French language director Luis Buñuel is a master at cinematic surrealism. After seeing his masterpiece Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie in film history class during college, I had been intrigued to seek out and see more from him. So, when the Sundance Channel recently aired Belle de jour I took the plunge. While at first glance it seems we have a straightforward narrative, it all soon unravels. The first glimpse of our main character, Séverine, occurs during a masochistic nightmare (or maybe welcome dream as we might later discern) where her husband betrays her on a coach ride through the woods. She awakens in bed, where we discover she has had dreams like this before. All this is in a linear stream until we soon get a lightning quick cut to a scene of a little girl being sexually advanced on by an older man. Could this be a memory of Séverine’s childhood? or maybe just another puzzle piece leading us astray. Either way one thinks, he/she is in for a ride of reality and fantasy melding together, eventually becoming one and the same, where at the finish of the film no one will know what actually happened, if anything at all.
Our lead is played magically by Catherine Deneuve who’s striking in beauty as well as dramatic chops. Deneuve may be the most beautiful woman put to film that I have seen. She is not just a pretty face, however, as her angelic features are needed to juxtopose herself against the brothel lifestyle she soon enters. While cold to her husband physically, although we are shown signs she really does love him, she seems to open up completely during her escapades at the Madame’s underground whorehouse. At first she shies away from the intimate contact, but soon is reveling in the embarrassment as she’s dominated by her male suitors. The “nightmares” sprinkled throughout, then, could be pleasant dreams, as maybe she wants her husband to demean her and treat her as an object like those that she sees during the day. She superimposes the brutality on her husband in her thoughts because that is what she really desires.
Along with Deneuve, we are treated with many great performances, including her husband’s friend Hussan played by Michel Piccoli who plays the part with great duplicity. He is a man that Séverine despises yet her husband finds hilarious. An integral part of the film, Hussan could be construed as the conductor of the events at hand. He puts the idea of prostitution into Séverine’s head and ultimately gets the ball rolling for what the movie’s climax holds in store. Pierre Clémenti also does a wonderful job as Marcel, a regular customer of “Belle de jour” and the complete manifestation of everything she wants her husband to be. His brutality and emotion form a great edge to his character as you never know what he will do next. Marcel is constantly on the fence of keeping himself in check or totally losing his mind.
Belle de jour is a journey into the psyche of our main character. We see her fantasies, her nightmares, her thoughts, and the horrors that all hold in store for her. She lives dangerously close to disaster, but seems to enjoy the possibility that she will be caught or hurt. The excitement is what she is really after. There are many ways to interpret a film of this kind and all are probably correct. Buñuel has created a template for thought and discussion. One leaves his films with a feeling of disorientation, much like that contained by his characters, yet also a desire to crack the code to the mystery. This is cinema at its best; an intelligent story that challenges the viewer and doesn’t allow for the banal passivity that many movies churned out by Hollywood do today.