Let’s open the great Luis Buñuel’s filmography with one of his more recognisable works, “Belle de Jour”. His first film in colour is also regarded by many as among the best films of all time. Buñuel’s most commercially successful film, apart from being considered as one of the finest cinematic celebrations of 1960’s French chic, also created an international star in Catherine Deneuve, who will henceforth be recognised internationally as a French icon.
One of cinema’s most influential figures, the celebrated director from Spain extended the scope of film as an art form, through his use of surrealism and devious satire. In jest and in intent, he was a moralist, but that didn’t prevent him from raising a few eyebrows among the establishment, whether it was in Spain, Mexico, or France – countries where he’d worked in. As a film maker, Buñuel didn’t belong to any exclusive club – he was unique – a radical thinker who didn’t mind taking on taboo subjects, and a revolutionary who never let his emotions get the better of him through his work. His 1929 directorial debut, co-written with college-pal Salvador Dali was an experimental short called Un Chien Andalou. It may have caused a sensation, but his allegiance henceforth was to a predominantly mainstream audience. The films that I’ve seen so far are all incomparable gems, but my personal favourites remain the ones made during the 50’s and early 60’s, mostly from Mexico, when he dabbled with neorealism. Many a director – great and small, have tried to mimic or even upstage his work, with little success – not possible I guess, unless you’ve lived his life, shared his thoughts, and been as single-minded in pursuing a vision as he has.
The film opens with a couple – Pierre (Jean Sorel) and Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve) travelling in a horse-drawn carriage against a baroque backdrop. They get into an argument, and the carriage stops. Pierre orders Séverine to get out. When she refuses, he asks his drivers to take her down by force, tie her to a tree, and flog her with a horsewhip. To finish things off, Pierre instructs them to rape her. Her cries of pain and ecstasy is interrupted by a scene in a modern Parisian apartment, where Pierre and Séverine are switching off for the night, into separate beds. The earlier scene was just one of Séverine masochistic fantasies. All this, when the couple have yet to consummate their one-year marriage. She begs him to remain patient as before, and he relents.
Séverine’s reason for her reluctance to have sex with her husband is established through passing scenes from her childhood, where she appears to be molested by an older man, possibly someone she trusted. She sees herself as impure, and her sophistication and regal demeanour couldn’t quite mask the shame of her past, and she seeks sexual gratification through daydreams of abuse and humiliation, in which Pierre, her handsome, doting, and noble husband becomes the chief tormentor.
After a casual conversation with Pierre’s best friend Henri Husson (the redoubtable Michel Piccoli), Séverine will soon discover an outlet for her masochistic desires, at an upmarket brothel run by Madame Anaïs (Geneviève Page). Insisting on working only during the afternoons when Pierre is at work, Séverine is coined the sobriquet Belle de jour (Beauty of the day), and after some initial hesitation, the prim and proper housewife will begin to experience and enjoy her forbidden desires, while making sure to return home on time to welcome a blissfully unaware Pierre with a beaming smile.
Séverine’s afternoon rendezvous works fine for every one, until she encounters a client – a thug and crook named Marcel (Pierre Clémenti). He falls madly in love with her, which develops into full-blown jealousy upon learning that she’s married. It will inevitably lead to a confrontation between Marcel and Pierre, but the film finishes with an ending that will leave it open for various interpretations by the viewer…
The erotic drama (adapted from Joseph Kessel’s novel) is loaded with dashes of Buñuel’s trademark sarcasm and signature surreal imagery. Whilst pretending to tell us something, he stops short, and teases us into filling in the blanks on our own. Is the whole thing just a fantasy, or did they really happen? And does it even matter? Perplexing, to say the least, but that’s what keeps you remembering this film time and again, of course, alongside the tasteful eroticism, the gorgeous people, the humour, and the film’s overall class. The performances by the main cast is riveting, and while Michel Piccoli is brilliant in his understated style, it is Catherine Deneuve at her most beautiful who is undoubtedly the star. Luis Buñuel revels in the new medium just as much as he’d mastered black and white. For additional reading on the film, there’s a fine essay from Melissa Anderson in the Criterion site which I’d heartily recommend. Needless to say, this later-day gem from Buñuel is Highly Recommended Viewing..!
The Nudity: Catherine Deneuve
There is no explicit nudity in any of the scenes despite the film’s subject delving into the protagonist’s unconventional sex desires. Inspired by this film, lesser directors have treated similar themes very differently over the years, including a generation of pornographers. The nude scenes in this film may appear tame by today’s standards, but it is the prospect of someone of Catherine Deneuve’s class (Séverine) being within reach of ordinary men (clientèle) that makes these special.