The late 60s heralded a time of sexual liberation and also opened the door for woman to express themselves in a way the hadn’t before. An example of this intimate freedom is sampled in Luis Buñuel’s 1967 classic Belle de Jour.
The preceding decade of the 1950s was more austere with women often positioned in roles that were either freshly scrubbed youth, motherly, or ladylike. Of course you had your roles of the overt femme fatales who were never ones to shy away from expression if handled by the right director, but hardly ever was it suggested that the delicate and soft female leads could have such crackling romantic desires. Enter Catherine Deneuve as Séverine Serizy in Belle de Jour. Deneuve was one of the most memorable and iconic faces of French cinema in the 1960s. Each of her films made during the decade taking her budding stardom higher and higher with her part in Buñuel’s drama arguably becoming her most notable performance.
When Deneuve comes on screen you would never expect the things you are about to witness coming from the mind of this woman. Naturally this is how it is supposed to be and what Buñuel wants. Immaculate cool blonde hair styled to perfection in a variety of soft waves, delicate chignons and flawless buns. Gorgeous ensembles worn throughout designed by notable French couturier Yves Saint Laurent. All coming together to present the carriage of a sophisticated and put together woman. But far more is bubbling under the surface of Séverine as we follow her along and become privy to her world and the thoughts that swirl in her mind.
Séverine Serizy when we are introduced to her is an icy housewife who is romantically polarized from her husband Dr. Pierre Serizy (Jean Sorel). The intimacy shared between them is strained but that doesn’t mean that Séverine doesn’t fantasize about what she feels is lacking from her relationship. These fantasies that fill her mind consisting of vignettes involving acts from domination to bondage. Despite these erotic inclinations in her thoughts her attitude towards her husband remains cold and frigid much to his frustration.
The tide begins to turn on a trip taken by the strained couple to a resort where the just so happen to run into close friends. One of these friends Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli) gives Séverine an unsettling feeling that seems to disturb her most notably in the way she catches him looking at her. Learning that a mutual friend of theirs works at a brothel, Séverine ponders on this bit of gossip. Henri continues to not so subtly express his growing attraction for her in romantic actions that continue to disturb her and which she wants to nip in the bud. Later on while spending a causal day playing tennis Séverine gets caught up in conversation with Henri which soon circles back to the acquaintance who spends her time entertaining at a brothel. As the discussion continues Henri brings up the location of a high end brothel, not stopping there he goes on to confess the desire he has for her even though she rejects his declaration.
As if a seed had been planted in her mind as a possible outlet for her growing fantasies Séverine ventures out to the brothel. Despite the thoughts that flood her mind her first attempt at pleasing a client doesn’t go awfully well as her reluctance comes into play. This reluctance is tended to by Madame Anaïs (Genevieve Page) who soon dubs her Belle de Jour. Memories shown earlier paint a picture that an inappropriate encounter when she was younger may be the source of the conflict Séverine is dealing with in the present day.
Refraining from quickly coming back to the brothel she ultimately returns a couple of days later and soon starts a schedule of servicing clients. A schedule that soon consists of her erotic actions during the day with strange men and ending with her coming home to her husband who remains in the dark to his wife’s secret life.
Henri Husson doesn’t stay out of the picture for too long and soon saunters back in to try and charm Séverine. Though she doesn’t want to see him this doesn’t stop her from slipping into a fantasy. Thoughts that drift to her finally slipping into Henri’s advances and the two of them making love as her husband watches. Though in contrary to what such a fantasy says the intimate relationship with her husband begins to improve greatly beyond what the state of it had been before. Despite this, Séverine’s time at the brothel doesn’t come to a stop and she continues her work there, soon falling into a possessive connection with Marcel (Pierre Clementi) a young man of a troubling nature.
Not long after starting a continuing sexual relationship with Marcel which offers Séverine the fulfillment of her fantasies things begin to unravel. Starting with Marcel’s growing possessiveness for her which grows increasingly worrisome as his jealousy escalates. Coming to a peak and causing her to leave her post at the brothel. A choice also made with the worry caused when Henri becomes aware of her secret double life.
But Marcel is not one to leave well enough alone despite the incessant pleas from Séverine to have him be gone for good. Overcome with a seething jealousy he waits to come face to face with her husband which results in a violent exchange. The crime of passion has brutal implications for all involved as Séverine’s world falls apart like a deck of cards around her.
At the start of the film we meet Séverine as she is seemingly stuck in a dogmatic existence and relationship. In a way we see that we conclude far worse than where we began. Though at the end we see that there is a love and tenderness directed to her husband which seems to become clear to us in the face of tragedy. Left amongst the pieces and with a heavy melancholic feeling in the air Séverine once again escapes into fantasy. Though this time what she imagines is a bit more subdued to a vignette with Pierre where all is well.
This would give you the impression of a tidy albeit depressing conclusion. Though to think that would be shortsighted as Buñuel more than anything leaves us in a state of perplexing ambiguity that leaves the viewer pondering long afterwards. Was all that witnessed nothing more than the delusional dreams of the troubled Séverine? Perhaps the final moment is not a dream and in fact reality in contrast to what we may have first assumed?
We need not dwell on those quandaries too much as the beauty of Belle de Jour lies in what is not quite clear. At the end Buñuel invites us to come up with our own conclusions of how we wish things should play out, in a way leaving us not too different from Séverine.