Belle de Jour

When Belle de Jour was first released in 1967, CV was a lot younger, the world of film was less jaded, and the subject matter here was unquestionably titillating. Today, when sadism/masochism has become common subject matter for ad campaigns aimed at the teenage market, we look at this film with different eyes.
If the shock value of Belle de Jour has been mitigated, director Luis Bunuel’s artistry has not. Indeed, since we are no longer shocked by the film, or see its subject matter as the novelty it once was, we are better able to evaluate it in its own terms. Bunuel tells the story of an upper middle class housewife, in a loving but sexually frigid marriage, who acts out her fantasies by becoming a prostitute in a brothel. The film moves back and forth between current reality, flashback, and our heroine’s fantasies, often leaving it to the viewer to determine which mode is operational. The heroine, played with smooth finesse by Catherine Deneuve, has a particularly strong affinity for bondage, domination, and submission.
Bunuel stays detached from the proceedings, nonjudgmental, coolly unemotional. On the surface he gives us glorious color, handsome settings of lush interiors, and chic (even today!) costuming by Yves Saint-Laurent. All this provides stark contrast to the darker sexual fantasies, the edgy threat of violence, the sleazy underworld of sex-for-hire. There are moments of comic relief, but the humor here is dark, too.
The broad thesis that surface "normality" conceals more complicated psychological interiors does not seem especially revealing to our liberated era. Yet, the film retains a fascination in the brilliance of its knowing detail about sexual attraction/revulsion, about the subtleties of desire. When Deneuve first visits the brothel, the madame (wonderful Genevieve Page) makes a pass at her, which she rejects. When Deneuve leaves the brothel, and offers the kiss she refused before, Page turns her head away. A small bit of business, but perceptive and telling. The film has a plenitude of such small revelations.
Bunuel is a master of detail here, perhaps more so than in some of his earlier work. Each element can be seen to fit into the overall scheme and offer something of interest. If one has to think it out a bit to make the pieces of the puzzle come together, the challenge comes from a master.
Arthur Lazere

San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.