Belle de Jour (1967)

Belle de Jour (1967), directed by Luis Buñuel.

First review

After a year of marriage, Catherine Deneuve still cannot make love to her husband, an understanding and very patient doctor. Despite lack of practical experience, she has a rich masochistic fantasy life and secretly starts working as a prostitute in the afternoons. Of course. A young gangster becomes obsessed with her and it does not end well.

We can't always separate her dream life from her work at the bordello, where she explores the "nearer and farther shores of unnatural juncture" (Jack Vance, one of the Lyonesse books). She is mysterious and unreadable; we don't know what she is thinking or what she wants. It's the old story with men and women.

At first it seems she cannot have sexual pleasure without being forced, but then she just becomes a sex addict. Or maybe she's in love with the gangster.

No (well, very little) actual nudity and the sex takes place off frame or in the next room. Decades ago I saw a showing of this with an crowd of unhappy college kids who were throwing things at the screen, displeased at watching a French film without nudity. They were also disgusted by the gangster's poor firearm handling skills.

According to the wikipedia article, the title literally means "day-lily", slang for a prostitute who works during the day.

The DVD is 4:3 letterboxed, but retains the 1.66 original aspect ratio.

Second review

In previous viewings I suffered from outraged romanticism: "frigid masochistic prostitute" is quite an invention but it just hurt that she could not make love to her husband because he was too nice to her.

Now it seems lighter and less serious, a witty satire from Buñuel. As a surrealist he doesn't need his films to be analyzed and will actually put in obstacles to prevent understanding.

I wonder if the popularity of the film isn't because that for many (I don't know the percentage of the population) sex is the center of reality, the axis around which everything else turns. Séverine is miserable until she achieves satisfaction by being dominated.

(Not everyone feels the importance of sex. I recall an interview with JG Ballard when the discussion turned to obsessions: "I don't have the sex thing. Wish I did").

I noticed a lot of little things this time, like how she doesn't respond until commanded. She has no idea how to deliver the degradation to others that she craves for herself. And yet she does change after her time in the brothel, becoming more confident and needing less submission and humiliation.

It is said Catherine Deneuve learned acting after she got into movies. Her passive, inexpressive demeanor at age 24 is appropriate to this mysterious character, a great contribution to the film.

The madame is played by Geneviève Page who always catches my eye. I remember her as a princess in El Cid (1961) and as the fetching female lead in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).

Finally, I will always wonder what the Japanese client had in that little box that startled everyone so. Dolls in a difficult looking sexual posture I presume, but the director claimed he had no idea what it was.

Available on Blu-ray from Criterion with strong natural grain in the image.

Michael Wood, author of the British Film Institute book on the film, provides a humorous, insightful and rather blunt commentary track. He's very good at noticing psychological structures that would have escaped me.