“Belle de Jour” is the first of four back to back movies in French. It is not as bad as it sounds, only one of these is by Godard, and the first to feature Catherine Deneuve and that cannot be a bad thing.
“Belle de Jour” is a movie by Bunuel, who seemed to travel the world to make movies. Knowing Bunuel we are in for something out of the ordinary and he does not disappoint on that account. The opening scene alone where Deneuve’s Severine dreams she is taken for a ride in a horsecar only to be dragged out by three men, stripped, bull-whipped and then “had” by one of the men, is so spectacularly different from standard fare that we know we are in for a ride here.
Severine is married to Pierre (Jean Sorel), a surgeon, and live a comfortable upper, or sub-upper, class life. Severine is a controlled ice queen who has difficulty being physical with her husband. Instead she phantasies about being sexually humiliated and losing control, essentially the opposite of her real-life situation. Severine is painfully aware of this dichotomy and is trying to find some way to realize this fantasy without compromising her ordinary life. Instinctively she feels that exploring that avenue can unlock her sexually.
When she hears about a brothel, she decides to try it out and become a prostitute, only, living out your fantasy is not an easy thing and being a prostitute is not a romance. Yet Severine persevere and find fulfillment in being degraded from two to five every weekday. It actually does wonders to her relationship with her husband. That is, until the gangster Marcel (Pierre Clémenti) shows up. He falls in love with Severine and wants her all the time, not just between two and five. This comes to a clash where Marcel shoots and cripple Pierre only to get himself killed by the police. Pierre being helpless and learning about Severine’s “fall” apparently sets Severine entirely free.
There is a lot here I do understand and is very interesting. Severine’s attempt to unlock her sexuality through degradation oddly enough makes sense. There is a part of her she is suppressing and somehow she has to deal with it, her marriage depends on it. It is not the easiest thing to go up to your husband and tell him you want him to throw mud at you, but that is not what this is about. Sexual interaction is forbidden by Severine in her virginal state. She must crush that shell to unlock her sexuality and become a “bad” girl. Being degraded makes her “bad”. Freedom is not to have to be clean. I also understand that Marcel is a personification of her “bad” side, while Pierre is her “good” side and their annihilation means that she can reconcile her two parts, but this part of the movie did not work as well for me as the first part. On the face of it it seems that we are leaving the story of Severine trying to heal herself through the rather dangerous double life she is living, to jump into a deadly love triangle with guns and violence. It is a change of pace and topic that feels out of touch with the preceding part of the movie. Only by reading it symbolically does it fit together, and I am not entirely enamored with these literary tricks. Also, I think it is a bit excessive that Pierre has to be ruined for Severine to be healed. Less should do it.
“Belle de Jour” is a beautiful film. The restored Blu-ray version I watched has bright and sharp colors and the people, Deneuve particularly, look gorgeous. I am certain that is intended, Severine has to be a fallen angel. Considering the topic this could easily have been a very lurid movie, but we actually see remarkably little actual action. Even the discourse avoids the vulgar and coarse and I suppose this is why the movie actually works, rather than being an exposé on depravity. It is tempting to link this movie to the much later movie “La Pianiste” where Isabelle Huppert is a woman with a similar problem, but that one does go overboard in sexual excess and becomes very uncomfortable to watch, something “Belle de Jour” never does.
It is a recommendation from me.