This is how ‘Belle de jour’ starts:
Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) is driving along a country lane in a landau, her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) by her side. He tries to embrace her and, when she spurns him, complains of her frigidity. Ordering the coachmen to stop, he enlists their help in bodily removing her from the carriage, hauling her into the woods and binding her to a tree. Pierre rips her blouse, exposing her back, and orders them to flog her. Then to have their way with her. The younger of the two grins sadistically as he slips free of his braces and starts towards her.
So far, so misogynistic; but Buñuel immediately cuts to Séverine, sitting up in bed, nightgown demurely buttoned up to the neck, a dreamy look on her face. Pierre wanders in from the bathroom and asks what she’s thinking about. “You,” she replies.
As ‘Belle de jour’ progresses, the question of reality and fantasy, of what is in the mind and how far it can be acted upon, comes to define the film to such an extent that the ending – I’ll leave the spoilers under wraps – throws this question over the entire 96-minute running time.
Agitation of the mind? You betcha! Agitation of the libido, too, given how memorably Séverine makes the transformation from glacial trophy wife to uninhibited seductress. It’s a transformation that occurs under the roof of an establishment run by the purringly sapphic Madame Anaïs (Geneviève Page)* – a place with limited staff (there only ever seem to be the same three girls working there) but a loyal clientele.
The regulars include a boorish businessman who demands champagne, complains that it’s properly chilled and treats Séverine roughly; an aristocrat who has her dress in a diaphanous winding sheet and lie still and silent in a coffin while he delivers a hushed eulogy then crawls under the coffin (the way it rocks and Séverine’s rolled eyes when she peeks over the side leave you in no doubt as to what he’s doing down there); and an oriental gentleman whose predilections involve something he keeps in an ornate enamelled box, one glance at which is enough to have one of the girls turn him down flat, but which seems to give Séverine no small degree of pleasure. Naturally, what’s in the box is never revealed; it’s just one of many gleeful enigmas Buñuel incorporates into the film. Likewise Séverine’s involvement with Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), a foppishly dressed hood with a knife in his walking cane and holes in his socks – does he really take drastic action against Pierre in a jealous rage, or is it all in Séverine’s mind? And if so, is it what she fears might happen or what she wants to happen?
“Belle de jour” is the name Séverine assumes when she commences employment with Madame Anaïs (or does she? a scene where she hesitates to enter the building, walks away and ends up sitting on a park bench could be the reality of things and every subsequent scene at the brothel a figment of her imagination; who knows?) – thus the central enigma, for me, is when is she Séverine and when is she Belle de jour? Approach the film with this in mind and you can watch it endlessly and put a different spin on things every time.
There’s a henge in the English village of Avebury (in Wiltshire). Urban legend has it that if you try counting the stones which form the circle, you’ll never arrive at the same number twice. ‘Belle de jour’ is like that; it’s peppered with so many deliciously odd moments – curiously interconnected but ultimately evasive (the two references to cats, for instance, or Pierre being distracted by a wheelchair on a street corner) – that however many times you watch it, further ambiguities are revealed.
* Séverine is a feminisation of Séverin, the hero of Sacher-Masoch’s ‘Venus in Furs’. Anaïs references Anaïs Nin, the lover of Henry Miller and author of ‘Delta of Venus’.