Luis Buñuel is one of the most well-known Spanish directors, and for good reason. The father of cinematic Surrealism (as some like to call him), Buñuel has directed so many masterpieces, it is hard to select only one. However, the film that everyone seems to give the honor to – the one that had critics and film essayists kill full forests to write about – is definitely Belle de Jour.
Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) is a bored high-class housewife, who is afraid of physical contact with her husband (the handsome Pierre, played by Jean Sorel), and has to fend off the advances of her husband’s friend, Henri (Michel Piccoli). Séverine is also tormented by strange sado-erotic dreams, where she is beaten and called names by her husband, and offered to strangers. When she hears that one of her class equals is working at a brothel, her curiosity takes her to enrol as one of Madame Anaïs (Geneviève Page)’s working girls. Nervous at first, Séverine – now working under the name Belle de Jour (as she only works 2 to 5pm) – soon becomes the most requested girl at the brothel. But when a young man gets obsessed with her, and Henri visits the brothel, Séverine finds out that her two lives may be about to collide with awful consequences…
Full of symbolism and premonitions, Belle de Jour resists the test of time as it offers a very curious portrait of female ennui – it’s not like Séverine/Belle doesn’t love Pierre, but she can’t help her compulsion and desires. As she explores herself sexually, her relation with her husband becomes closer and closer, as if her secret life was all she needed to feel like a full human being. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Sacha Vierny (the go-to man for, curiously, Peter Greenaway), this film makes us all fall in love with Deneuve’s aristocratic, cold, and yet, naïve look. As her childhood flashbacks suggest early abuse (a possible cause for her frigidity and humiliation fantasies), they are also presented in the same visual way as her dreams, with no rigid line between reality and illusion.
Open to multiple interpretations, a film about so many things and yet so neat (almost clinical, in fact), Belle de Jour is a must watch for any cinephile worthy of its name, as a complex portrait of a woman that can be, at the same time, a virgin and a whore, and is only whole when both.
Belle de Jour is being released by StudioCanal in a stunning 4K restoration for its 50th Anniversary. Available in DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital Download in the UK from the 2nd October 2017. A brand new Buñuel boxset will also be released on Blu-Ray on 23rd October.