Old and French: Belle de Jour (1967)

Every once in a while you get to discover a classic movie. What I mean by this is exactly what happened when I watched Belle de Jour: I had always known about this movie. I had seen the poster, heard the title, known it to be a classic, even brought it up in conversation, all without knowing what the movie was actually about. I often got it confused with La Dolce Vita, and the two movies are pretty phenomenally different. So, the other day, when I read what the actual plot of Belle de Jour is, I was able to be really really excited about this movie that came out 50 years before I was born. I watched it immediately.

The plot that grabbed me so is a uniquely French story told by Spanish filmmaker Luis BuñuelA housewife who has anxiety about being intimate with her husband begins working at a brothel in the afternoons, before her husband gets home from work. Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) is happily married to her husband, a doctor, Pierre (Jean Soreal). She loves him, she is devoted to him, she cares about their relationship, and yet (or maybe because of all that) she finds it impossible to be physically intimate with him. The two don’t even share a bed.

Séverine is haunted with guilt and pressures based on this anxiety that she has. A friend of the couple, Mr. Husson, is always trying to seduce her, to get her away from her husband for a moment of passion. She is beset by strange dreams where men in a carriage punish her in front of Pierre for transgressions unknown to the viewer. And while her husband is understanding and doesn’t intentionally pressure her at any time, his language implies that he’s not the most excited to be in a relationship without a physical aspect.

And then, compelled by strange intrigue, Séverine finds herself at a Brothel. By even stranger circumstances, she finds herself working there. And then, although it seems bizarre to the viewer and to the woman herself, she finds herself enjoying it. Not necessarily the sex, which the movie never revels in (considering its subject matter and the reputation of the country of origin, the film is rather tame in the nudity department). Under the pseudonym Belle de Jour, she works the early afternoon shift at the house of Madam Anais (Geneviève Paige), and finds herself a sought after client. In this work, Séverine is able to find a low pressure form of physical intimacy that doesn’t include the emotional connection, and which allows her to maintain the emotional relationship with her husband without bringing in the physical aspect that she is so uncomfortable with.

Many of the films themes are discussed through dream sequences and strange conversations. These segments highlight Buñuel’s identity as a surrealist filmmaker– things are just barely stranger than they are in real life. But this is no Eraserhead. There is nothing here that should scare mainstream audiences away. It holds up remarkably well, at times seeming like a film from the last 10 years. The technique is not showy here. What is on display is content, this woman and her relationships, her insecurities and her budding new confidence. People are hurt, people make bad decisions, those decisions are worked through in a very human way. The movie is very grounded and a weird enough to keep it from being another movie about a bored housewife.

The star, Deneuve (who is also spectacular in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, another of the many films I watched trying to find a French movie to write about here) is spectacular in her role. Séverine is a difficult woman to understand, and is often quite chilly to the people around her, but I never found her unsympathetic or unreasonable. There is a good portion of humor to the film as well, provided by Anais, the other women at the brothel, and the patrons.

One of the selling points of the film, I think, is that the audience is never given cause to pity Séverine. We are not presented a portrait of a housewife who becomes a sex worker because of desperation. We don’t ask ourselves, “How could she have fallen so low?” Instead of a picture of destitution, we are given a genuinely interesting story about a woman grappling with a separation between physical and emotional intimacy and trying to keep the two separate in her life. We are witness to her journey without being put in a position to pass judgement on her. And if we were to pass judgement, it wouldn’t matter much- she is on this journey because she needs to be.

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