I first saw Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour when I was a university sophomore light years ago after reading some tantalizing reviews and lured by the world class beauty and mystique of French goddess Catherine Deneuve (23 years old at the time.)
I recently watched Belle de Jour again, decades later, this time on a Criterion Collection DVD and realized I could remember every single scene. This from a guy that cannot remember plots of Midsomer Mysteries that he saw several years ago. Okay, sometimes I remember whodunit but not why they dun it. Nevertheless, the Brit TV show is one of my favorites.
Anyway, the peerless Mme. Deneuve plays the enigmatic Severine, the wife of a handsome, well-to-do doctor (Jean Sorel) who lives a comfortable existence in Paris. Too comfortable, as it turns out, since she has a rich fantasy life in which she inhabits various scenarios in which she is debased or defiled.
Director Luis Bunuel, working from longtime collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere’s adaptation of a novel by French author Joseph Kessel, blurs the line between what is really happening on screen and what is only happening in Severine’s mind. (After all, this is the same director who filmed two different actresses in the same role in That Obscure Object of Desire and collaborated with surrealist madman Salvador Dali in the notorious Un Chien d’Andalou.)
In an interview with film critics (and close friends) Jose de la Colina and Tomas Perez Turrent (included in a booklet along with the Criterion DVD) Bunuel insists that the scenes in which Severine works part-time in an upscale Parisian brothel really happen but in the same interview the famed film-maker also says (and I quote) “I myself cannot tell you what’s real and what’s imaginary in the film. For me they form the same thing.” He also tells his friends in the same interview: “When I make a film, I set it free. If you two see it differently from how I made it, that’s all right. I would even accept that your version is better.”
At any rate, Mme. Deneuve, with her porcelain features and detached air, represents perfect casting. Or, as frequent Village Voice contributor Melissa Anderson puts it, in an essay included in the Criterion booklet, Mme. Deneuve’s facial features are an “exquisite blank slate …. onto whom all sorts of perversions could be projected.” I should note here that Bunuel merely introduces the various brothel scenarios and leaves the viewer to fill in the blanks. (A year later, Frank Zappa would ask, “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?” in the song of the same name and reply, “I think it’s your mind.” Hmmm, I wonder if he saw Belle de Jour.)
And, no, I never did find out what is in the box proffered by the Japanese businessman. Ms. Anderson quotes Bunuel in her essay as saying that the contents of the box is “whatever you want it to be.”
The same quote could apply to this film.
PS The Criterion disc also inclueds a video discussion of the film featuring writer and sexual-politics activist Susie Bright and film scholar Linda Williams.