Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Essays

Belle de jour

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

Belle de jour is a circular film, curving its way surely and urbanely through fantasy, memory, and whatever reality one can distill from Buñuel’s surrealist solution. Probably the first bone of contention among critics of the film is how much reality, how much fantasy, and where each sector is located in this suave Buñuelian landscape. Depending on the reading, Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine/Belle de jour may have fantasized the whole of the film with no anchors in reality, she may be engaged in an act of exorcism which finally leads her to a kind of normality, or she may have ultimately ruptured the fragile barriers between her conscious life and the world that shapes itself out of the darkness behind her brain. Whether Buñuel is hypnotist or mesmerizer is moot; whether he has plunged his heroine into the darkness of insanity or caused a sunrise, a coming to terms with reality, is also open to question. Considering the bland banality of Séverine’s “reality,” itself a kind of madness which Buñuel has never ceased to send up with a discreet but nonetheless devastating charm, can acceptance of such a life be considered enlightenment? Her fantasies may be kinky but they’re certainly more fun, more richly devised and experienced, than anything that home, hearth, and hubby can provide. Perhaps what Buñuel has mesmerized Séverine (and us) into is a serenely crazy delight with the complete dissolution of distinctions like reality and fantasy into a rich warm soup blended of both. Buñuel knows what kind of spell movies may cast, and that we as viewers are not unlike Mme. Anaïs’ clients who buy the opportunity to frame and move and light their most private, cherished fantasies. Like Séverine, we turn from the peephole and exclaim in righteous disgust, “How can anyone sink so low!,” a half-smile of perverse fascination playing about our lips. We should not feel diminished for all that, for Buñuel’s discreet and amiable charm is all-encompassing; he subjects no one’s fetish to contempt, only to the goodnatured amusement of an old roué who is surprised by nothing, but is endlessly delighted with the conventions of bourgeois perversity. Consequently, we do not move from scene to scene in Belle de jour impelled by a sense of urgency that Séverine “get well” or go crazy with a vengeance; rather, we are satisfied with permission to participate in the picaresque sexual adventures she either fantasizes or realizes in her pilgrimage from neurotic innocence through exotic sin to that ambiguous endgame played within her mind.

Belle de Jour

From the moment that coach comes jingling down that autumnal landscape, we are seduced by Séverine’s (and Buñuel’s) vision of things: the coach moves slowly, but inexorably, towards us, taking a long time, but finally picking us up as it passes and carrying us on with it. It’s all so plausible, and therefore well within the amenities, that this nice young couple who seem to be at sexual odds should suddenly begin to act out a pulp-fiction version of de Sade. In those brief moments of dialogue we are already a little contemptuous, exasperated with Pierre’s insufferable “kindness,” his wilting in the face of his ice-princess’s frigidity. Secure in her little red dress of impeccable cut, porcelainized and remote, Séverine invites violation, mussing up. We cast our vote entirely with Séverine’s unconscious, with its solution to her adamantine virginity. Dragged, stripped, whipped, and raped by the coachmen, Séverine apologizes to Pierre (at a figurative peephole) “It’s not my fault”—what? her frigidity or the mode of her pleasure? “Don’t let the cats loose,” she begs—which under the circumstances verges on the hilarious, but also makes irrational sense since cats, in dream analysis, are associated with passion and sexuality.

Just when we’re hoping that Pierre will indeed let the cats loose, we find ourselves ensconced in comfortable reality where Pierre goes dutifully off to his single bed and his little china doll gives him the clue to their sexual contretemps: “Forgive me, you’re so kind.” Husson, Pierre’s friend, would get the message: as he ogles pretty girls at the ski lodge he muses “What punishments I am missing!”; and later, when his unacknowledged visit inspires Séverine to imaginatively replay this same scene, he will accompany her under the table with a broken bottle, the better to seduce her, while Pierre nervously inquires as the table bumps up and down, “What are they doing?” But then, Pierre is a Boy Scout, and Husson is … the Devil, perhaps, tempting Séverine out of her compartmentalized neuroses into the actualization of her sexual fantasies. (In his next movie, The Milky Way, Buñuel would appropriately cast Michel Piccoli—Husson—as the Marquis de Sade.) That (real or imagined) movement is traced from fantasy (Séverine’s legs, her nylons pulled down about her ankles, dragging through a drift of autumn leaves) through reality (her feet beside some spilled perfume) to memory (the little girl Séverine’s legs up which the camera rises to view her passively receiving a workman’s caresses) to her smartly shod feet mounting the stairs toward Mme. Anaïs’ establishment—which, according to interpretation, may or may not be a real event.

Catherine Deneuve in ‘Belle de jour’

Real or not, Séverine’s ascent to the genteel brothel lets loose the cats for her as Pierre’s paternal tuckings-in never could. Almost everyone at Mme. Anaïs’ place gets Séverine’s number at once: “What you need is a firm hand,” says Anaïs, and shoves her back in to Adolphe the candy manufacturer, who turns her on with some “rough stuff.” (“Forgive me, Pierre, you’re so kind.”) Ritual bath and bra-burning over, Séverine dreams happily of black bulls (who, like cats, have names like Expiation and Remorse). Husson inquires of her husband “How’s the soup?” and Pierre querulously replies, “It’s cold and I can’t warm it.” “How’s your wife?” Cut to steaming dung being shoveled into a can; soon Husson is slinging shit over the white-clad Séverine, who assures Pierre (as usual) “I love you.” Sex is all bound up with sin and pain for Séverine; in order to warm up, she must be besmirched, her passivity must be attacked and violently breached. Thus, she’s badly cast as sadist to the gynecologist’s masochist; even he is a much more active participant in his humiliate-the-butler scenario, caging “the marquise” on with bug-eyed confessions of broken vases and secret lechery, entreating her to step on his face, etc.

After Adolphe, who bears the gift of a spring-action snake-in-the-box, comes a smiling oriental (with a Geisha Club credit card!) who further contributes to Belle de jour’s sexual education with a mysterious something, also in a box, that buzzes.* Whatever it is (and Buñuel allows our imaginations full rein), it draws blood, causing the little maid Pallas to murmur sympathetically to the prone Belle de jour, “I’d be afraid too. It must be painful sometimes.” Séverine’s pleasure-bleared face comes up from under that mane of blonde hair and, smiling secretly, she retorts, “How would you know?” She segues luxuriously into a full-fledged fantasy of necrophilia and incest, “a very moving religious ceremony” in which the cats almost get loose but the host fends them off by humping solitarily under his surrogate daughter’s coffin. Home again, clad in her virginal, little-girl’s nightgown, she crawls into bed with Pierre, who worries about imposing on her.

Marcel the thug, whose prop is a knife in a cane, marks a turning point in Belle de jour’s fantasy life. He is more autonomous than any of the other characters. We see him at large with Hyppolite, free to act outside of the limit of Séverine’s perception. Also, he is a fake, a failure at being a genuinely sadistic stud. His whole performance during their first encounter, his strutting arrogance (“Many would like to be in your place”—i.e., in bed with him), his rejection of her because of her birthmark, is calculated to get him off the hook of actually having to perform. His vulgarity and sloppy dandyism stands in strong contrast to her upper-middle-class, impersonal chic. As he becomes more enslaved (remember Husson’s reason for liking the brothel atmosphere: “women there are completely enslaved”), she begins to become more her own person, to behave with more animation and verve, almost as though she had created him as a kind of lightning rod to draw off some of her own obsessions and compulsions. Appropriately, after Husson’s discovery of her secret life, it is Marcel who will force the collision of both worlds—if indeed they do collide. The quality of the sequence in which Marcel shoots Pierre and then does running battle with the police is pure melodrama, bad Breathless, and might well be the sort of thing that Séverine would conjure up in her bourgeois mind’s eye. I suspect that Marcel’s appearance in her home (territory of the normal) dislodges some keystone of sanity in Séverine. The first shot after the hospital sequence is of a building which dissolves into banked autumn trees (the only dissolve in the film), that landscape in which Séverine’s first fantasy of rape and humiliation took place. Inside a rain-(tear-?)streaked window, Séverine, dressed in a chic little nun’s dress with a tiny white collar, ministers to her vegetable husband. Is this the expiation so devoutly wished for? “Since your accident I’ve not been dreaming,” she tells him in his wheelchair. When one is wholly taken by the dream, then of course one would cease to believe one was dreaming. Husson’s therapeutic truth is delivered while a clock chimes—always a signal that Séverine’s perceptions may not be entirely in touch with reality. After Husson’s departure, Séverine reenters, the camera following her around the room, Pierre remaining conspicuously out of frame. Finally, the camera reveals what she and we have avoided seeing: the effects of Husson’s “kind” cruelty, tears wetting the cheeks of that blind face. She begins to do needlepoint (remember Anaïs’ eloquent gesture explaining Belle de jour’s popularity: “as easy as threading a needle”), then stops and looks at Pierre. Several disjointed, sharply cut shots of Pierre follow as though to visualize some seismographic shift in perception. Séverine smiles, bells ring, and comes the question with which the film began, “What are you thinking about, Séverine?” She continues the litany: “About you, Pierre.” A cat miaows; Pierre takes off his dark glasses and gets up. They embrace. Séverine goes to the window, serene, and watches the empty coach drive up the familiar avenue. It passes moves on, and the camera holds on the russet leaves over which it drove. The passing of an obsession? Or the seamless merging of two planes of reality?

Belle de Jour Title Card

Love among Buñuel’s bourgeoisie is fantastically convoluted, laced with equal portions of voluptuous sin and sterile virtue. Buñuel’s people always seem to be locked within the strangest sorts of proprieties, so that even their breaches in polite behavior result in a kind of institutionalized outrageousness, or perversity. Séverine never sins very mightily, her fantasies are those of a “precocious schoolgirl” who hasn’t yet read The Story of O. Like Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, Séverine’s “problems” seem to have their origins (though far less directly) in her Catholic childhood. But while Juliet manages to free her “little girl” from the bondage of the past, thus freeing herself as a woman, Sé6vcrine moves from childhood to transitory womanhood and then falls back into playing little girl to Pierre’s priest-like father, who at the end offers her a mountain retreat (as he earlier gave a vacation by the sea) as substitutes for excursions into sexuality at home. Sex in Belle de jour is always a matter of props and prods, snakes and buzzing in boxes, whips and belts, knives in canes, broken bottles, surrogates for the real thing. Certain proprieties of costume are necessary: keep the bra on; take off the bra, but leave on the pants; keep all your clothes on, dress up or down for the occasion. Each of the principals in this series of sexual vignettes refuses or is unable to get to the heart of the matter, to face and deal with sex unadorned or un–tricked-up. Even Séverine’s tempter is rather put off by her gaffe, her fall from grace, as though he in his own way is just another pillar of the bourgeois community. In such a world, love, sex, can only be an unfulfilled wound, and thus Séverine’s vision of supreme pleasure always takes the form of mutilation or humiliation. That way you can pay for your pleasure while you’re having it.

But Buñuel never savages the participants in this comedy of sexual manners; his camera inscribes circular movements about them like a non-compulsive voyeur with a kinkily cathartic sense of humor. He possesses an inimitable eye for the beauty of banality, the pornography of proprieties, and the sublime madness of civilized life.

France, 1966. Direction: Luis Buñuel. Screenplay: Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, after the novel by Joseph Kessel. Cinematography (Eastmancolor): Sacha Vierny. Art direction: Robert Clavel. (101 minutes)
The Players: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Geneviève Page, Pierre Clémenti, Francisco Rabal, Macha Meril, Françoise Fabian, Maria Latour, Francis Blanche, Francis Maistre, Iska Khan, Georges Marchal, Muni, Dominique Dandrieux, Brigitte Parmentier.

Copyright © 1975 by Kathleen Murphy