Earlier critics of this surprisingly accessible piece by Luis Buñuel have been guilty of referring to the film as a whole as ‘sexy’, even ‘erotic’ and to the quite lovely Catherine Deneuve as ‘an icy beauty’, ‘frigid’ or a ‘steely beauty’.
It may be just me but I think they miss the target in a spectacular fashion on all counts. That Ms Deneuve makes the title role her own is not in question, nor is the fact that a good portion of the film is set in a Parisian bordello. The point that many seem to have bypassed is the reasons why having her walk around in some quite jaw-dropping costumes is essential to the narrative.
Deneuve plays Séverine, wife of a wealthy and upwardly mobile Parisian surgeon, Pierre Serizy (Jean Sorel). She has very little to occupy her days, save for walking round looking great – something she seems to pull off with some aplomb. Séverine is not, however, a happy lady. Her waking and sleeping hours are tormented, or perhaps even titillated by strong, stark fantasies of sexual degradation and submission. She moves about town like a swan – poised and graceful above the water, but paddling really quickly to stay afloat. Buñuel does a remarkable job of making these fantasies alluring, mysterious and at the same time, disturbing. For a film made nearly 45 years ago, it’s a wonder it ever got made, let alone released.
Perhaps the reason for her fantasies lies with her sexless marriage, or perhaps that same marriage is responsible for them? It is quite likely something else. There are a few brief, fleeting shots of Séverine as a little girl; careful, fleeting glimpses, almost as if we see her out of the corner of our eye. Meek and innocent, she stands before men we never see, suggesting terrible acts that have shaped her view of men. Buñuel’s lightness of touch here is outstanding, especially when you consider that delicacy is most definitely not his usual modus operandi. Ultimately, she sits trapped in a relationship with a man who is rich, successful and caring. This may not be everyone’s idea of entrapment but sometimes golden handcuffs can bind as tight as leather. She loves him but she can’t express it physically, as if she resents his power over her. Matters are not helped by her girlfriend’s beau, Henri (Michel Piccoli) who makes it very clear that he would be only to happy to relieve her of the burden of her chastity, something Séverine finds unappealing.
Bored with the Parisian bourgeois lifestyle, and presumably the elegant and stylish wardrobe by Yves Saint Laurent, she is intrigued to hear a friend’s story of a brothel down town, where business is still good despite the official banning of such places. She hesitates and procrastinates for a while, then finally makes it to the door of Anaïs, (Geneviève Page) the madame who will eventually change her life. Initially shy and with great reservations she slowly becomes used to the life of a prostitute. Her marital commitments require her to be at home by 5 o’clock in the evening, so she is christened Belle de Jour – a play on Belle de Nuit, an old French euphemism for a hooker.
Seemingly energized by the experience, her confidence grows and she is prepared to do some things with clients that the other girls won’t even consider. There is the mysterious Japanese man with a mysterious box – the contents of which the girls find abhorrent, but not even this fazes Séverine.
With the control she gets from having what men want, and the abandon to detach herself from the physical act of sex as pleasure, rather more like a tool to do a job, her personality shines and she even encourages her husband into bed, safe in the knowledge that it is love for him, not business. Their relationship grows closer and he starts to talk about having children – an unsettling proposition for Séverine. Everything seemed to be going her way but the prospect of kids, an obsessive client who follows her home and a visit from an old regular of the brothel all conspire to snatch this away from her.
Buñuel took to his first colour film outing with great zeal and made a very good job of it. Even back in the dark days when colours were primary and crude, he seemed to get his crew to rein it in and produce a more rounded look to the palette. The scene transition from reality to fantasy and back builds over time and reaches a quite cloying crescendo. The fantasy scenes visit themselves upon the viewer in a jarring fashion, startling in their execution and the finesse of the ending is unspoiled by the fact that Buñuel himself has feely admitted he has no idea what it’s about.
After all the raving about Buñuel and Deneuve, a special mention needs to go to Jean Sorel. He seems so insignificant and ineffectual that you may wonder why he’s there at all. It is, in fact, a testament to the script and particularly to his acting skills that the film works as well as it does. Mild, unassuming and often confused, his soft words and casual but non-threatening French chauvinism are the perfect backdrop on which to paint the damaged beauty of Belle and her somewhat disturbing sexual fantasies.
Those watching this for the erotica will not only be bitterly disappointed but will miss the point of it all. With great power comes great responsibility, as Belle finds out. In seeking resolution and redemption from her own sad past, she unlocks yet another facet of the complicated sexual relationships between men and women. Erotica it isn’t, and frigid, she ain’t. To understand Belle is to enjoy this quite wonderful piece of French film-making.
A sequel, Belle toujours (2006), followed – read Picturenose’s review here.
101 mins. In French, Spanish and Mongolian.