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.
The first image we see is a massive statue of Christ being hauled via helicopter over Roman landmarks, to be set atop St. Peter’s Cathedral. On the way there Marcello (Mastroianni) is distracted by a trio of girls sunbathing on the rooftop of a modern apartment building. He makes miming motions to them of writing down their phone numbers, but the noise and confusion get in the way of communications. That night Marcello is on the Via Veneto, scoping out the scandals among the fringe celebrities of Rome, collecting fodder for his gossip column (this is the movie that introduced the world to the word Paparazzo.)
In the opening scenes of what becomes a sprawling visual feast, Fellini shows us the scope and brio of La Dolce Vita. From the highest, holiest towers to the lowest, seediest night clubs, over the course of seven nights and seven dawns, Marcello will scour the heights and depths of Rome for the emotional center he’s missing, and he’ll always come up empty at dawn as a result of communications breakdown.