From the outside, Catherine Deneuve’s protagonist in Belle De Jour has everything a Parisian woman of the 1960s could want. She’s married to a comically handsome man (Jean Sorel) whose career as a surgeon allows her tremendous comfort and seemingly endless leisure. They vacation in luxury and enjoy each other’s company. Sex, however, is another matter. He wants it. She doesn’t. Or at least that isn’t all she wants. Directed by Luis Buñuel, Belle De Jour begins by dramatizing one of Deneuve’s fantasies. Riding in a carriage with Sorel, she rejects his advances. He responds by tying her to a tree, flogging her, then telling her coachmen to have their way with her. The expression on her face reveals that the degradation has stirred something deep inside her. Then she wakes up to the less-satisfying real world.
That isn’t the last time Buñuel’s 1967 film blurs Deneuve’s fantasies into the reality around her. A surrealist from the time of the style’s inception, Buñuel happily keeps the film disorienting, an approach particularly suited to the subject of sex and the ways the mind can catalyze, or short-circuit, the pleasures of the body. Intrigued when Sorel’s debauched friend Michel Piccoli mentions a brothel—he even supplies an address as if baiting a hook—Deneuve takes to working as a prostitute during the day, assuming the name “Belle De Jour” for a day job that doubles as an initiation into forms of submission she’d previously only imagined.
On one of the best extra features on the new DVD and Blu-ray edition, scholars Linda Williams and Susie Bright puzzle over the heroine, with Williams describing her as “probably” a masochist and Bright referring to the “tremendous cognitive dissonance” that allows her to harbor desires she can’t bring herself to acknowledge. Neither, however, claims to have her figured out. Is the brief scene of her childhood self being fondled by an older man the origin of her current state? Did it actually happen? Buñuel and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière, who adapted the film from a 1928 novel by Joseph Kessel, don’t supply any answers, and they deepen the confusion with sex scenes that could easily be the product of Deneuve’s imagination. (What, for instance, is in that music-box-like case that repulses the other prostitutes, but draws Deneuve?) Because it’s a Buñuel film, its sympathies lie with no one, and there isn’t much interest in the bourgeois heroine achieving happiness or enlightenment. But it’s worth noting that Deneuve does, at least, get off. And more than once. She leaves the film with some understanding of what she needs sexually, if no more idea than the rest of us why she needs it, or whether getting in the real world what she wants when she closes her eyes will mean tearing down the life she knows.
Key features: The Bright and Williams interviews, a detail-oriented commentary by Michael Wood, new and vintage interviews.