Monday Movie: Belle de Jour, by David Bax
It would be irresponsibly chronocentric to look at Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour and find its kinky sexual frankness shocking for its era. This was the 60s and this was France; it’s likely few were shocked. But, still, it feels transgressive because it unfolds in a setting of such genteel, bourgeois trappings, complete with lush production design and costumes by Yves Saint Laurent. The contrast is designed to be glaring and it’s only the most obvious of ways Buñuel interrogates supposed dichotomies in Belle de Jour.
Catherine Deneuve stars as Séverine, a very beautiful and critically bored upper crust housewife. She has no interest in sex with her handsome, bland husband (Jean Sorel) but loses herself often in fantasies in which he degrades her and/or watches on as other men have their way with her. Perhaps seeking an outlet for her desires, Séverine begins working as a part time prostitute while her husband is at work.
Buñuel’s clever trick–which, like the best of Buñuel’s clever tricks, only seems obvious in the “Why didn’t I think of that?” sense–is to make Séverine’s domestic and social life seem artificial while her fantasy life is brutally straightforward. Though her time as a sex worker feels destined not to last because of the fact that it bridges two distinct worlds–fantasy and reality–Belle de Jour asks us to question the very nature of those two states. If your physical, empirical existence is all an act, is not your internal life the more real one? Once again, Buñuel the satirist mocks our attempts to make sense of ourselves.