Belle de Jour “was my biggest commercial success, which I attribute more to the marvellous whores than to my direction” (Luis Buñuel)
There are very few films that effectively examine female erotic fantasies (coming-of-age sexuality tales, on the other hand, are a different story). Belle de Jour – Luis Buñuel’s exploration of one woman’s inner fantasies and desires – is far from perfect but, almost 50 years after its release, it remains one of the best-known erotic films, thanks in no small part to Catherine Deneuve’s cool, unassuming performance, which is the perfect blank canvas for debauchery. More than any other film from the actresses’ first decade, the role defined the ‘Deneuve’ persona: a blank slate onto which audience and filmmaker’s fantasies could be projected.
Yet Deneuve’s poised exterior masked turmoil. Filming encompassed everything from nudity to flogging and being pelted with muck, and in a 2004 interview with Pascal Bonitzer she observed: They showed more of me than they said they were going to … There were moments when I felt totally used”. That showing doesn’t just refer to the flesh (Deneuve was reportedly unhappy with that, although in retrospect there’s perhaps not as much nudity as you’d expect in an ‘erotic film’). This is about a character laying herself – and her fantasies – bare. Doing things that both the audience and the character doesn’t expect.
Based on a novel by Joseph Kessel, the film charts the sexual awakening of Séverine (Deneuve), a refined-but-bored Parisian housewife who spends her afternoons working in a brothel. Unlike her co-workers, she’s not there for the money. She’s there to learn something about herself and better understand her repressed desires which, as the audience learns from the opening scene, border on masochistic. For Séverine, the gulf between fantasy and reality is vast. She fetishes torture, kidnap, whipping. She wants to control pleasure and pain – both her own and that of her partners. In reality, she and her surgeon husband sleep in separate (single) beds, wearing practical night garments.
Buñuel deals with eroticism from the inside out – Belle de Jour is less about the physical manifestation of desire, more about how it exists in the mind and how those imagined fantasies can blur with reality. Much of the film deals with the dichotomy between ‘truth’ and ‘fantasy’. Consider again that startling opening scene – what we first take to be real and shocking is actually imagined. Yet later, after Séverine starts working at Madame Anais’ discreet brothel, the coach from her fantasies appears in real life, and whisks her away to a country manor where she is required to entertain a local Duke (Georges Marchal) by posing as his dead daughter and lying in a coffin. Is the experience real? Or imagined? In the end, it doesn’t really matter – it’s whatever the viewer needs it to be. Similarly, the small lacquered box that a client brings to the brothel. The first girl is disturbed by its contents. Séverine is initially cautious, but the scene cuts away – deliberately ambiguous. It’s impossible to discern what exactly happened. Of course, what’s in the box is of little consequence. Buñuel cares only about the symbolic truth.
Although Buñuel was famously resistant to psychological interpretations of his films and the characters he created, there’s a ring of authenticity to Belle de Jour. In fact, real women inspired all of Séverine’s fantasies. During production, the director and his co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière met with psychiatrists, prostitutes and brothel owners to discover female fantasies and how they manifested in the everyday. Perhaps aware that an all-male production team created the movie, it was important to root the movie in real stories. As a result much of the narrative, which appears to be real, is fake. It’s the fantasies that are true. As with much of the film, ‘truth’ is nothing more than a deception.
Belle de Jour might chart Séverine’s sexual awakening, but she remains an enigma. Short montages (a brief glimpse of her being molested, a communion refusal) may hint at the root, but the truth is never revealed. Why do her husband’s advances repel her, yet gangster Marcel (Pierre Clémenti) swagger attract her? On his first brothel visit, she tells him: “for you, there is no charge”. His metallic teeth, leather jacket, swordstick and arrogant swagger are far removed from her refined, bourgeois world. They embark on an ill-advised affair with tragic consequences, but its Séverine’s attraction to what he represents that allows her to risk everything she has. Really he’s nothing more than a prop, one that’s able to corrupt her vision of who she is simply because he is her opposite.
Most, perhaps all, of Séverine’s fantasies put her in the centre, and although she is never exploited, neither is she fully empowered. At the film’s close, the audience isn’t exactly sure what will become of her. She is both vamp and victim; one that pays a cruel price to uncover something that existed beneath the surface. What’s pleasurable might deviate from the socially-accepted norm, but there’s a price to pay for discovering it. And of course, because her liberation is obtained via submission and humility, it’s easy to argue that the film is in fact repressive. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Or perhaps we should take Buñuel’s lead and allow it to be whatever we need it to be.
Some notes on the costume
One of the most important facets of Séverine’s inscrutability is her impeccable, elegant wardrobe, designed by Yves Saint Laurent. Reports suggest that Buñuel and Saint Laurent had a tough job convincing Deneuve not to wear short skirts in the movie in a time when mini-skirts were in fashion, but the decision certainly worked in the film’s favour – it remains one of the most iconic looks in celluloid history.
Séverine’s wardrobe works on two levels: the smart military details (double breasted closures and epaulettes) allow her to present a smart façade to Parisian society, but also represent the structure and rigour that she exerts on her own lief. Luxurious fabrics (fur) and unexpected textures (vinyl and leather) hint at her ‘dark side’ but are also perfectly in tune with the bourgeois. Her contradictory nature plays out in the garments she wears. It’s testament to Laurent’s talent though that although the clothes are undeniably beautiful and perfectly constructed they never overtake the scene or the character – Séverine might not be fully in touch with who she is, but she knows how to present the impression of control.