By B. Walter Irvine
Belle de Jour – 1967 – dir. Luis Buñuel
From the very first scene, Belle de Jour announces the collision of imagination and reality. A carriage ride through the woods is plausible until a young woman, Séverine, is tied up, whipped, and on the verge of being used by the coachmen, egged on by her husband. A cut to her bedroom reveals that this has only been her daydream; her husband is actually an amiable surgeon who respectfully sleeps in a separate bed.
This confusion between Séverine’s real and imaginary lives is one of the film’s strategies: Rather than use cinematographic effects like a color or gauzy effect to separate Séverine’s internal world from the external one, director Luis Buñuel only provides thematic cues — carriages and the mention of cats — to signal that what we are seeing is not real, and the fantasies are that much more potent for being almost indistinguishable from the reality.
Compelled by her dark visions, Séverine finds employment at a Parisian brothel, where the clients are almost as colorful as the characters from a Bob Dylan song, lending a bit of the fantastic even to Séverine’s real world. A burly Asian carries a lacquered box whose (buzzing) contents Buñuel hides, showing us only her cautious reaction. In the bedroom, the john rings a bell that recalls the jingle-jangle of the carriages. We don’t see what happens next or what is in the box, but we do find Séverine sometime later with a look of post-coital bliss.
The following sequence is a fantasy set in a manor house, but it is so close to Séverine’s new reality that it is only the carriage and the cats that give it away, since without them, the whole episode might have just been another transaction, and this section, too, like the preceding one set in reality, has an ellipsis. Just as with the contents of the box, we see Séverine’s shocked face, but not what she is looking at. Reality and unreality now parallel each other closely and almost seem to be merging.
Other small touches bolster the dreamy atmosphere. There is Catherine Deneuve’s rather detached manner of playing Séverine, who often seems emotionally and even mentally absent. And there is a slight breakdown of logic when her husband is briefly fascinated by a wheelchair, a prop that will become important later on, though neither of them would have any way of knowing that.
It all foments a sense that the entire movie is one of Séverine’s extended sex dreams, a story with no impact, and the film runs dangerously close to being a mere farce or staging of male fantasy. On the one hand, the brothel is a place full of harmless oddball fun, where outlandish characters meet Séverine’s cheery and accommodating coworkers, in a harmless romp that plays to glossy magazine images of consequence-free encounters. Then, on the other hand, Séverine, with her compulsive sexual tendencies, nicely fits the formulation of the prostitute that really just can’t help herself from hopping into bed with whoever is willing. Both of these rather phallocentric models — the happy hooker and the compulsive nympho — are convenient male fantasies that Buñuel might have perpetrated.
But, finally, the film severely complicates what might have been only superficial, as exploitation makes itself felt deeply as a sociological issue. Séverine has servants and wears elegant brands, but she is drawn to a crude street thug, Marcel, who might really only be “a prop for her fantasy life,” as Roger Ebert claims. Admittedly, he is being used by a woman who can play with him during the day, only to retreat at night to the safety of her high social station, recalling Leonard Cohen’s mordant line from “Tower of Song”: “The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor.”
It may not be as simple as that, however. Ebert characterizes Séverine’s marriage as “uneventful,” but in fact it appears to be sexless and faltering; there is a hollow of affect there, as Deneuve’s cold performance suggests utter disinterest in conventional romance. Perhaps Séverine is merely trying to breathe some life into her existence. Another song provides a model for this alternate theory: The population of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” seems to be made up of twisted failures, but the Desolation Row of the song actually seems to be where people “escape” to from “insurance men” and the “heart attack machine,” images of bourgeois banality; Dylan’s narrator winds up angrily refusing all correspondence from anywhere else. Maybe the brothel is Séverine’s Desolation Row — the place she goes for meaning and significance in an otherwise vacuous life. She might still be abusing her socioeconomic privilege, but in this light she is easier to sympathize with.
Besides for this class commentary, however, Buñuel adds another, stronger note that more clearly establishes exploitation as a theme so as to undermine the impression of the brothel as a place of insouciance. Early in the film, a very brief cut to a young girl being stroked by a man seems to come from either Séverine’s imagination or memory. That scene is never elaborated on, but a girl of a similar age, the daughter of the maid of the brothel, visits her mother’s workplace shortly after the incident with the mysterious box, and the john comes on to her. It is repulsive to watch his hand on her chin; Buñuel has evaded the sense that we are completely unmoored from the realities of sexual and economic exploitation.
In fact, by so powerfully evoking Séverine’s sexual fantasy life but also presenting social concerns, Buñuel creates an intersection between very disparate aspects of story and culture, at once calling on the light and imaginary, but also the brutal and real. Often movies that delve deeply into a subjective point of view — such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Black Swan — don’t bother to hint explicitly at larger social issues, and the fantasy is divorced from the political. Here they are both insistently present, and while it’s never clear quite what it means, it’s fascinating to watch.