Luis Buñuel, 1967
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Genevieve Page, Pierre Clementi
Sexy, sweet, dreamy, and sad, Belle de Jour may not be for everyone, but it is a subtle treasure for the right viewer. It's frequently pegged as an erotic masterpiece, but, like most of Buñuel's films, it's more difficult to classify. Eroticism certainly plays a large part in the film, but the sex scenes, both in Severine's daily reality and in her fantasies, are subtle and understated, never revealing much nudity or brutality. Coupled with frequent fantasy sequences, this gives the film a dreamy, almost innocent quality. Building on this, Belle de Jour is also partly about a woman's sexual coming-of-age.
Catherine Deneuve plays Severine, a young, seemingly innocent French housewife who loves her husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel), but has trouble engaging in physical intimacy. Pierre is gentle and understanding, and is deeply in love with his wife despite their marital limitations. Unbeknownst to Pierre, Severine has elaborate masochistic sexual fantasies involving domination, humiliation, torture, and rape. She represses them as long as she is able, but stumbles across a high class brothel where she reluctantly gains employment as a day-time prostitute. Somewhat ashamed, but finally able to express her exorcise her hidden desires, Severine starts up a relationship with a young gangster, Marcel (the AMAZING Pierre Clémenti of Sweet Movie and Porcile). Exhilarated by her encounters with the increasingly obsessed lad, Severine is unfortunately spotted by her husband's friend and decides to give up her double life. Marcel unfortunately has other plans, propelling the film toward its semi-tragic, ambiguous ending.
Based on a 1928 novel by Joseph Kessel, “belle de jour” is a French term for the day lily, a flower that blooms only during bright hours of daylight. Severine’s character does provide a strong contrast between herself as the “flower of the day” and the other women of the brothel who are clearly hardened “ladies of the evening.” Her innocence, despite the sexual subject matter, is unwavering, even when she enjoys her explicit relationship with Marcel. Catherine Deneuve is incredibly beautiful, as always. She is perfect as Severine and I couldn't imagine anyone else in the role. The casting in general is fantastic. Jean Sorel is sympathetic and likable as the husband, and of course Pierre Clémenti is wonderful as Marcel. He is sexy (yes, even with his grill), dangerous, and unpredictable.
Belle de Jour captures an almost brutal level of emotional honesty. It catalogs some of the difficulties of married life, even in relationships where there is very deep love. In particular, it addresses the divide between sexual and emotional love and the necessity of both. Pierre, though he desperately loves Severine, has no idea what she is doing during the day, let alone what goes on in her head. And the writing is genuinely challenging, particularly the ending. It could have easily been a tragic film (Pierre dies, Marcel lives, and Severine becomes a total crack whore) or happy one (Marcel dies, Severine comes clean, and Pierre forgives her), but instead Severine must live with the consequences of her actions. She is not given an immediate punishment or reward and she and Pierre are stuck, literally in Pierre’s case, inside their own heads to contemplate the future.
The DVD I’m reviewing is a bare bones release from Miramax. The only real special feature is a commentary track with Julie Jones, a Buñuel scholar. I HATE when DVDs don’t get an insert. I don’t always need a booklet full of essays and stills, but seriously, Miramax. You couldn’t even just give a cheap reproduction of the film poster with the chapter listings?
Edit: There is a fabulously restored Criterion edition with a slew of long awaited special features -- and an insert.