One of the local libraries holds its annual used book sale right around my birthday, which means I usually return home with a pile of books I don’t technically need. For a year or two, they were getting rid of what must have been someone’s private collection of books about sex. They ranged from pulp novels to academic works, none of them published any later than the 1970s, and had no names or addresses. For a variety of reasons, including my love of pulp covers, I grabbed a handful. I’ve only read one so far, Eros Denied by British writer and politician Wayland Hilton Young, Second Baron Kennet of the Dene. Yes, really. It was published in the UK in 1964 and in the US a few years later, just after the release of Belle de Jour. The book is an emphatic declaration that sex and intimacy should be a rationally discussed part of life in the West (he seems mostly concerned with Great Britain and the US), with a lot of side digressions and a set of badly reproduced black-and-white illustrations. They’re graphic, but not too graphic: Young notes that including anything more explicit would have kept the book from being printed.
There’s an entire chapter about prostitution, which includes some genuinely fascinating excerpts from contemporary interviews with both high-priced escorts and women who worked the street. As you might expect, not one of them sounds like a character from Belle de Jour.
This is fine, on multiple levels. Belle de Jour doesn’t intend to be a realistic look at anything, including its lead character, and Eros Denied gets caught up in seeing women as mysteries rather than humans. (Even as Young complains about the way sexologists and so-called experts treat women, he falls right back into the same trap. Women don’t think of sex the way men do? Oh, interesting. How do they think of sex, then? Hmm? Any kind of answer? Nah?) I’m sure there was some honesty in the book’s oral histories, but then again, what reason did these women have to be honest? What truth did they owe the researchers who intruded and judged? (Institutional Review Boards, or Research Ethics Committees in the UK, wouldn’t be instituted until the 1970s.)
Men, from academics to pornographers, have spent decades trying to unlock the mysteries of female desire, using probes and sensors and brain scans and all sorts of things. Women’s desires have been fantasized about, stigmatized, mythologized. You would think, looking at the enormous amount of ink spilled on the mystery that is woman, I’d spend less time thinking, “For a dollar, name a woman” when I read historical documents, but here we are.
Belle de Jour at least has the virtue of recognizing that women have desires, and they might not be the picture-perfect fantasies of a Hallmark Original Movie. (Of course, plenty of works of art recognize that: Lifetime Original Movies, Mills and Boon romance novels, and Fifty Shades of Grey all come to mind, but of course, they’re more often thought of as punchlines than art.) There’s not much work by men, for men or a “general audience,” that takes female desire head-on the way Belle de Jour does.
What does Séverine owe her husband, or anyone? Not to stereotype, but plenty of ink has been spilled on the casual expectation in French society that men will have affairs, and the men who frequent her brothel certainly aren’t chaste or faithful. Who does she owe excuses or explanations to? The horrible consequences she suffers aren’t really the consequences of her actions, but those of the men who want to own and control her. They want the fantasy of the libertine woman, but they don’t want to face what that actually means; a woman who enjoys sex on her own terms, with the partners she chooses, whose fantasies of exposure and humiliation are her own, not imposed by another. Séverine doesn’t need any of the men in her life, with the possible exception of her husband Pierre; they’re distractions, sources of pleasure, but we have no evidence that they can’t be easily replaced. (“I could have another you in a minute/Matter fact he’ll be here in a minute…”).
But of course, the other side of the contract, at least in the world of Belle de Jour, is male fantasy. The men in Séverine’s life want fantasy, too, and the ones who purchase their pleasures an hour at a time are predictable. More dangerous are Marcel and Husson, whose fantasies are predictable and restrictive. They want possession and domination — but Séverine refuses to give these men the kind of ownership they long for. Control in the space of the bedroom is not, for Séverine, control outside of it, but the men in her life refuse to respect that line, and refuse to respect her.
Belle de Jour leaves it an open question whether that is part of the appeal for Séverine. Her friend tells her, “in those houses, you don’t get to choose,” and Husson tells her “the women are complete slaves” when he gives her the address she later visits and begins working at. There’s a balance working in Séverine between choice and helplessness, with a side of arrested development; her husband asks her when she’s going to grow up, and when she makes the choice to enter the brothel, she does so after visiting a playground (later, she resists Pierre’s wish for a child of their own). Her childhood memories also seem to indicate helplessness and a loss of control. Notably, it’s her madam, Anaïs, who first recognizes that she “needs a firm hand,” not any of the men (rough-hewn “M. Adolphe” also catches on fast, but she’s damn close to useless when “The Professor” wants to be whipped and stepped on).
And what of Séverine’s husband?
He’s a bit of a mystery, isn’t he? He’s tender, mostly, devoted, handsome. The movie opens with him trying to understand Séverine’s coldness — but of course, it doesn’t open with that at all, does it? It opens with Séverine’s fantasy of Pierre confronting her with her coldness, of two well-dressed coachmen helping restrain her as Pierre gags and insults her. He tears her clothes off and commands her to be whipped, then assaulted, and her expression changes from fear to ecstacy. But when the fantasy ends, she’s stuck in a marriage that leaves her cold.
There’s a quiet matter-of-factness in the way director Luis Buñuel presents Belle de Jour that makes it feel less like a lurid exposé and more like a peek into the mind of a person with her own agenda and desires. Catherine Deneuve is also a big part of the film’s appeal; she’s more beautiful than almost any woman on Earth, of course, at the time or possibly ever, and her expressions give us a taste of what she’s really feeling, and what she really wants, even when she’s silent.
The ending is filmed as realistically as the rest of the film, which means it’s hard to say when the switch from reality to fantasy begins. Was Pierre really injured, or is his recovery when the movie veers from reality? Is there a message to any of this, or is it just Buñuel’s fantasies at play? (And does any of that really matter?)
Is it surrealism? Myth? A morality tale?
How you see the ending may be as much a verdict on how you see sex, love, and desire as on the artistry or themes of the movie itself. This is not a story about happiness or monogamy or any of the more boring aspects you might find in a film about love. This is a movie about desire and sex and how messy those things can be. And it’s better for it. Belle de Jour is confident and sensual, as matter-of-fact about matters in the bedroom as outside the door. More movies could stand to be so frank and emotionally honest.
- The men in Séverine’s life brutalize her clothes, a suggestion of what the men in her life could do (and sometimes are doing) to her body. They are quite beautiful; Yves Saint-Laurent designed most of Deneuve’s costumes. They were so popular that Belle de Jour and Saint-Laurent were credited with reviving interest in haute couture.
- There is a sequel, of sorts, Belle Toujours, released in 2006, long after Buñuel’s death.
- Damned if I know what was in that box.