Belle de Jour

Belle de Jour ★★★★★

Right around the halfway point of Belle de Jour— Luis Buñuel’s erotic, surrealist classic — a supposedly unusual request from a client at the small Parisian brothel where the protagonist works arrives without much fanfare. What follows involves a small lacquered box which emits a sound best described as the buzz of a mosquito and a sexual encounter between Séverine and the client that leaves some of the staff scared/puzzled. It's a small moment, comprising maybe 3 minutes of the entire film, and can easily be seen as another vignette in Séverine's day-to-day life, but the sequence is the key to unraveling Belle de Jour. It's a mini-mystery that is presented without an answer (we never find out what's inside that box) and much like the movie itself it's not meant to be figured out. Instead, what this does is shift our attention from the odd details of the scene to what the moment actually accomplishes: our heroine's fulfillment.

Buñuel seems to be saying that all of the surreal touches are not knots to be untied hoping to get to the core of the film. There's no need to fit Séverine's motivations into a Freudian/Jungian context, even though there are allusions throughout that could keep a psychoanalyst busy for hours. Instead, Belle de Jour focuses on the sexual experience itself, motives be damned. It's a movie to be experienced (whether passionately or intellectually is up to the viewer), but ultimately there's no puzzle to solve here.

Except when there is. The film's famous final scene seems to imply that perhaps everything that came before has been one of Séverine's fantasies all along, which doesn't play out in the usual gotcha manner, mostly because the film is so off-kilter for the entirety of its run that we are often unsure of what's true and what's fantasy. Buñuel accomplishes this by faking us out with the very first scene, which tells us not to trust what's being presented at face value for the duration of the movie. All of that is besides the point, because Séverine's desires are satisfied either way. The restraints that have been imposed on her by societal conventions and her thoroughly bourgeois life are ultimately dismantled through her own actions or through a retreat into a fantasy world. In fact, the film seems to bends the rules of what's reality or not at the whim of our heroine. It's an entirely subjective movie, told from the perspective of a woman who remains at a remove at the performance level because every other aspect of the movie is her pure id.

Belle de Jour stands out thanks to Buñuel’s impeccable touch, anything from the costumes to the tremendous sound design is exquisitely executed. On the performance level, Catherine Deneuve's cool platinum turn as Séverine really helps sell the whole endeavor; it's just the right mix of bewildered coquette and sly manipulator. On top of that it's a movie with a tremendous sense of humor (let's just say that Buñuel doesn't stage a mock funeral culminating in masturbation for profundity). But above all, the movie is revolutionary for giving sexual agency to a woman with an absolute disregard for the wants or needs of the men around her. It's an idea that was fresh in 1967 and remains so in 2014.

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