Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière
Sometimes, it’s pointless, even impossible, to try to understand our personal proclivities. It’s an unavailing form of discourse that attempts to rationalize something pre-ordained and unchangeable.
We may never know why we desire things outside the norm of acceptable behaviour; all we know is that we want it.
As Woody Allen once famously said, “The heart wants what it wants”.
This is the case in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, a film about ‘what’ and ‘how’, but not about ‘why’. It’s a manifestation of a woman’s fantasy, whether in reality or in make-believe, and an erotic case study designed to gauge its causal effect.
In it, Catherine Deneuve stars as Séverine Serizy, a young housewife that’s grown distant and uncommunicative with her doctor husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel). Unbeknownst to her husband, and as a constant source of conflict for herself, Séverine is a masochist.
We get a sense of this in the film’s first scene, where she and her husband are riding in a horse drawn carriage. After rejecting an innocuous conversation with Pierre, he pulls over, forcefully takes her out, with the help of the drivers, and proceeds to physically humiliate her.
Finally, he lets one of the drivers take advantage of her, and upon the first touch, we can see the ecstasy and pleasure on Séverine’s face. Our initial shock is compounded when the movie cuts and we see that this is all in her imagination, her daydream. Her fantasy.
Sex and love are two different things for her, and although Pierre is more than sufficient in the responsibilities of the latter, he cannot satisfy her in the former, mainly due to Séverine particular fetish and because of his vanilla disposition. Clearly this makes her conflicted, and more than a little unhappy, and, in the same vein as American Beauty, she decides to challenge what’s expected of her.
Following a conversation with a friend about the clandestine world of prostitution, Séverine is enraptured with the idea. As a bourgeois, well-to-do housewife with the perfect husband and no financial worries to speak of, prostitution would seem like a despicable and debauch form of living. She would be looked down upon if she did, and she knows that. That’s why she decides to do it.
When Séverine is ingratiated into the world of prostitution, she adopts Belle de Jour as her nom de plume, a reference to the Belle de Nuit, the French patois for prostitutes.
There, she is immersed with clients that also have strange sexual peccadilloes. For example, there is a man known as the ‘Professor’ whom, in the middle of a self-deprecating sexual act with one of the prostitutes, asks for a pen. Why does he want a pen? What is he going to do with it?
Buñuel makes it clear that it doesn’t matter. Like all ‘fetishes’, and like Séverine’s, it’s of importance to the beholder and the beholder alone. He wants us see these sexual peccadilloes as nothing of the sort.
They are abjectly scorned and suppressed, or repressed in Séverine’s case, because they don’t conform to societal expectations. They are taboo because we’ve made them to be, and that’s why Séverine, with her masochism, was so infatuated.
As an audience, as a society, we can’t help but feel a tinge of culpability when we watch the story unfold. In a sense, we are the ones that force the people on screen to hide what they’re doing. It’s almost the equivalent of a 1960’s audience watching Brokeback Mountain.
When Belle de Jour concludes its tragic final act, Séverine is not absolved of any of her guilt or responsibility. And neither are we.
– Justin Li
Belle de Jour is a part of TIFF Cinematheque’s ‘Summer in France’. For more information and tickets, please visit the official website