Author: Michael Wood
Michael Wood begins his study of Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour by taking a very brief overview of Buñuel’s career: from his early Surrealist collaborations with artist Salvador Dali, through to his Mexican more mainstream middle period and his later glossy arthouse works dealing with sex, religion and bourgeois values. Bearing in mind that the Spanish director was 67-years-old when he made Belle de Jour there is clearly no taming him with age; indeed the most provocative films he made were those from his later career, certainly since his collaborations with Dali. Wood makes the point that this was the period when Buñuel was at his strongest and from this film up to his final film in 1977 this final period was his strongest phase.
Belle de Jour is about a young bourgeois wife, Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) who seems cold and frigid to her husband. She has lots of dreams and fantasies about being humiliated. A short while later a conversation about prostitution leads her to being tempted to begin working in a Paris brothel where she commences working in afternoons as a prostitute. After a series of false starts her sexual being is awoken by a rather bizarre Asian client before becoming attracted to a young hoodlum (Pierre Clementi) but she knows that this life will only end in disaster. Knowing the story of Belle de Jour (based off a 1920s novel by Joseph Kessel) is only part of the story; between them Buñuel and Deneuve delve into the sexual consciousness of her character. This is one of the most insightful films about the sub-conscious outside of the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock. In fact Wood mentions Hitchcock, his style of filmmaking and the psychology of his films on more than one occasion – but this angle of looking at the film could be developed into a book in its own right. Buñuel’s early background was tied and connected very much with Surrealism and themes of fantasy, religion, sex and bourgeois values permeated his films throughout his career. Throughout Wood highlights how this is arguably Buñuel’s glossiest film what with the use of cinematographer Sacha Vierny and a young and highly sort after Catherine Deneuve dressed in Yves Saint Laurent suits. This is another comparison that can be made with Hitchcock –the cool blonde fashioned after the likes of Grace Kelly, Eve-Marie Saint and Tippi Hedren.
Wood never loses sight that this film is about the inner workings of a woman who turns to prostitution, that her very private life frees her from her dreams; this does not mean that she doesn’t love her husband but it does mean she is aware that her secret life will have disastrous consequences. As such this is probably the best film about the oldest profession ever committed to the screen in which the clients are only mildly disturbing (apart from the bizarre Buñuelesque scene with the Duke). Following a very brief overview of Buñuel’s work, the author compares the film with Kessel’s novel which reveals that in fact there are very few differences until the end part of the film before he goes on to study the film in detail. He spends little time in delving into psychoanalytic detail and theory but does analyze the dreams and the context of those dreams on the story. In the penultimate chapter he studies a couple of scenes that don’t appear to make much sense until the end such as the way Séverine’s husband stares at a wheelchair – in the end a premonition of his own fate. Wood ends his study of the film by bringing the book full circle and looking at Buñuel’s later film and what made Belle de Jour the turning point into a new period of maturity.