Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel’s alarmingly intelligent meditation on the contradictions that motivate sex, desire, violence, fantasy, and even love, shattered conventions upon its 1967 release. Here was an erotic film that refused to exploit its central female character – neither her body nor her sexual appetite is taken for granted – and which never allowed pleasure to exist in an uncomplicated reality. If anything, the film asks its audience to engage with the possibility that what actually makes us feel good might be totally out of sync with what society has taught us should make us feel good.
Belle de Jour follows Séverine, a porcelain, apparently sex-averse young married woman (the otherworldly Catherine Deneuve) as she escapes into work at a high-class brothel to find something she can’t get from her husband. But, flipping this standard skin-flick plotline on its head, Bunuel has his reticent ingénue turning to prostitution not to find her sexual awakening in the passionate lovemaking of scores of beautiful men, but rather in the delicious humiliations, painful penetrations, and enveloping danger of the work. Her clients are rarely happy with her work, either – Bunuel is careful never to equate her beauty with some innate skill. Instead, we get something more complicated, something much less easily parsed, than your typical foray into the realm of sex-as-danger and pleasure-as-pain: we get a film that takes a woman’s non-normative sexual identity completely seriously, and never as a means to titillate.
Séverine’s masochism is a steady and unyielding force in her life; sex is merely the avenue down which she chases it. Her almost comically beautiful, successful and patient husband stands as a neuter in her mind, too kind to fully touch her need for pain, for shame, though he is the very picture of a loving husband. Indeed, that we probably should identify with this “normal” and virtuous man, but don’t, is one of the most amazing tricks this film pulls on its audience.
In clever ways, the film operates as a Lady Chatterley’s Lover updated to ’60s Paris. The class warfare that is so much a central theme in Lawrence’s classic erotic novel are here in evidence, but are for the most part displaced (or, at least, augmented) by updated gender politics. Since the husband in both stories winds up either figuratively or actually incapable of satisfying his wife’s sexual needs despite offering steadfast emotional support, both that novel and this film can be (and often are) read through a feminist lens as studies of women’s awakening sexual power. Deneuve’s Belle de Jour (Séverine’s nom de guerre in the brothel) takes her pleasure into her own hands, and in so doing expresses a central tenet of women’s liberation feminism by the late ’60s: normative missionary three-minute sex doesn’t work for everyone, and it’s now up to women to figure out what works for them, and to seek it out for themselves.
This welcome Criterion release features illuminating interviews with feminist film scholars, a well-designed booklet, a provocative commentary, and a simply gorgeous transfer. As usual, top marks for the Criterion team for going well above and beyond the standard making-of featurette and still collection.