Arts & Events

Belle de jour Explores the Dark Side of Deneuve

By Justin DeFreitas
Monday January 30, 2012 - 10:02:00 AM
Directors Luis Buñuel directs the coachman on the proper technique for ravishing Catherine Deneuve in <i>Belle de jour</i>.
Directors Luis Buñuel directs the coachman on the proper technique for ravishing Catherine Deneuve in Belle de jour.

The collaborations of director Luis Buñuel and screen writer Jean-Claude Carriere examine and satirize the dark underbelly of bourgeoisie society. Their films are dark, a bit twisted and sometimes discomfiting. But Buñuel and Carriere do not judge these characters. They are presented from a certain distance; we watch them, we gain a certain understanding of them, but we are not made to either identify with them nor be repulsed by them. Buñuel and Carriere merely present them as they are and allow the audience to come to their own conclusions.  

Their work took on a particularly dark and personal tone with Belle de jour, recently released by Criterion on DVD and Blu-Ray. The film stars Catherine Deneuve as the frigid wife of a young surgeon. They are happy together, but they keep separate beds even a year after their marriage. Gradually we learn that the young bride, Severine, is anything but frigid, and in fact has an active fantasy life. It’s just that conventional lovemaking within a marriage is not sufficient to arouse her libido. And this is where the filmmakers' familiar themes come in.  

Belle de jour is about fetishes, appearances, fantasy and restraint. Severine is overwhelmed by fantasies of being taken by force, of being humiliated, abused and denigrated in strange rituals. Flashbacks suggest that these desires stem from incidents in her childhood, but the fetishes themselves are never explained — wisely, for nothing robs a fetish of its allure than an attempt at explanation.  

Severine’s fetishes, which are often subtly infused into the fantasy sequences, seem to bring her to a frenzy. Like a Pavlovian dog, she harkens to the sounds of ringing of bells and mewing cats. And in her dreams she is objectified and treated cruelly to a soundtrack of primal noises.  

Her desires lead her to take a job as a prostitute, arriving at the whorehouse each day dressed in black, as though in mourning for the life she is leaving behind, and returning home each day by 5 to her unsuspecting husband.  

One scene involves a man entering the bordello with a little black box. We do not see what is in it, but it is enough to cause one prostitute to refuse to do his bidding. Severine accepts, however, enticed by whatever fetish he carries in the box. And his excited ringing of a tiny bell only seals the deal, coaxing an excited smile from her.  

Deneuve is often discussed as simply a great beauty, but she is far more than that. Her acting in Belle de jour is subtle and effective. She is able to consistently demonstrate the duality of Severine’s existence: the trepidation, shame and fear combined with passion and desire, as well as the bliss of masochistic fantasies fulfilled.  

The film’s conclusion is ambiguous and probably has a number of valid interpretations. At first glance the final 20 minutes seem like a 1930s American film under the Production Code, with a wild woman bringing ruin to herself and to those she loves because of her lurid behavior. But another interpretation takes the film in quite another direction. Severine has her fetish: to be defiled, abused and humiliated. Hussan, a friend of Severine’s husband, has his fetish: to defile his friend’s seemingly virtuous young bride. The gangster Severine becomes entangled with has his fetish: to live the life and die the death of an outlaw, disrupting the social order and going out in a hail of gunfire. And the husband can be said to have a fetish as well: a virtuous wife by day, a sexual animal by night.  

The ending, with Hussan revealing Severine’s secret to her paralyzed and unresponsive husband, provides a bit of satisfaction for everyone, for Hussan gets the chance to expose Severine’s tawdry dark side, thereby defiling her in the eyes of her husband; the gangster gets his tragic, romantic death in the streets; and Severine ends up sitting quietly under the mysterious gaze of her husband, exposed and vulnerable, just as in her fantasies — a “slut,” a “whore,” waiting for the “firm hand” to administer punishment. And the husband now has his virtuous and apologetic wife, but a new and improved version, for this one just might share his bed.  

A final dream sequence concludes the film, with the husband forgiving his wife for her actions. Is this a vision of the future, or is it a new kind of fantasy for Severine, one in which her husband finally grants her the forgiveness and understanding her guilty conscience craves? Or perhaps it’s simply a new twist on the old fantasies, with Buñuel and Carriere taking one last swipe at the bourgeoisie as they infuse the dream once again with the ringing of bells and the mewing of cats — everything a good society girl needs to keep her happy.  

Criterion's new edition comes with many extra feature, including a new interview with Jean-Claude Carriere.