Belle de jour: Criterion Collection
January 9, 2006
In 1967, master provocateur Luis Bunuel released one of his most celebrated films Belle de jour, an erotic tale of an unhappy bourgeois Paris housewife who works part-time at a posh brothel in order to act out her complex psychosexual fantasies. It was not an easy shoot for lead actress Catherine Deneuve who was put through the emotional and physical ringer by Bunuel. She was already a star thanks to the one-two punch of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) but her performance in Belle de jour is arguably her most important one as she forces us to look past her character’s beautiful, blank façade and discover what motivates her to do the perverse things she does. The film was a critical and commercial success while continuing to provoke and titillate after all these years.
We meet Severine Serizy (Deneuve) and her husband Pierre (Sorel) as they take a horse-driven carriage ride through a forest. He professes his love for her and she icily rebuffs him. Upset, Pierre stops the ride and has the two drivers forcibly drag Severine into the woods. They tie her hands to a tree and proceed to whip her while Pierre coolly looks on. As the one driver starts to kiss her, she wakes up. Pierre asks Severine what she was dreaming about but she isn’t entirely truthful, omitting the masochistic acts. They appear to love each other yet sleep in separate beds while she keeps him at a slight distance.
Severine’s rather perverse dream offers some insight into what motivates her to decide to become a part-time high-class prostitute despite being married to a handsome and loving man. Her best friend mentions that someone they know has become one and as they wonder aloud if brothels still exist the cab driver operating their taxi cab assures them that they do. Severine seems mildly intrigued and even asks Pierre later if he frequented such places before they met. The rest of Belle de jour follows Severine’s journey through the world of underground brothels as she searches for something she can’t get from her husband or her comfortable bourgeois existence.
Yet again, Bunuel criticizes the complacent upper class for their decadent ways and superior attitudes by presenting a woman so unable to love and be happy with her husband that she has sex with strange men for money. Is she bored? Looking for kinky thrills? Unhappy? Fulfilling a need to be dominated and punished? All of the above? Catherine Deneuve delivers a brave performance as she portrays a woman who initially is shy and reserved but over the course of Belle de jour finds that her detached behavior is perfectly suited for prostitution. Bunuel has fun presenting Severine’s various clients and their odd fetishes, like the man who dresses her up as deceased daughter complete with a coffin! The director is unflinching in his depiction of her walk on the wild side and Deneuve is equally fearless in her portrayal of this complicated character. It must’ve been a difficult job as the actress endures all kinds of humiliating acts that are performed on her character. Deneuve’s uninhibited performance anticipated future ones by the likes of Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet (1986) and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary (2002) – just two examples of films that examine women that punish themselves via sex.
There is an audio commentary by Michael Wood, author of the BFI Film Classics book on Belle de jour. He starts off by placing this film in the context of Bunuel’s career at the time. Wood points out that Belle de jour was based on a novel, reads passages from it and talks about the differences and similarities between the two. Naturally, he talks about Deneuve’s career at the point when she had done this film. Wood offers insightful analysis on the film’s style and themes on this informative track.
“That Obscure Source of Desire” is an 18-minute featurette that examines the representation of feminine sexuality and fantasy as well as the themes of masochism, power and desire. Bunuel’s film is described as a study of psychopathology. This extra features quite in-depth analysis of Severine, her motivations, behavior, actions, and so on.
Screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere is interviewed. He collaborated with Bunuel on several occasions and talks about how he got involved in adapting Belle de jour into a film. Carriere talks about their working methods including the research they did, which involved going to an actual high-class brothel.
Also included is a segment from the French television program Cinema that aired in December 1966 with on the set interviews with Carriere and Deneuve. The writer tells an amusing story about how he first met Bunuel. Deneuve talks about her character and working with Bunuel.
Finally, there are three different trailers: French, American and a re-release one.