Belle De Jour (1967) is best known to many for being a luxurious film, giving Yves Saint Laurent an iconoclast role in the movie, and elevating the atmosphere with elegance and class. However, this superficial attention to detail is merely a diversion from the depravity that lies beneath the surface. Belle De Jour is considered an erotic movie, but it is also a complicated look at adult sexuality post-trauma. Directed and co-written by Luis Buñuel, you should be forewarned that this, like all his movies, is an intangible film. Buñuel rejects any interpretations of his movies, and is a true nihilist in that sense. His World is a cruel place, sometimes for no reason at all.
Nevertheless, Belle De Jour does leave us a few clues. Catherine Deneuve stars as Severine, a withdrawn and pretentious French housewife. Her and her husband are the vision of perfection and success, and yet Severine is visibly distant and unhappy. She sleeps in a separate bed from her husband, and rejects any affection he tries to give. “I always feel from you...this distance”, he laments, clueless and unable to help. She is so detached from her body that her actual life is sexless, awkward and yet almost sweet. Her husband is dutifully patient and understanding, but this seems to only push her away. All of her peers see Severine as naive, puritanical and almost virginal in her distaste for any expression of sexuality.
Unbeknownst to anyone, Severine does have one sexual outlet. Severine is an insatiable masochist. The Throughout the day, she tortures herself in perverse, sadomasochistic daydreams. These fantasies both entertain and disturb her, but she seems to have little control over the compulsion to visualize them. She feels guilt for this imaginary betrayal to her husband, but at the same time derives some pleasure from the guilt itself. She is both obsessed with sex and fervently rejects it. Severine cannot go out to dinner with friends without vividly fantasizing about a sexual encounter with them in front of everyone. As her eyes glaze over in public, you watch her wistfully lose herself in her other world, a state of disassociation so immersed, that it blends seamlessly with her day to day life. Her face is a constant blank slate, completely unreadable.
It looks as if she is waiting to be told how to feel about her own desires.
Severine has been cited as a great case study on the behaviour of Masochists, but it’s worth noting that she is also affected by a sense of shame. Not for her fantasies or her rejection of her husband, but Shame in her sexuality as a whole. The only explanation we get is a brief but abrupt memory that cuts through the film, hinting she has been sexualized or assaulted as a child. The film carries on as if this moment is irrelevant, but it becomes clear that this memory is the source of her shame. Severine is a profoundly sexual person who is afraid of seduction, and despite herself, is only attracted to men that intimidate her. The daydreams are her way of creating a sexual identity that is not defined by post traumatic stress.
At a time when the idea of free love and self-fulfillment were starting to be explored in society, the concept of dealing with the oversexualization of young girls and degradation of women was a secondary thought. Women were not given the tools to overcome trauma and were expected to dive right into a world of people ready to once again use and degrade them.
Unlike the wildly popular exploitation films of it’s time, Belle De Jour’s approach to the issue of sexuality with post traumatic stress is surprisingly nuanced. The sex and nudity is far less gratuitous than you would expect for a French film of it’s time, and it is important to note an overall theme of sexual fulfillment, rather than punishment. Although it could at times seem like a softcore drama, Severine is always in control of how far the sex will go, with who, and when. This is surprising because Luis Buñuel was not considered remotely feminist. Catherine Deneuve described him as difficult to work with, and was lied to about the amount of nudity that was expected for her role. It could be Bunuel never set out to make a feminist statement, and didn’t anticipate or care about the significance of giving a survivor sexual autonomy. Most movies that got anywhere near the subject of surviving sexual assault were usually exploitative in nature. In contrast, Bunuel does not capitalize on Severine’s abuse as entertainment fodder, but presents it as a memory too painful to dwell on for more than a few seconds. The film does not focus on her shame and her past but rather as her being undefined by these events and having self-determination in her identity.
Severine teaches herself the virtues of self empowerment, indulgence and self care by enlisting herself in a brothel as a part-time prostitute while her husband is at work.
All previous shame for pleasure and desire dissipate quickly within these chambers. Her clients discover her fetishism immediately and enthusiastically, to the advantage of all parties.
In the brothel she can gratify herself freely and not be judged, as here it is all in a day’s work.
Conversely, her relationship with her husband improves, and she gains the confidence to start sleeping with him again. She starts seeing a particularly domineering client free of charge, at this point unaware of the differences between an abusive personality and the type of attentive dominance that she fantasizes about. In a rare moment, we see her utilize an emotion never expressed before. Her new boyfriend oversteps his boundaries and tries to take advantage of her submissive nature. In a fit of jealousy, he threatens to hit her. At this point in the movie we have seen Severine whipped, humiliated, had mud sling at her (all to her delight). But in this instance she does not want his anger, and understands she has done nothing to deserve a punishment she didn’t desire. Severine’s face changes from her usual pleasant, blank stare to a grimace of pure anger. She not only protects herself, she also reprimands him and threatens to leave him for disrespecting her. Here Severine establishes clear boundaries between consensual submission and domestic abuse. Severine utilizes the boundaries that kept her safe in her fantasy life, and asserts them in the physical world. She has transcended from her fantasy identity and is now the person she wanted to be, not a projection of her partner’s desires.
There is some ambiguity about whether Bunuel ultimately punishes Severine for her sexuality and her affairs, and whether many of the events ever happened at all. I like to believe Severine fantasized about her husband finding out, and gratifies herself with a final masochistic daydream. We may never know for sure, as Bunuel never reveals what her ‘true’ fate is, as he replays this scene with an alternate ending. Regardless, Bunuel was successful in creating a wholly complex study of female sexuality that stresses what it is She wants - and not her clients or her husband.