator to choose any subject he wanted, Buñuel made Viridiana (1961), the tale of a young nun, seduced by her guardian, who opens up his estate to beggars and lets them recreate a blasphemous version of The Last Supper. Did this morally corrupt old man represent Franco and did Buñuel consciously set out to satirise the shortcomings of the Catholic Church? Without a doubt. Buñuel owed Franco no favours.
Viridiana was banned in Spain, but won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival when the director smuggled some prints out of his homeland and set himself up in exile once more. It also kicked off Buñuel’s glory years as he joined the forefront of the director-led European art cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. Key to Buñuel’s late success was his partnership with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière; Belle De Jour was their second — and most commercially successful — collaboration. Its combination of a salacious subject, the nudity of a rising star and the award-winning reputation of its director give it both high and low appeal. One wonders if wealthy wives in their designer clothes have taken time off between 2pm and 5pm in the afternoon to sit in a cinema beside men in their dirty macs.
What makes Belle De Jour so timelessly fascinating is the contradiction at the heart of its story. The ‘fantasy’ scenes tell a deeper truth about Séverine than the ‘real-life’ scenes, which force her to play the role of a happy bourgeois wife in order to keep up appearances. Perhaps the most telling sequence in the film comes when Séverine looks through a spyhole and watches a fellow prostitute at work with a client. Initially disgusted, she walks away... then changes her mind and goes back for a second look. In a similar way, audiences have been drawn back to Belle De Jour for 40 years, using the film as a spyhole into the mind and fantasies of this frustrated young woman. As American critic Roger Ebert noted, the film “understands eroticism from the inside out — understands how it works not in sweat and skin, but in the imagination”. We’re all voyeurs in the end.
Exquisitely photographed by Sacha Vierney, well cast and acted throughout, and with stunning ice-maiden Deneuve arguably in her best role ever, this witty, erotic and elegant piece is highly recommended