“Belle de Jour is the tragedy of a divorce – between body and soul, between the tenderest love and the implacable demands of the senses…” proclaims its trailer. You can’t blame them, I suppose – back in the sixties, Buñuel’s adaptation of Kessel’s novel was a little too absurdist, a little too psychoanalytical, and a little too frank with regards to that touchy topic of sex to allow for any kind of interpretation other than a traditional one. Thankfully, there’s a new DVD release to remedy that unfortunate misinterpretation and re-kindle interest in the film.
For the tale isn’t as simple as that. There is certainly a sort of divorce, as the film’s protagonist, Séverine (Catherine Deneuve), divides her identity into two: trophy wife by night and prostitute by day. Initially fearful and repressive of the sexuality that she relegates to her fantasies, she becomes increasingly intrigued; escaping the elegant and aristocratic Paris of Haussmann that she knows, she ventures into a brothel – and a world of discovery. It is here that she finds a haven without which she cannot live, here that she goes through a sort of initiation into sexuality, introduced to the most bizarre and humiliating of human desires by Madame Anais (Genevieve Page) and her girls; it is also here that that she lives out her most depraved fantasies, especially in the arms of Marcel (Pierre Clementi), a crook who’s just sufficiently threatening for Séverine’s desires.
The separation here is not the simple divide between love and lust, and that’s precisely what makes this film intriguing. In a highly sexualized world, Séverine maintains an opposition between love and sex because one represents the greatest tenderness, while the other rough violence. They must forever remain at odds, in a paradoxical conflict in which sex can never be the extension of love because their very natures are so different.
“It’s the other one that you love?” Marcel asks her once.
“Why do you come here, then?”
“I don’t know. They’re two very different things.”
Unfortunately, Deneuve is hardly the perfect actress to incarnate this duality: though her icy, pale, blonde beauty is undoubtedly fitting for a virginal Maddona, she retains this frozen demeanor even in the scenes of passion. If one believes the actress’s commentaries that are appended to the DVD, she had very little idea of Séverine’s internal struggle and very many issues with Buñuel’s artistic vision, which, quite possibly, is explanation enough for her iciness.
Nevertheless, Buñuel’s film is a chef-d’oeuvre. It is unflinching in its treatment of truth and also merciless in erasing the lines between reality and imagination. Séverine’s fantasies are as disturbing as some of her real escapades, and also indistinguishable from them. The film ends with no clear moral message, no punishment for a woman’s adultery, but no vindication of it either – in fact, Buñuel himself admitted that he doesn’t understand the ending. The movie deals with a topic that has, no doubt, been addressed to death by our day and age – female sexuality – but it also deals with a grander human question, that ever-elusive nature of both love and sex; the masterful ambiguity with which Buñuel unravels his story in what now feels like the Paris of by-gone days is precisely why Belle de Jourremains a masterpiece even today.
Criterion’s new release makes this vividly clear: it treats the film as a serious artistic work, wrapped in a plethora of commentaries, interviews and essays. Particularly interesting is an elucidating interview with Buñuel himself: it’s surprising to what extent he’s as confused as his audience about what exactly is going on in the movie. There’s also a segment with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who speaks about the drastic differences between the novel and the story; most significantly, however, there’s a video piece with commentary by sexual politics activist Susie Bright and film scholar Linda Williams. Though their observations provide few profound insights, they do point to some fresh ways interpreting certain scenes, and, what is more important, they treat the film as a serious work on sexuality – a refreshing view. They make it clear that this film still retains its capacity to both entertain and provoke even half a century after its release.