Severine (Catherine Deneuve) learning her new trade.
For our last VV&T (Vixens, Vamps, and Tramps) movie of the month, we journey to France.
Belle De Jour is a disturbing and fascinating film by that great master of surrealism, director Luis Bunuel (1900-1983). On its face, the plot is fairly simple: An upper-class Parisian housewife is bored with her oh-so-perfect marriage and decides to work at a high-class brothel during the afternoon. Her working sobriquet is “Belle De Jour,” lady/beauty of the day, as opposed to “lady of the night.” Eventually, her working and domestic lives clash, with tragic consequences.
This is a Bunuel film, and so of course there’s much more than what lies on the surface of this story. Bunuel is well-known for creating sequences that mix dream scapes with reality. For example, Belle De Jour begins with the main character, Severine, taking a buggy ride with her husband in the country. They get into an argument, and the husband suddenly orders the coachmen to remove Severine from the coach and brutalize her. We realize part way through this scene that something is off. Sure enough, the entire sequence is actually a rape fantasy in which Severine indulges as she and her husband retire for the night.
Bored housewives having erotic daydreams are nothing new to the cinema. What makes this story interesting is the way that Bunuel effortlessly goes back and forth between Severine’s actual life and her fantasy life, to the point that we begin to wonder what is truly real for this woman.
Early in the story, Severine finds out from an acquaintance that there is a secret brothel where ordinary upper-class women can earn extra money as prostitutes. Intrigued, Severine locates such a place and is soon employed. But her reactions to the clients, the madam, the other prostitutes and her new situation are strangely muted; she seems to be sleepwalking through the whole experience. The workers and clients at the brothel don’t emote or react much either; they are very matter of fact in greeting the new girl, and then undressing her so that she can get down to business. The whole experience is like one of those dreams where you are partially or completely undressed, yet no one in the dream is really paying much attention. Is it possible that some or all of this prostitute stuff is, in fact, one of Severine’s fantasies?
By the end of the film, Severine has left the brothel and is back with her husband, who has been severely injured by a gunman involved with the madam’s shady business. As the husband sits half-comatose in a wheelchair, Severine looks out the window and we witness what she sees: The buggy scene from the beginning of the film. We’re back in Severine’s head again. We’re also left with this question: Who’s the real Severine? Is she the immaculate housewife, or the prostitute?
Catherine Deneuve essentially carries this film, and she’s perfect for the role. Her beautiful, mask-like face barely registers anything as she walks like a somnambulist through the most extreme incidents at the brothel and in her private fantasies. Rather than using muted lighting or black and white to play up the smuttiness of the situation, Bunuel uses brighter lighting and clear colors in all scenes, which enables the director to smoothly switch the main character back and forth between her pristine domestic life and sordid working life.
You can download Belle De Jour from amazon.com by clicking onto the following link:
Your can purchase a Blu-Ray DVD version of this film from amazon.com by clicking onto the following link:
Pluses: Good performance from Catherine Deneuve. Expert melding of real-life and dream sequences.
Minus: Although there are no explicit sex scenes, the implied sex and violence in this film may not be for the squeamish. If you are a fan of Luis Bunuel, you will like the film. If not, you may not find the subject matter to your taste.
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Genevieve Page.
Director: Luis Bunuel
R (Implied sexual scenes, implied sexual violence)
Subtitled in English (originally in French)
Length: 1 hour 40 minutes