Roger Ebert was notorious for his love of the “boob” films of directors like Russ Meyer – so much so that the two men eventually worked together in a creative capacity. Of his many vices, “women” was probably the least harmful, but perhaps the most addictive. Despite his admiration of the female form, Ebert was far from a misogynist. His inclusion of Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour in The Great Movies is a testament to his dual fascinations with both sensuality and empowerment.
Belle de Jour stars Catherine Denueve as Séverine Serizy, a sexually repressed housewife with more than a few odd fantasies which she is unwilling to share with her husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel). Whispers and rumors about another woman in her social circle lead Séverine to a high-class brothel, wherein she becomes Belle de Jour, the newest servicer to a host of men with sexual proclivities to rival her own.
Many older films dealing with female sexuality and sexual liberation take a negative view on the subject. If a woman takes her pleasure into her own hands she will often be vilified and punished by the writers and directors. Buñuel, however, has no interest in condemning Séverine for the nature of her actions; rather, Séverine’s transgression is her deceitfulness. She keeps her desires secret from Pierre, presumably out of shame, even though Pierre longs for the physical contact she denies him. Throughout the film Séverine insists that removing the sexual aspect from their relationship has strengthened her love for Pierre, but this is not reflected in her behavior or her treatment of her husband. She has lost interest in spending extended periods of time with him, despite her claims to the contrary. Her disinterest is reflected by Buñuel, who loses interest in depicting Pierre as his heroine does likewise.
As Séverine becomes more aware of her own dishonesty she begins to prepare for the punishment that she believes is inevitable (perhaps as a result of years of conditioning from cinema and society). She spends hours imagining the reprisals her husband might concoct in response, taking a pleasure in the thoughts alone. Séverine is so busy thinking about herself that she cannot take a moment to consider that retribution may not come to her directly.
Belle de Jour is a benchmark for eroticism in cinema, and is highly influential on similar films. Some recent derivatives (a word that sounds a lot more negative than I intended) include Lars von Trier’s recent Nymphomaniac Vol. I and Vol. II and Sion Sono’s Guilty of Romance. Belle de Jour is nowhere near as explicit or extreme as either of its modern day disciples, but it is just as effective – if not more so – at conveying the power of this particular brand of freedom.
That is ostensibly what brings Séverine to the brothel – a lack of power or control. Séverine finds that strength as Belle de Jour, but her inability to fully own her desires causes that power to be fleeting. Séverine is beholden to her secret, so when her fear of exposure is made clear to her clients, her power is stripped away; Belle de Jour becomes Séverine once again. Ultimately Buñuel is not looking to indict Séverine for her actions; he is going after the society that has made Séverine feel like she must go to such extremes to be happy. It is an argument that is frustratingly apt, even today.