A young Parisian housewife spends her afternoons working as a prostitute in a brothel.
If you’re a cinephile, there are images from certain films that you might know even if you’ve never seen the film- examples would be Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock on the side of a building in “Safety Last”, or Marilyn Monroe with her dress blown up in “The Seven Year Itch”, or James Dean in a red jacket with a cigarette sticking out the side of his mouth from “Rebel Without A Cause”.This film contains one of those famous images: Catherine Deneuve propped up in a bed on her arms, looking slightly tired. Though I’d never seen the film before yesterday, I knew the famous image, and so that had sort of shaped my perception of what I thought the film would be. While the image was famous, the subject matter wasn’t something I really felt a huge draw towards, so I never really had any intention to go out of my way to see it; that is, until Michael brought up the fact that he really enjoyed it. In the end I was thrilled that I watched this film, not only because the film is absolutely gorgeous in terms of aesthetic, but also because it showcases some very complex and compelling characters, and a story that is truly unique; plus, while the subject matter might in itself be a bit risqué, the way which it is handled is quite tame.
Would you like to be called “Belle de Jour”?
Severine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve, “Repulsion”) is a beautiful young housewife living in Paris with her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel, “The Day of the Jackal”). While she loves her husband very much, she has troubles being intimate with him, and constantly daydreams about pseudo-masochistic sexual fantasies that she has. One day when Severine and Pierre are out with their friends, Severine gets the idea to become a prostitute in a brothel and goes to visit Madame Anais (Genevieve Page, “The Private life of Sherlock Holmes”), whom allows Severine to begin working at her brothel. Severine finds joy in her new work, but some of the clientele she meets threaten her relationship with her husband and her very way of life.
So first and foremost, the thing that I liked the most about this movie was the complexity of the characters, primarily Severine/ Belle De Jour herself. As one might expect for a character with two names, Severine/Belle is quite duplicitous and that is illustrated even in the first few scenes. When we first meet Severine she’s riding in a carriage beside her husband Pierre, when Pierre suddenly instructs the drivers to stop the horses and the three men carry Severine into the woods where they tie and beat her. We cut from this violence to show Severine reclining in bed, and we realize that what we had just witnessed was Severine daydreaming, fantasizing, about being abused. All sort of fantasies pop up here and there throughout the film, almost always giving us insight into Severine’s thoughts. She’s a peculiar character in that she seems to be almost obsessive about sexual acts, but at the same time, though she clearly loves her husband, she finds it difficult to be physical with him. She seems to enjoy her husband’s company, but not the act of loving him- it’s as if she cannot see the union between love and sex. In her mind, the two are opposites. The complexity of her character makes her someone incredibly interesting to watch.
Another thing that I loved about this film was its direction. Bunuel is a director that I know a lot of cinephiles rave about; as for myself, I’ve only seen this and his bizarre comedic thriller “The Exterminating Angel”, but both films impressed me. In this film what impressed me the most was Bunuel’s ability to weave fantasy and reality together so smoothly, but also the amount of subtlety that went into his direction. The fantasies were oftentimes so realistic that as a viewer you don’t know what’s real and what’s imagined until the end of some of the dream sequences. Bunuel’s attention to detail really impressed me too, everything from the blocking of the scenes to the costume design was clearly planned explicitly to evoke a kind of symbolism. One huge thing I noticed about this film was the way that Severine is constantly crossing boundaries both in terms of camera movement physically and in terms of moral grounds- there are times when the camera sets up a line between Severine and something that she wants and she almost always crosses it. The first time Severine goes to Madame Anais’s brothel, there is a fence between herself and the brothel, and she crosses that line while the camera stays on the far side of the fence. There are other moments where Severine crosses into rooms with men where the camera also stays on one side of the line, almost always showing and symbolizing that Severine is sinking further into her choices. The costume design too is almost always indicative of Severine’s state of mind: when she’s with her husband she’s almost always in black and covered head to toe, but when she’s at the brothel, she’s always in various states of undress (very little nudity), and in bright colors.
This film also seems to hint more at the dark side of the world of prostitution more than actually show that side of it, which works considering who our POV character is. Severine is a character that is enamored by the world of prostitution, so it would only makes sense that the way she views the world is through rose-colored glasses: she likes being slightly roughed up and put in her place, but some of the other girls clearly are not okay with it. They warn her about certain clients, and some of the men that come in to the brothel make passes at a young schoolgirl, hinting at the much darker side of prostitution. In the end, Severine does get involved with the grimmer side of things, and only then does it begin to dampen her view of the whole affair.
The film also comments a bit on the differing views of sex: from that between married couples to those having an affair, the differences between how men and women look at sex, and also some of the stranger things that might come up in a prostitute’s line of work. While I wont say that this film is suitable for everyone, it is remarkably tame for the subject matter. Sex is a constant theme, but there is very little nudity, as I’ve already mentioned, and the way that this film ends sort of denounces this type of lifestyle. So while this is an exploration of promiscuity, it does not glorify that type of behavior at all.
I never would have had expected to enjoy this film as much as I did; it just goes to show that a film can be about anything, and as we’ll as the director truly has something to say, it can still impress. While I won’t recommend this film to everyone, for those that enjoy chic films with flashy sequences and beautiful cinematography this film will certainly entertain. Even though Bunuel isn’t French, I would consider this movie to be one of the most quintessential French films; Paris is just gorgeous in this movie.
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