27 January 2021

Luis Buñuel's Belle de jour (1967)


It's a little difficult to imagine the effect that Buñuel's Belle de jour, based on Joseph Kessel's 1928 novel of the same name, could have had back in 1967, although an article in the Los Angeles Times of the day heralded it as his biggest success yet, and a masterpiece, if 'less than a masterpiece [compared to some of his earlier films], but sexy. And in color.' Catherine Deneuve plays the newly married Séverine, with the doctor Pierre (Jean Sorel) as her husband. 

The paper calls it a 'study in female sexuality', which I find too much to take. Séverine was sexually abused as a child, and the general diagnoses are that the Bovaryish Séverine is bored with her tedious doctor husband and becomes a high-class prostitute ('Belle de jour') because it satisfies her masochistic imagination, thus priming her for a 'normal' sex life with Pierre. This is how I viewed it the first time I saw the film some years ago, although now I'm not so sure. Séverine enjoys her life as a prostitute, the thrill of non-conventional sex, and then she grows to like the unhinged Marcel (Pierre Clementi), who becomes so besotted that he gets his gets his mate Hippolyte (Francisco Rabel) to follow Séverine, then in jealousy Marcel shoots Pierre, who ends up paralysed with Séverine looking after him?

OK, the coachmen taking her into the woods, whipping her and probably raping her are fantasy, as is the mud thrown at her, but how much of this are we supposed to read as fantasy and how much reality? Buñuel leaves it to us to decide, but my guess is that there's a hell of a lot more surrealism going on here than Séverine and Husson (Michel Piccoli) disappearing under the dinner table together.

Apart from the fantasy, there are some interesting pieces relating to other films here: the appearance of Buñuel himself in the film, like Hitchcock in his own films (or, principally, Truffaut in his in homages to Hitchcock), but there are also references to Godard's À bout de souffle in the selling of Herald Tribune on the Champs-Élysées, and of course the shooting in the back of Marcel by a cop echoes Michel Poiccard being shot in the back in Godard's film.

Most of all, perhaps, this is a big, stiff middle finger up to the bourgeoisie, as are many of Buñuel's films.

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