Belle de jour

Director: Luis Buñuel
Screenplay: Luis Buñuel & Jean-Claude Carrière (based on the novel by Joseph Kessel)
Stars: Catherine Deneuve (Séverine Serizy), Jean Sorel (Pierre Serizy), Michel Piccoli (Henri Husson), Geneviève Page (Madame Anaïs), Pierre Clémenti (Marcel), Françoise Fabian (Charlotte), Macha Méril (Renee), Muni (Pallas), Maria Latour (Mathilde), Michel Charrel (Footman), Iska Khan (Asian client), Bernard Musson (Majordomo), Marcel Charvey (Prof. Henri)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1967
Country: U.S.
Belle de Jour Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Belle de JourIn Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour, Catherine Deneuve plays Séverine Serizy, a blank-faced bourgeois housewife who learns how to feed her inner masochist when she begins prostituting herself during weekday afternoons at a tony Parisian brothel. The film was released the same year as Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, which also concerns seemingly “respectable” housewives prostituting themselves, although Godard’s interest in prostitution is primarily metaphorical, serving as a means to comment on the soul-draining demands of modern consumer culture, whereas for Buñuel it is psychological. He’s fascinated by the internal divides that allow Séverine to live two separate lives even though he openly resisted traditionally “psychological” interpretations of his films. Belle de jour, however, demands such a reading. A character study with surreal interludes and a rare film in which Buñuel depicts a member of the upper class with some sympathy and depth, it has a luxurious surface texture and was the first film Buñuel shot in color. However, it is at is most provocative when working in the strange netherworld of eroticism that is as disquieting as it is arousing, a painful conflation that beats at the heart of Buñuel’s sardonic worldview.

In a departure from the book by French journalist and novelist Joseph Kessel, Buñuel and co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (with whom he worked on five other films during his late period) introduce Séverine in her inner fantasy world, which is driven by conscious daydreams of humiliation, brutalization, and even rape. These fantasies contrast sharply with her placid home life, where she is married to a handsome and doting surgeon named Pierre (Jean Sorel) who is so decent that he maintains composure every time she rejects his sexual advances even though they have been married for a year. Séverine’s sexual frigidity in her marriage belies her fantasy world, which is why she finds herself drawn to an upscale brothel in Paris run by Anaïs (Geneviève Page), an elegant, but demanding madam. There is much dialogue about the hidden nature of modern French prostitution, about how the red lights have been removed and it has essentially gone “underground” since the war, which fits perfectly with Séverine’s hidden sexual longings. It is only “underground” that she can submit to her own carnal desires.

Belle de jour is a tricky film in this regard, as it simultaneously challenges conventional sexual orthodoxy by embracing Séverine’s liberation via prostitution while also indulging in potentially problematic territory that equates female sexual desire with submission and humilation. The film moves back and forth between her lived experience and her inner fantasy world in ways that are often unmarked, which obscures the divide to the point that, by the end of the film, they are literally overlapping. The idea that Séverine is, in psychoanalytic terms, a masochist is never explicitly discussed in the film, and there is little explicit psychologizing to be found (Buñuel limits Séverine’s past to an extremely brief glimpse of her being molested as an adolescent and her subsequent refusal to accept communion, possibly out of guilt). The film’s Freudian subtext is patently clear in retrospect, even if it is limited only to Séverine. We know (or really care) little about Pierre except that he is decent and bland, while virtually all of the other male characters are clients at the brothel exercising their paternalistic economic and sexual privilege (which here is one in the same). Thus, while one could charge that the film is misogynistic in its limiting of female sexuality to Séverine’s masochism, it does no better with the male characters with the exception of Pierre. Male sexuality in the film is best exemplified in Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli), an unapologetic libertine who first tells Séverine about Anaïs’s brothel.

Thus, for Buñuel, a committed surrealist and provocateur, human sexuality, especially among the bourgeoisie, is just another form of absurdity that leads to misunderstanding and tragedy (he had already explored this is more directly comical terms in 1964’s Diary of a Chambermaid, his first collaboration with Carrière). In this case, tragedy ensues from the collapse of Séverine’s two worlds, an event precipitated by her relationship with Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), a thuggish dandy-gangster with gold teeth and a cane who becomes sexually obsessed with her. He views his obsession as love, but his ultimate goal is simple possession, yet another of the film’s obvious swipes at the violence of male desire.

The fact that we can never fully reconcile Séverine and her actions is crucial to its meaning. When asked what she wants, Séverine’s answer is “I don’t know,” and we believe her. She doesn’t know exactly what she wants and why she does what she does, and neither do we. The casting of Deneuve, a rising star who had previously played both sexual psychosis in Roman Polanski’s Replusion (1965) and lighthearted charm in Jacques Demy’s musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), is essential in this regard. Deneuve’s blankness as an actress in her early years matches perfectly with Séverine’s lack of self-understanding, and we find ourselves searching her countenance—in vain, as it turns out—for some indication of what is happening inside her mind. From a feminist perspective, it is easy to argue that Belle de jour is both liberating and repressive, but its true message is that we are all on some level inscrutable.

Belle de jour Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Belle de jour is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioFrench PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Michael Wood
  • Video interview with writer and activist Susie Bright and film scholar Linda Williams
  • Video interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière
  • Segment from the French television program Cinéma, featuring interviews with Carrière and actress Catherine Deneuve
  • Original and rerelease trailers
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Melissa Anderson and a 1970s interview with director Luis Buñuel
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 17, 2012

    Criterion originally released Belle de jour on laser disc following its restoration and limited theatrical re-release in 1997. That transfer was then repurposed by Miramax for its 2002 DVD. Thus, the film has been due a new release for some time, and Criterion delivers powerfully with a digitally restored, 1080p high-definition transfer made from a 35mm interpositive. The image is brighter and more defined and features vastly improved contrast over both the old laser disc and Miramax DVD. Colors are bright and clean (although they reflect the general hue of a late-’60s film), all instances of age and wear have been removed, and detail is excellent throughout. The transfer maintains a fine sheen of film grain that has not been apparent in previous transfers, and skin tones appear warm and natural (although Deneuve’s retains that all-important porcelain sheen). There are also no complaints with the clean, uncompressed monaural soundtrack, which was transferred 24-bit from a 35mm print and digitally restored.
    Criterion has also improved their Blu-Ray release via new supplements, starting with a newly recorded audio commentary by film scholar Michael Wood, who teaches at Princeton and wrote the BFI Classics volume on Belle de jour. He knows the film inside and out, and he offers nuanced readings of various scenes along with informative background information about the production and the artists involved. Also contributing to the film’s analysis are writer and activist Susie Bright and film scholar Linda Williams, who discuss their views on the film from a feminist perspective in an 18-minute video interview. Screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière also contributes a new interview running about 11 minutes in which he discusses his working relationship with Buñuel. Finally, the disc includes a brief segment from a 1966 episode of the French television program Cinéma that features interviews with Carrière and Catherine Deneuve during the film’s production, as well as the original theatrical trailer, the original U.S. trailer (which basically frames the film as soft-core porn made by a European artist), and the 1997 re-release trailer. The insert booklet contains a new essay by critic Melissa Anderson and a 1970s interview with Buñuel excerpted from the book Objects of Desire: Conversations With Luis Buñuel.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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