Back in 2011, when Bertrand Bonello’s L’Apollonide, Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty and Steve McQueen’s Shame were all released, I cited Luis Buñuel’s Belle De Jour (France, 1967) as one of their primary progenitors. Belle De Jour is a turn-of-the-century novel by Joseph Kessel that Buñuel and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière adapted for producers Raymond and Robert Hakim. They didn’t like the book much, but saw numerous openings for addressing their own far-more-interesting concerns within the potboiler framework of Kessel’s story.
It’s the tale of Séverine (Catherine Deneuve), who has just married a handsome surgeon, Pierre Serizy (Jean Sorel), in what would seem to be an idyllic marriage. But Séverine is terrified of consummating – she even insists they sleep in twin beds. Nonetheless, she’s haunted by sado-masochistic dreams, and when she learns that a married mutual acquaintance is leading a secret second life as a prostitute, she’s compelled to take the plunge herself. Buñuel’s (and Carrière ‘s) depiction of Séverine, her clients, her working situation, and the divergence between her shame and her sexual awakening covers an enormous range of cultural, psychosexual, and psychoanalytical territory within a surrealistic context that never really allows us to pin down what’s real and what’s simply Séverine’s fantasy/dream life.
The idea of wanting to be dominated by someone, behaviorally and/or sexually, isn’t new or novel, but it clearly doesn’t make for standard dinnertime conversation, either. Pierre is a passive gentlemanly great guy – he doesn’t recognize Séverine’s no-may-not-mean-no neediness, and she’s too shy, and too lacking in self-awareness, to be able to spell it out for him. Séverine is OK making general conversation with Pierre about her dreams – she imagines them as a romantic couple in a horse-drawn coach – but understandably withholding on the details – you have the coachmen whip me, and then you give me to one of them. Another couple they’re acquainted with, Séverine’s close friend Renee (Macha Meril) and her companion Husson (Michel Piccoli), provide an instructive contrast – there’s a lot about Husson that Renee clearly loathes, and yet they remain a couple. We might imagine Husson – furtive, egotistical and predatory – to be darkly intriguing to Séverine, but she recognizes, and is repelled by, his selfish know-it-all indulgence, his forthright brandishing of the Male Prerogative. And yet it’s Husson who refers her to the ‘salon’ of Madame Anaïs (Geneviève Page), where she embarks on her part-time career of carnal self-discovery.
And so Buñuel’s film becomes a psychological mystery of sorts, presenting Séverine as a normal person trying to solve an important problem. He’s clearly sympathetic to Séverine’s dilemma, and her (ironically circular) attempts to throw off the bourgeois moral programming that’s keeping her from being a good bourgeois wife. What must she learn? What will liberate her? What must she rid herself of? Her fellow workers, Charlotte and Mathilde (Françoise Fabian and Maria Latour), are there for purely practical economic reasons, but it’s clear that Séverine doesn’t need the money. Various clients set off various psychological triggers; Séverine is sour on clients that Charlotte and Mathilde like and are used to – a travelling salesman, a submissive gynecologist, but finds herself game for rougher trade – an Asian man who brings a unique accessory, a Duke lamenting the death of his daughter, and the punkish protégé of a longtime gangster (Francisco Rabal). It’s he, the thuggish Marcel (Pierre Clémenti) , who seems to embody the perfect combination of condescension, aggressiveness and erotic regard that cracks open Séverine’s own awareness and agency as a fully sexual self-possessed adult. It even improves her marriage. But her assignations with Marcel set off a series of unintended consequences, and the film ends on an ambivalent, open-ended note of tragic irony, still shot through with dreamy incongruence.
Buñuel’s film is full of little symbols and surrealist non sequiturs. “Pierre, please, don’t let the cats out!” Séverine exclaims during her coachmen’s flogging, and, at particular points in the narrative we hear yowling cats in the background, as well as the jingling bells of that horse-drawn coach, irrespective of what’s actually happening visually in the frame. (It’s a little subliminal sonic trick that Jean-Luc Godard is fond of as well.) There are also visual signifiers that express Séverine’s transition from passive adolescent to active adult. Weekending at a ski resort, Séverine inexplicably carries a small stuffed animal that she surrenders to a maître d’ before meeting up with Renee and Husson. Meeting the Duke at an elegant outdoor café, she drinks a glass of milk. Physically and emotionally addled (yet thrilled) by the idea of prostituting herself, she finds herself dropping an enormous vase of flowers and a bottle of perfume, and her walking movements take on a skittering, coltish quality. And there’s a whole other article to be written just on the evocative choices Yves Saint Laurent made with Buñuel in designing Séverine / Ms. Deneuve’s wardrobe in the film, from her red travelling suit to her white cashmere tennis sweater to her charcoal-gray overcoat to the lingerie…ahh, the lingerie…
This may still be, today, one of the least-explicit-yet-most-erotic films ever made. There’s plenty of nudity in 60s European cinema, and Buñuel wasn’t averse to employing it in later films. But everything here has a kind of decorum – Séverine’s clients are more apt to instruct her on what she should leave on than what she can take off. Buñuel is touchingly respectful of Séverine, and doesn’t presume the kind of exposing intimacy he’d use later in That Obscure Object Of Desire. There’s ritual to the Intimacies here; Séverine asks Pierre about whorehouses, and he’s hushed but honest. Madame Anaïs runs her business breezily, plays cards and wisecracks with Charlotte and Mathilde, but relates to, and instructs, Séverine with ardent focused urgency. The shot of Séverine after her session with the Asian client, lifting herself off of the bed, is iconic. It’s all about desire sought, desire found, desire acted on, desire transporting us, desire getting us into trouble. And nothing makes Luis Buñuel happier than exploring the kinds of desires that get all of us into trouble.