Belle de Jour (1967)
Dir. Luis Bunuel
Written by: Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (from the novel by Joseph Kessel)
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Pierre Clémenti
I was introduced to the cinema of Luis Bunuel towards the end of my academic study of film. I had seen Bunuel’s early films, Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or, in high school and early college, respectively, but it wasn’t until my senior year of college that I began to familiarize myself with the rest of the prolific surrealist’s cinematic output. My final semester, I took a class on surrealism in the cinema of Bunuel and David Lynch. I was already very familiar with the work of Lynch as he was, and is, one of my favorite directors, but I knew far less about Bunuel, and it was the introduction to his work that I really treasure about having taken that course. It opened my eyes up to some wonderful films, but also to a new way to engage critically with the medium. Discovering surrealist film theory and beginning to apply it to my own criticism was a freeing experience for me, and it helped to give a framework to some of the attitudes towards cinema and some of the theories that I had been developing over the course of my formal film education.
Surrealism provided a context for a cinema that was attacking and subversive. André Breton and others theorized of the cinema as the art form most suited to disrupt the status quo, and most readily equipped to depict the imagery of the psyche. The experience of watching a film has often been likened to having ones’ dreams projected for viewing, but it was the surrealists who took this idea and ran with it, creating films that tapped into the strange and sometimes sinister workings of the unconscious mind. Bunuel was a part of the original group of surrealists, and along with his collaborator Salvador Dali, he created in Un Chien Andalou perhaps the first truly surrealist film. With that film, and with its follow up L’Age D’Or, the pair sought to create a pair of anti-narrative films that would tap into the subconscious, and bring to the surface the repressed instincts and desires of their subjects and their audience. The pair would split during the production of L’Age D’Or over increasingly differing ideologies, with Dali beginning to embrace the rising dictator, Francisco Franco, in their native Spain, while Bunuel’s political leanings remained decidedly leftist and his explicit artistic goal was to create films that undermined the institutions of the bourgeoisie and the state. With L’Age D’Or he succeeded in creating a film that did just that, expanding on the style and content of his earlier work, while tying the dreamlike aesthetic to a specific political and ideological critique, scathingly critiquing the Catholic Church and religious faith. The film was subsequently banned from public viewings for nearly 40 years.
After the scandal and success of L’Age D’Or, Bunuel officially broke from the French surrealists, beginning a film career that would span nearly 50 years in which he would direct over 30 features on two continents, establishing himself as a distinctive cinematic voice, and one of the great directors of all time. Bunuel spent the bulk of the next three decades bouncing between the United States, Mexico, France, and Spain, often taking work for hire in the studio system, particularly in Mexico. Though he was often working with material not of his own choosing, Bunuel’s distinctive vision often shown through as bits of surreal imagery would surface in even the most mundane of his films. By the 1960s, the burgeoning European art film scene and its critics began to take notice of the idiosyncratic style that was on display in Bunuel’s studio work, and elevated the director to a level of prestige. This sparked a late period career resurgence, as Bunuel returned both to making European films, and to making more overtly surrealist films, and it is during this period that he received his most consistent critical and commercial success.
Belle de Jour arrived in 1967, during the height of this cultural reevaluation of the filmmaker. Though it was a studio project, adapted from a pulp novel that Bunuel was often openly dismissive of, the film would go on to become his most commercially successful project and one of his most critically beloved, if vexing, films. Belle de Jour follows Severine (Deneuve), a frigid Parisian housewife, as she begins to seek satisfaction outside of her marriage to an uptight surgeon, Pierre (Sorel). Though she does love Pierre, it is revealed through Severine’s dreams and sexual fantasies, that she needs more than he can offer her, sexually, to be truly satisfied in their marriage. After she hears that a friend has been prostituting herself outside of her marriage, Severine seeks out a madam and begins her transformation into Belle de Jour, the beauty of the afternoon. She is able to be sexually fulfilled through her afternoon rendezvouses with her johns, while maintaining the façade of bourgeois normality in her marriage with Pierre. Ultimately, the two worlds collide in predictably tragic fashion towards the end of the film, as Severine lets a john get too close to her, and his presence threatens to upend the stability of her life with Pierre.
I have to admit that Belle de Jour has never ranked among my favorite Bunuel films. When I first watched it for the aforementioned class, I enjoyed it and certainly could see why it was one of the more commercially successful of his films, but it didn’t push the envelope far enough for me. I was more in favor of late classics such as The Milky Way, which he would direct next, or The Phantom of Liberty, Bunuel’s final film. These films fully embraced Bunuelian surrealism and satire as I understood it at the time. I felt Belle de Jour’s surrealism was too restricted, either constrained to only certain corners of the film, or if it was present the entire time, it was present as a lens through which to view the film rather than the operating mode. Over time and with a few more viewings, I’ve come to appreciate Belle de Jour more, and I think I’ve come to understand it better as a film as I’ve matured.
I added Belle de Jour and Viridiana to my collection at the same time after going to a public screening of Un Chien Andalou and L’age D’or renewed my interest in Bunuel around 2013. I went back and watched what I could find available through streaming services, including a couple of films that I hadn’t seen before, and I took advantage of a 50% off sale at Barnes & Noble to add a couple of Bunuel discs to the collection. I had hoped that I would be able to find the Criterion releases of The Milky Way or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but neither were available at my local store, so I settled for Belle de Jour and Viridiana, which are similar in some interesting ways, but neither of which were films which had particularly caught my interest on my first viewings for class. Over the ensuing four years, I think I’ve watched Belle de Jour three times, including for this post, and while it has grown on me, the film still doesn’t capture my attention in the same way as some of the director’s other work.
As I mentioned, my initial disappointment with the film was that it did not push the envelope far enough in terms of its overt surrealism. After watching it several times, however, I think that the film does have much akin with some of Bunuel’s most surrealist works. It may not feature the sorts of absurd situations or jarring imagery that he has become known for, but its subject matter and its treatment of sexuality are certainly the type of subversion that his outwardly surrealist films seek to achieve. The film also explores its protagonist’s subconscious, giving the audience full access to Severine’s dreams and sexual fantasies. Its focus on hidden or obscured objects as important symbolic devices is also a key trait of Bunuelian surrealism.
Released in 1967, Belle de Jour’s frank depiction of Severine’s sexuality and her position as a sexual being with desire and agency certainly ran counter to the prevailing depiction of women and their sexuality in the cinema. Even in the more “progressive” art cinema of the 1960s, women were still most frequently presented as objects of male desire, as muses, or as ingénues, all vessels for male fulfillment. Severine certainly does not fall into any of those types, as she is a complex and fully formed female character, who is certainly acutely aware of her own sexual desires, even if she may not always be able to express them. By the film’s end she is capable of both seeking out her own fulfillment, and separating her need for sexual fulfillment from the romantic love that she seems to feel for Pierre. Severine and Pierre’s relationship is also atypical in this way. On the surface their marriage is representative of the sorts of bourgeois values of monogamy, strict gender roles, and capitalist patriarchy that Bunuel is critical of, and it seems obvious that Severine must look outside of this relationship for sexual fulfillment. However, as Severine’s particular sexual fantasies are contingent upon masochism and shame, the strictures of her marriage must remain in place for her to gain that satisfaction. In fact, it seems that her capacity to feel romantic love towards Pierre increases as she continues to work in the brothel, as Severine seems genuine when she insists that she is warming to the idea of being able to be intimate with Pierre every day. Though she can only be satisfied sexually outside of her marriage, Severine recognizes and acknowledges that her love for Pierre is something separate, and also necessary to her overall satisfaction. Bunuel may be critiquing marriage as an institution, but he does not seem to be indicting romantic love, in general. This is a very surrealist line of thought that puts primacy towards the irrational or the fleetingly emotional, rather than staid institutions.
It could be tempting to read Severine’s masochistic fantasies as the creation of a male filmmaker who wishes to explore his own fantasies of female subjugation, but the film never presents them as such. Though her fantasy is to “give up” control, Severine is the author of her own fantasies and the beneficiary of any pleasure that is derived from them. When she articulates these fantasies in the real world in the brothel as Belle de Jour, Severine is still able to maintain control. When she is at the brothel, Severine is playing the role of Belle de Jour, which gives her a distance from her encounters with the johns, and maintains something of a veil of fantasy. She also maintains control through the professional nature of the encounters, in which she is financially empowered through the transactional nature of the sex act, and in which she can (and does) remove herself from the situation if she is uncomfortable. I’ll stop short of calling Belle de Jour a feminist film, because I do think that Deneuve is fetishized during certain portions of the film, and I think that Bunuel is really less interested in creating a film about liberating female sexuality than one that explores the themes of desire and fantasy, in general, however its depiction of a female protagonist as a knowing and active participant in the accomplishment of her own sexual fulfillment is a totally subversive idea for the time.
So the film is thematically subversive and surrealist, but it also has many of the trace elements of Bunuel’s style that are not as readily apparent upon just a single viewing. From the famous opening shot of Un Chien Andalou which depicts a woman’s eye being sliced open with a razor, Bunuel has had a fascination with eyes and vision, and Belle de Jour carries on this theme in an interesting way. The film is more interested in seeing and vision than in eyes, particularly. The most obvious example of this is in a scene in which Belle is instructed by Madame Anais (Geneviève Page) to watch through a peephole as one of the other prostitutes humiliates a male submissive. After Belle is rejected by the submissive for not being assertive enough, Anais takes her into an adjacent room and instructs her to watch the more seasoned prostitute, Charlotte (Francoise Fabian) as she indulges The Professor’s (Marcel Charvey) fantasy. Belle watches as The Professor is kicked and berated, but turns away in disgust when Charlotte begins to walk on his face at his request, but she returns to the peephole, guiltily, to sneak another peek. When Madame Anais asks her if she learned anything from her voyeuristic session, Belle feigns disgust and wonders how anyone can stoop so low, but her furtive second glance through the peephole and Deneuve’s pensive line delivery belie her recognition of a similar desire to her own. If eyes are the window to the soul, then the peephole acts as a window for Severine into her own subconscious and her own sexual desire.
This scene is immediately followed by another that shows off another Bunuelian cinematic staple, the obscured object. There are many instances in the cinema of Bunuel where objects are hidden, either literally in boxes, or figuratively where their meaning may be distorted or undercut by a mismatch with the soundtrack and image, or an unfamiliar juxtaposition. In the scene in Belle de Jour, after failing to please The Professor, Belle is presented with an Asian john who is carrying a mysterious buzzing box. Boxes and containers are important to Bunuel for their ability to conceal, but also as a symbol. The box itself is representative of the hidden depths of the subconscious, and of the potential for self-discovery for characters willing to open the box. Tellingly, Belle is willing to accept this client and his ominous box when the other prostitutes are fearful. At first she seems startled when she looks into the box, and hears the buzzing emanating from within, but she quickly finds her confidence. After their session, the john leaves, satisfied, with his strange box under his arm, while the brothel’s housekeeper, Pallas (Muni), enters the room to find it a mess, with a bloodied sheet on the floor. Belle is lying face-down on the bed, looking exhausted and unkempt, which causes Pallas to remark, “It must be hard.” To which Belle replies, lifting her head to reveal her smile of pleasure, “What would you know, Pallas?” This scene and the one immediately preceding it with the peephole depict Severine’s recognition and acceptance of her sexual desires in a decidedly Bunuelian fashion.
There were always things that I appreciated about Belle de Jour from the first time I saw it ten years ago. I think that it’s one of Bunuel’s most visually beautiful films, shot in rich Technicolor, the reds and oranges in the film pop off the screen. Catherine Deneuve’s performance has also always stood out to me. Though she was a professional actress with several high profile roles to her name already, Deneuve was only 22 when Belle de Jour was filmed, and she turns in a performance that belies her age. She deftly manages the subtle differences in personality while bouncing between her time as Severine and Belle de Jour. Although she later complained about the shoot, claiming that the final film showed more of her body than she was initially comfortable with, her unease doesn’t show in the final cut. The mixture of vulnerability and complicity that she exhibits is perfect.
With each subsequent viewing, I find more and more to enjoy about the film. Belle de Jour has many layers, and with each viewing I feel like I’m opening another layer of a nesting doll. As a more mature viewer, I can appreciate the sexual politics at play in the film, and as I’ve become more familiar with Bunuel’s cinema, I find more similarities in the film with the rest of his work. Despite this, I still don’t see Belle de Jour climbing into the ranks of my favorite Bunuel. It isn’t cutting enough for me, and it lacks some of the sinister undertones of my favorite of his films. However, it is never not an enjoyable watch, and I always come away with a new impression of the film, or a small detail that I hadn’t noticed previously, and really that should be enough to warrant continued viewings every few years.