Directed by: Luis Buñuel
Written by: Luis Buñuel & Jean-Claude Carrière
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Pierre Clémenti
Repressed sexual desires appear to be inexplicable at times, even with the psychological advances attempting to understand where it comes and how it manifests in our lives. Belle de Jour allows us to follow a woman seemingly fighting and acting on these desires while having everything someone would want in life.
Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) is married to a successful doctor named Pierre (Jean Sorel) and lives a seemingly happy life. She recently experiences some dreams that involve strongly sexual actions like bondage and domination all while not being able to be physically intimate with her husband. When she learns about a high-class brothel near her, she decides to work as a prostitute while her husband works.
The journey Séverine embarks on feels like such a singular voyage, but themes that arise from it says plenty about the way female sexuality gets suppressed through society. A topic with no shortage in the world of art but Belle de Jour runs it all through the experience of the woman and how she feels about it. The men in the story certainly play a part, but they don’t dominate the story, as it remains the story of Séverine and her sexuality. Examining her actions seem incredibly odd from the outside. She’s married to this handsome doctor, who wants to make love to her, which she happens to not be ready for. Instead, when she learns of this brothel, she yearns for the opportunity to have sex with strangers.
This sexual desire stems from her dreams, which typically involves her being in bondage and being handled very roughly by the men. Her turn as a prostitute could be a manifestation of guilt or a myriad of reasons but she commits to this profession secretly. She decides to do it from 2-5 PM so she could get home before her husband. Despite some initial hesitation right before she services her first client, she embraces this new venture. Things obviously get messy because she’s dealing with men and how possessive they get with women.
The brazen sexuality of the film for being made in 1967 is incredibly impressive and certainly could only be made in France at that time. Everything is handled so tastefully because the narrative remains focused on Séverine’s desires and reclaims a profession that has painted the women as victims to be something she fully engages with. She doesn’t need to do it for the money, it becomes something she wants to do. Séverine’s time in the brothel changes her confidence and demeanor, which opens her up in a way to eventually start making love to her own husband. It may be difficult to understand, but co-writer/director Luis Buñuel cares not about bringing understanding to the feature, but rather an acceptance to the agency Séverine desires.
Luis Buñuel ranks as one of the most respected directors of his time and with good reason in the way he looks at socially accepted standards and pushes against them. With something like Belle de Jour, he approaches the perception of deeply held sexual desires but also mocks the basic incapabilities of the rich in the Exterminating Angel and mawkish societal kindness in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. He navigates these topics typically through a comedic lens, at least in my estimations, but Belle de Jour certainly feels more dramatic. With each passing dream and day she spends in the brothel, Séverine pushes the limits of how much of this double life she can maintain.
Becoming one of her more iconic roles, Catherine Deneuve excellently portrays the exploratory Séverine. Through this performance, Deneuve creates a character who unquestionably possesses beauty but remains incredibly innocent about her desires and how to act upon them. Whether it be through her verbal movements that say as much as what she states, the acting legend helps this character in her journey to embrace what she enjoys and push back the stigmas that may surround it.
Beautifully photographed and emblematic of a larger issue that needs to be addressed, Belle de Jour captures a journey of freedom. Each of the men represents something that holds her back in life. They provide excitement, security, and intrigue in a way that allows her to find herself, but fulfillment will not be found in just one.