It’s tempting to play armchair psychologist for each of the characters in Belle de Jour—first and foremost, of course, for Severine (Catherine Deneuve), an affluent housewife who avoids physical intimacy with her doting husband (Jean Sorel) and instead begins working at a high-end brothel. Yet I wonder if that’s the wrong way to experience the movie, which after all comes not from the mind of these characters, but from director Luis Bunuel (adapting a novel by Joseph Kessel).
For Bunuel, sex is a primal thing that humans—especially men—are helpless before and ridiculously bad at engaging in. Usually this is played for comic effect; consider Fernando Rey’s amusing unraveling at the hands of women in both Tristana and That Obscure Object of Desire. In Belle de Jour, the depiction of sex gone awry is sometimes satirical—her first customer toasts himself: “To the person I care most about, me!”—but mostly it’s closer to tragic. There are hints that Severine’s compulsions are rooted in childhood sexual abuse, and even when she finds a certain liberation in her work as a prostitute, it still involves both psychological and physical degradation. (Her afternoon sessions with clients are at once exorcisms and re-enactments.)
Deneuve, who would work with Bunuel again on Tristana, gives a placid performance that still miraculously manages to capture Severine’s confused inner life. There are flickers of emotion in her stare, as well as the various ways she chooses to wear her hair. Deneuve plays Severine as victim and liberated woman—or, more accurately, as a survivor trying to negotiate a new identity between the two.
Belle de Jour becomes distinctly Bunuelian during Severine’s fantasy sequences, which frequently involve her being ravaged—occasionally against her will and often while her husband watches. There is nothing distinctly surreal about these scenes, but in their precise staging, arch performances, and heightened use of color they stand out as taking place in that strange dream dimension Bunuel so often evokes. Belle de Jour is another of his fever dreams, both more compelling and more disturbing than most.