A frigid young housewife decides to spend her midweek afternoons as a prostitute.
BELLE DE JOUR begins innocently with a open horse carriage moving leisurely in the countryside driven by two horsemen. The camera reveals a couple (Jean Sorel and Catherine Deneuve) seated at the back exchanging love talk. “I love you so much,” and the retort, “I love you more.” But when he kisses her, he finds her very cold. The carriage is stopped and he drags her to a tree and strings her up to be whipped by the two horsemen. Why this sudden brutality?
It is a disturbing sequence that turns out to be a nightmare as the girl wakes up in bed with her apparent husband.
The film returns to the main life of the couple, Severine and her husband Pierre, a surgeon. It turns out that she is frigid in their sexual relationship though she is turned on sexually by other things. The film hints that the problem could have arisen from sexual abuse when she was a child. Severin is accosted by her husband’s friend, Husson (Michel Piccoli) who is described as rich and idle, his two weaknesses. Severine spurns his advances.
Two things make BELLE DE JOUR intriguing. One is the mystery element. Director Bunuel plays on the audience’s curiosity, or sexual curiosity, which is even more powerful. Severine learns of a girl Henriette who sells herself as a whore at a nearby house, which eventually prompts her to become the BELLE DE JOUR, a woman of the day as she sells her services during the day instead of the night. The other element is Bunuel’s expertise at surrealism. Bunuel famous for his surreal films like L’AGE DOR, THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE and THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY plays this film where reality seems a fantasy and vice versa. The sexual favours desired by Belle de Jour’s clients are not always involving intercourse. One sequence has the client get off with his face being stepped on by his girl. The very idea of a very bored housewife (Deneuve) serving clients every afternoon is in itself quite surreal.
There is much to fascinate besides the film’s sexual content. One is the study of the characters, why each behave the way they do. The other is the period piece, set in the past when one assumes sex is more controlled. Which is not the case.
Deneuve looks totally glamorous as her wardrobe was designed by none other than Yves Saint Laurent.
BELLE DE JOUR shot many of its actors to fame, not to mention Catherine Deneuve. Pierre Clementi won recognition as the extremely jealous gangster client, Marcel and went on to work after this film with the world’s best directors. He is unforgettable in Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST. Michel Piccoli again plays the role of another weirdo.
Not to give away any spoilers, the tim has many twists in the story including a happy fantasy-type ending that should please audiences.
BELLE DE JOUR would have likely been seen already by many a cinephile. But it is still interesting a watch a second time around as one-to-one can not be expected to remember everything about the film. BELLE DE JOUR is re-released in a 4K restoration print for a special engagement run beginning this week at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.