Buñuel’s masterpiece Belle de Jour (1968) has certainly aged well; the film’s reflection on the hypocrisy of sexuality and eroticism in gender is always a pertinent discussion to be had, even in 2019. The double-standards of sexual exploration and expression are subtly criticised throughout the story of the bored housewife Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) as her wild and bizarre sexual fantasies push her to becoming the afternoon-only prostitute Belle de Jour in real life. Her life with husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) is quaint and pleasant; dull and boring; separated at night by twin beds in which they sleep, respectively, as Séverine finds herself incapable of doing anything physical with him, despite the one year of marriage they have already shared together. Stories she hears from family-friend Husson (Michel Piccoli), who keeps seedily flirting with her, leads her to a local brothel. Despite the commitment issues to her new job Séverine faces at first, as she’s almost too scared to have this opportunity to actually live out her kinky fantasies, she eventually gains popularity at the Brothel run by Madame Anais (Geneviève Page) – too popular, in fact, as she attracts the intense obsession of criminal Marcel (Pierre Clémenti) which soon clashes with her other reality of life with Pierre.
The gentlemen clientele that pay the female brothel staff are respected businessmen, or doctors – yet they’re paying these women to live out there embarrassing fantasies of humiliation. They’re paying for an illusion, an idea, and are shown in a seedier light than the light-hearted strong female employees. Thus, their presentation outside of the brothel as respectable men in power is essentially a lie, or an act – a fantasy, as the rest of the film would indicate through the main character Séverine, as there is no distinction between what is her fantasy or reality. Is it acceptable for her to work as a prostitute in the afternoon, to indulge in her own sexual fantasies as a woman but suffer the consequences of doing so, when the male clients walk in and out of the brothel with no repercussions? Everything is role-play, which is further discussed by Buñuel’s ability to dissect and merge realities.
This is what intrigues me most about Belle de Jour, and what stops this being a one-way easily-understood tale of a bored housewife trying out something new. Buñuel’s spin on the narrative and style makes Séverine’s characterisation interesting, more than the surface of her actions would indicate. The narrative isn’t straight-forward, and it starts and develops from the fantasies the audience is privy too. Not just images of obscene wishes from an adult woman, they actual contain symbols and sounds that occur throughout the entire film, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty as to what is real and is actual a figment of Séverine’s imagination – or, one of her flashbacks she has to her childhood.
The childhood flashbacks and fantasies are filmed the same way as every other scene; they are also inserted in such a way that it doesn’t disturb the overall rhythm of the film. This seamless editing and organic style creates a very ambiguous atmosphere which clarifies Séverine’s perspective (that we follow throughout the film) as having no distinction between fantasy and reality. This obscurity within the narrative and perspective of the main character helps convey Buñuels point of female sexuality and discrimination, and as Roger Ebert put it in his 1999 review, the idea that ‘eroticism exists not in sweat and skin, but in the imagination’. Séverine’s strange sexual fantasies that seem to correlate with the odd childhood memory inserted between her present day actions, yet portrayed through a blurred lens that makes every past, present, and made-up image converge into one synthesis, means that the themes of sexuality and inequality in its expression depending on the gender is conveyed quite distinctively, despite the story’s scenes themselves being fairly indistinctive from one another.
The customers that visit the brothel and Belle de Jour want to live out their own desires and sexual fantasies in secrecy from the outside world. These wealthy business men and doctors want to be humiliated and role-play with the women they’re paying to play along; on-screen, to the audience, it is almost comical how they act, and how well the females handle it, almost uncaring of the bizarre requests and clearly dignified and sure in themselves. The ambiguity of the story is aided by other strange symbols and mysteries. One client opens a box to Charlotte (Françoise Fabian) who declines his offer; the audience gets no indication as to what is being presented by the Asian businessman who speaks no English, but Séverine looks in the box and enthusiastically agrees to whatever it is he’s paying her for. This encapsulates the essence of Belle De Jour, as the obscurity and indistinction between what is happening on-screen, within the scene, and inside versus outside of Séverine’s imagination, is conveyed through actions and symbols such as these. Again, the sounds presented throughout the film also achieve this. Coupled with the fact there is absolutely no music, diegetic nor non-diegetic, detached noises such as cats meowing and the bells of a carriage are placed at specific points. Alluding to Séverine’s fantasies, as the men in her dreams often discuss releasing the cats, or the carriage drivers pulling her and her husband along before he subjects her to torture, the placement of these seemingly random noises with no actual explanation as to why they are linked to Séverine add to the obscure and ambiguous atmosphere of the story and its characters actions. The audience doesn’t know what’s in the box; they don’t understand Séverine’s fantasies involving cats or carriages; they also do not understand the difference between her fantasies and reality. Buñuel has cleverly utilised these simple techniques to make us incapable of clarifying what is happening, and thus also deepening and communicating the type of mental state the main character is in.
Buñuel’s directorial touch elevates Belle de Jour to something more than just an entertaining story. Fantasy and reality; memory and present day; ambiguity and obscurity; these allow the subject matter and themes of inequality in sexual expression be presented more extensively and effectively than if it were merely a straight-forward and linear narrative. Sexual politics will always be apposite within on-screen narrative, as it is a relevant and evolving topic off-screen. To have these issues presented in the narrative through the blurred lens of what is real and what is not real advances the issue within itself, creating a film with the ability to both entertain and inform, even after 51 years.