23 year-old Severine (Catherine Deneuve) has been married to her soft, sensitive husband Pierre for a year but their sex-life is in limbo. Pierre is a doctor with compassionate looks while Severine, on the other hand has repressed her sexuality because she’s afraid of sex. Being a woman of self-defeating behaviour, she’s drowned by masochistic fantasies. Her own physical pain is mental pleasure. All her fantasies end up with her being abused and feeling worthless. The more she wants her husband to demand sex as if it were his right, the more he requests her for it, followed by an apology when declined.
When she learns that a friend of hers is a sex-worker (a profession she didn’t think still existed), she fails to understand why or how anyone would be able to have sex with a stranger (“You don’t get to pick”) and asks around but they all explain the business like it didn’t need an explanation, in brief. She still doesn’t understand it. It isn't long before these unanswered thoughts translate to action. Inquisitiveness builds and eventually overpowers her making her enroll at a whorehouse as a sex worker.
The sound design is the viewer’s map. If you want to understand the film, looking carefully isn't enough; you must listen carefully. Every sound in every scene has significance. If you perceive the film in a “what you see is what you get” way, the film will make no sense. You have to make sense out of it. In spite of that, the film has no background score. That’s because the film doesn't intend to stimulate the heart. It’s your mind that will be stimulated.
Nor does it intend to stimulate the prostate gland. Severine is elegant and attractive in an aristocratic way. You’re tempted all along to see her nude but this is no porno; the film’s focus is on the self-destructive thoughts swimming inside her head. That explains the absence of frontal nudity. The director, Luis Bunuel knows her beautiful body would serve no other purpose than being a distraction.
Catherine Deneuve delivers a perversely innate performance. Her act doesn’t communicate as much through her face muscles as it does through her eyes. It’s a subtle performance of restrained power.
Belle De Jour is art at its purest form. The biggest risk it takes is in not providing explanations. Doing that would just take away subjectivity from the film and art is subjective. The first watch raises the questions and it’s up to you to look for the answers with multiple viewings. This is precisely why it isn’t a film for everyone. You won’t be satisfied after the first watch but with repeated watches, you’ll be glad that the film raises more questions than it answers. With Belle De Jour, Luis Bunuel has taken surrealism to its pinnacle. This is no erotic thriller and I don’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t enjoy intellectually stimulating films; because, Belle De Jour is a cerebral work out.
I’ve watched it thrice and all three interpretations of mine are considerably different. It isn’t one of those films with simply ambiguous binary endings- answer A or answer B? It’s not just open-ended, it’s open all the way. It’s a maze; you start somewhere and you always think you’ve made your way out but its path is one that you choose.
After you watch the film, you’re going to ask two questions-
1) What is real?
2) What is fantasy?
It’s whatever you want it to be.
Rating – 10/10, added to Great Movies.