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.
Looking over Roman Polanski’s career, I feel his strength as a director lies in creating psychological suspense and dread out of confined spaces, and the casual way in which he shows you the horror that was always right next to you. His best work happens to be in the early to middle period of his career, and is roughly bracketed by two events: Polanski’s recent past as a Holocaust survivor, and the murder of Sharon Tate. (There really is no late period, save in the academic and chronological sense. After Chinatown Polanski never made a truly outstanding film, with the exception of Death and the Maiden. Never mind the noise made over the Oscar-winning The Pianist. Only with the recently released The Ghostwriter has Polanski come back to something like top form.) His films of special mention reveal the second life pulsing below the apparent one, the dark desires or fears hiding under a veneer of “normality” and respectability. (As seen in Knife In The Water, Cul-de-Sac, The Tenant, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and the aforementioned Ghostwriter.)