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.