The cinematic father of surrealism, Luis Buñuel, wrote and directed Belle de Jour, a film adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s novel of the same name. Sexually charged and evocative, it is a powerhouse of a film and has, duly, become one of the most iconic of its era.
Frigid, upper-class Séverine, played by Catherine Deneuve, is happily married to a handsome surgeon (Jean Sorel) but her violent sexual fantasies, brought on by what is suggested to be sexual abuse as a child, often causes the line between what’s real and what’s imagined to become blurred. After visiting a brothel, she reluctantly decides to spend her afternoons as a prostitute, adopting the name Belle de Jour, as suggested by the confident manager of the brothel, Anais (Geneviève Page). Séverine soon adapts to her new clandestine routine, but when Marcel, one of her clients, starts to become possessive of her and shatters the dream world she had been so confident with as a means of hiding from her tortured mind.
I have an idea. Would you like to be called “Belle de Jour”?
Belle de Jour?
Since you only come in the afternoons.
If you wish.
The film is erotic and haunting without the explicitness found in many films of its type, and in the forty-seven years since its release, it has proven to have stood the test of time and remains as effective and enthralling as the day it was first released. Its surrealism and the voyeuristic way in which the film is seen heightens the power of the unexplained scenes and shots that leave viewers with a sense of intrusion on Séverine’s life.
Deneuve plays Séverine with a subtlety and that has often led to her performance being labeled as ‘emotionless’ and ‘icy’, but it is this quiet intensity that brings such a depth to the film. Her unparalleled beauty makes her painful ordeal even more intense and powerful for viewers, and only increases our sympathy for the troubled woman.
Page’s gives a captivating performance as Anais, and shows her honest interest in the comfort of the women whilst also striving for a successful business. It is clear that she is content with her lifestyle, which comes across as quite powerful given the negative feelings often associated with prostitution.
The sound effects and camera techniques used throughout the film are significant in that they can bring out deeper meanings of particular shots, while also leaving parts of the story up to the interpretation of the viewers, making it a unique experience for each person. Despite the open ended and unexplained fashion of the film, it is a thought provoking and wondrous viewing experience. The recurring image of a horse and cart reverts your imagination back to childhood and gives a plaintive insight into Séverine’s broken youth.
Why can’t you understand? I’m lost. I can’t help it. I can’t resist it. I know I’ll pay dearly. I really can’t live without it.
Belle de Jour is a delicately haunting film and a must-see that always warrants another viewing, even if just to see a different point of view or a different understanding of it. The performances, the artistic cinematography and the beautifully strange settings come together to create one of the most impressive films of the twentieth century.