In adapting Joseph Kessel’s 1928 novel of the same name, Luis Buñuel’s 1968 classic, Belle de Jour, turned a deeply sexist tale of prostitution in the Parisian upper crust into a nuanced portrait of a woman at odds with her surroundings and herself. The story of Séverine – the quiet, young wife of a handsome doctor who fights her ennui and tests the edges of her sexuality by working part-time at a brothel – is a risky one; one that could benefit from sensitive characterization and detailed imagery or die at the hands of softcore exploitation.
Though Kessel considers it the “most human” of his novels, he fails to deliver the lived-in introspection required for this sort of material. His Séverine is a caricature straight out of Freud’s margin notes, unable to process complex thoughts clearly and whose sexuality exists solely because of a childhood molestation brusquely referenced at the start of the book. Her every action is painfully simple-minded – her constant near-fainting at the mere thought of prostitution, her inadequacy during her early days at the brothel and the catastrophe she causes after starting an affair with a dangerous client – and she is almost always punished for them. One can see Kessel wrote from a place that might’ve seemed to him genuinely human, but his obvious lack of understanding in regards to female sexuality cuts his apparent wisdom down into misguided misogyny.
Buñuel was no ardent fan of the work, as he mentions in his autobiography, but was instead drawn to the story for the filmic possibilities he envisioned:
“The novel is very melodramatic, but well constructed, and it offered me the chance to translate Séverine’s fantasies into pictorial images as well as to draw a serious portrait of a young female bourgeois masochist. I was also able to indulge myself in the faithful description of some interesting sexual perversions.”
Buñuel understood that film has the ability to portray dreams like no other medium. He knew he could bombard viewers with a flurry of images that ultimately coalesce into a logical whole without sacrificing plot. He could segue from a domestic drama to a fanciful sexual vision of whips and rope and back without losing sight of the overall theme. His trademark surrealist approach to life and fascination with both obscure eroticism and the perversion of the sacred (the perfect, virginal wife) naturally lent themselves to elevate the horribly problematic source material into a work that respects the inner world of its central figure.
By casting Catherine Deneuve, an actress whose doll-like beauty is matched only by her ability to act as both a blank slate and an impenetrable enigma, Buñuel was able to engage the audience on the multiple levels needed to attempt to understand a woman like Séverine. Their creation is a fully realized human who, though stunted by the endless adoration society affords a gorgeous blonde, has her own agency and desires. Meandering through her consciousness, hazily presenting Séverine’s fantasies of sexual degradation without explanation – or even confirmation as to whether they are real or not – the film doesn’t attempt to rationalize her mind, instead mirroring her own opaque complexity and allowing viewers to work from there.
Aside from Buñuel and Deneuve’s contributions to the essential tale, their take exemplifies an advantage film possesses in being able to show emotion. Though novels are usually hailed as being the more psychologically engaging of the two media, it is apparent here that there is a world of difference between reading a male author’s words about a woman’s sexuality and seeing a woman act out those same behaviors, with a firmer grip on the way her character is perceived. Still, the film ultimately belongs to a man, and while it might be worth revisiting the Belle de Jour story from a contemporary female perspective, Buñuel’s take is both a radical improvement on a tone-deaf novel and a marvelous exploration of surreal sexuality in its own right.