I love Love LOVE LOVE Belle de Jour! I know it is viewed by many as minor Buñuel, but this film actually erased or clarified my previous qualms about his signature symbolism and surrealism. Belle de Jour worked for me. And it worked perfectly.
Buñuel is in full command of the medium here. Whereas I could not gloss over his usual conceits in Viridiana, for example, I think they suit Belle de Jour perfectly. He moves the film forward and he does it with panache. Catherine Deneuve is immaculate in her role as the lonely wife-turned-prostitute Séverine, who harbours masochistic and humiliation fantasies. Critics may argue that this is a misogynistic treatment of her character. But I never felt that way. Indeed, I felt the opposite. Because she is trapped in her ennui, in the all-too-familiar banality of her bourgeois existence, she seeks her own liberation (sexual and personal) by being in control of her life.
Prostitution is less of a point and more of a metaphor. It is this control that she has that allows her to blossom. Even in small scenes where Séverine is just playing or chatting with the other working girls, one can see the palpable joy in her eyes. She is free and she has company. Indeed, life is not merely about possessions (she has lots based on scenes filmed in her home), it is about the people around us and how we interact with them. Even her encounters with the various customers, however bizarre, have more “life” than her life at home. Buñuel indeed films these scenes with such compassion and honesty but also with such audacity and bluntness; no wonder this film made waves during the Venice Film Festival that year (winning the Golden Lion).
It is just too tragic that in this film, the rest of the world could not keep up. This is symbolized by all her fantasies featuring the men wearing Victorian-era costumes. There is her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel), who is blind to her demands and also to her needs. There is her gangster lover Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), whose naivete costs everyone dearly. He might be hot, but his stupidity is astounding (Buñuel does a perfect joke on our fantasies of love with this character). And there are lots of inside jokes (or parodies) poked at Godard, especially Breathless. There is the announcement from a seller shouting, “New York Herald Tribune!” And the street shooting purely channels Jean-Paul Belmondo’s final scene. I think only Michel Piccoli’s character, Henri, understands Séverine’s plight, but even he is ultimately constrained by the prevailing social conventions.
Belle de Jour comes full circle at the end. Reality and fantasy collide in a heartbreaking sequence. With her husband paralyzed, Séverine creates one last fantasy – that of a happy relationship with her husband – this time stripped of sexual tones. This scene is so pure and sincere, I got overwhelmed. I cried during this part. I had been completely sold on the film early on, but the perfect denouement nailed it for me. In this film, Buñuel successfully weaves the “real” and the “dream” into one lucid filmic existence. Just as Juliet of the Spirits (which has lots of parallels with Belle de Jour, I might add) completely sold me on Fellini after my initial indifference to 8½ (I have since reassessed it), Belle de Jour is my own epiphany on the endearing genius of this other surrealist master.