Belle de Jour
Belle De Jour
1967. Directed by Luis Bunuel.
Bunuel's most successful and famous film, Belle de Jour is tapestry of the surreal that surrounds a story about sexuality and ultimately, personal freedom and acceptance.
Severine is a well to do house wife in a sexually glacial marriage to a doctor. She routinely fantasizes about various erotic scenarios that involve bondage, masochism, and brutality. Eventually, she is lead to the brothel of Madame Anais where she begins to work as a prostitute in the afternoon hours before her husband returns home. She adopts the moniker Belle de Jour, a play on "Lady of the Night", as her bourgeois standing allows her to work at the hour of her choosing.
Katherine Deneuve delivers a powerhouse performance. It can be difficult to watch the scenes of sexual violence and denigration, however, Deneuve's Severine is never a victim. Even in the most shocking sequences of the film, she remains in complete control of her destiny. This is a woman exploring the nature of her desires and doing so without any form of fear or embarrassment.
Deneuve's performance is aided by the the costume designs of the one and only Yves Saint Laurent. Severine is always the center of attention, muting everything around her, which helps to keep the focus not only on her seductive beauty, but on Deneuve's unflinching commitment to such a risque and profound character study.
Bunuel, as always, is in complete command behind the camera. From it's beginning fantasy segment to it's quiet conclusion, Bunuel is putting every one of his hallmarks on display. There is the blending of reality with dream, and nightmare, sharp satire of the upper class, and, as usual, a flat out refusal of explanation. Belle du Jour is saying something, but each viewer will interpret it in their own way.
Bunuel's vision is given form by Sacha Vierney's cinematography. Filmed in classic 1:66:1, each scene is framed like a puzzle box. As the story proceeds and the lines of reality and fantasy crash with one another, everything feels contained and in its place, which is of course the subconscious of it's protagonist.
Deneuve was very frank about how difficult it was to make this film and how she felt mistreated at times. Despite this admission she still defended Bell de Jour, calling it a wonderful film. Some may be put off by the ultimately ambiguous ending, but this is, after all, Bunuel. During my recent viewing of the film, the central theme I kept coming back to was control and how I believe that Belle de Jour is a statement on female empowerment. Severine's journey from comfort to oblivion to contentment in her situation is organic and thoughtful, but always in her hands.
Available now on Huluplus, Belle de Jour is great place to begin with the films of Bunuel or just an interesting and complex exploration of the pinnacle of surreal cinema.