Criterion Cuts: “Belle de Jour”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

This is actually the first one of these I’ve written in well over a month. I wrote the six prior weeks worth of these in a big rush, all of them Blu-Ray versions I picked up during the Criterion Valentine’s Day sale. But I’ve since exhausted my stock of them and it’s time to dip back into the wild world of Hulu offerings. It’s a little like coming home, except in the last few weeks home has stocked a bunch more goodies. It’s one of those more recent offerings that we take a look at today.

I’ve actually been wanting to do this one ever since Criterion rereleased it on Blu-Ray, entirely because I thought the cover was mesmerizing. Finally diving into it once it made it up on streaming, I could only find myself amused that it’s another Buñuel movie. I previously took a look at his movie before today’s film, Simon of the Desert, and I have half an article on The Exterminating Angel that I will someday have to revisit and finish. Through the zeal Criterion shows for his films, we might end up doing a large chunk of Buñuel’s filmography piece by piece through this series, which is absurd enough to make me happy. In the meantime, we have today’s movie to deal with.

Belle de Jour (1967)

Talking about Belle de Jour is going to be problematic, because my response to the film was a broader question that requires coverage of its own. So for the sake of clarity, I’m going to split this into two parts. The first is this piece about the movie. The second will be more of an open-ended thought piece on a certain type of French cinema from this era, a more ambiguous argument about context that’s admittedly a bit outside the scope of the film itself.

Belle de Jour is the story of Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve), a young woman married to a young, handsome French doctor (Jean Sorel). Their marriage seems fairly happy, and she claims that she loves him, but for whatever reason she is unable to consummate their marriage. The doctor, for his part, seems to appreciate her purity and nobility, even in the face of this marital gulf between them. Unfortunately for Séverine, this presumption everyone has that she’s some virtuous ice queen has one glaring drawback: in reality, Séverine is a latent masochist.

Her masochism is in fact how we’re introduced to her, an elaborate fantasy of her and her husband riding a carriage through the forest. Suddenly, her husband and the carriage drivers stop and abscond with her into the woods, where they tie her to a tree and whip her. When one of the drivers begins to force himself on her, Séverine responds with ecstatic squeals. This fantasy is intruded upon by her husband in real life, asking her what she’s thinking about as they climb into separate beds. “A dream of you and me in a carriage,” she says idly. “That one again?” In two lines, we know everything we need to know about their dynamic: Séverine has these kinds of extreme fantasies often, and her husband knows absolutely nothing about them.

A friend of the couple, a Monsieur Husson (Michel Piccoli), is constantly making passes at Séverine. He’s a womanizer by nature, seemingly incapable of anything else, and his aggressive come ons seem to some degree to be more courtesy extended to her than genuine attempts for her affections. He too seems convinced that Séverine is unassailable in her chastity, giving his illicit courtship a tragi-comedic air of futility. Unfortunately, all it does is frustrate Séverine, who seems as though she only wishes she could indulge in the kinds of casual dalliances Husson takes for granted. In fact, it’s through him that she learns of Parisian brothels, high class places where society housewives go to spend afternoons making extra money in the arms of men who are more interesting than their husbands. It’s meant for something to shock and get a laugh, something inconceivable for the social strata she lives in: a silly thing other, less savory people do. But it’s enough to get Séverine to pry an address out of Husson, and show up at the doorstep of the brothel.

Séverine's job interview comes and goes in two short lines.

The head of the brothel, Madame Anaïs (Geneviève Page), takes one look at Séverine and sums her up as beautiful but probably not cut out for the work. And in fact, Séverine is initially shy to the point of genuine fear at the thought of going through with the kinds of things she had initially only thought about and obsessed over in her own mind. There are even a few near-disastrous clients, men unimpressed with her frigidity and her uncomfortable beyond the point of being able to engage with what she’s doing. It’s only when Anaïs realizes that Séverine responds to firm commands more than she does compassionate niceties that she’s able to order Séverine into the mindset open enough to finally make the breakthrough and enjoy this new world she’s tried to find for herself.

In fact, the realization is so complete that the Séverine who walks into the brothel (named “Belle de Jour” for her unusual 2-5 PM schedule) is able to do what even the experienced women cannot. A client comes in midway through the film with a mysterious box, the contents of which buzz and chirp ominously but otherwise remain a mystery, Séverine watches as the two other women she works with blanch and refuse to take part in whatever kink is inside that box. Séverine herself seems initially hesitant, but when her friends come in to check on her after the client departs they find Séverine sprawled on the bed, barely lucid with a still potent pleasure.

Séverine often acts disgusted by things while still being fascinated by them. She might protest about looking through a peephole into another room, but she doesn't look away.

And in many ways it’s that sense of release and freedom that forms much of the appeal of Belle de Jour. There’s a plot that creeps into the last third of the film, one about a jealous client and the eventual clash of Séverine’s private and working lives, but in reality it is simply the speed bumps on a road of personal self-discovery that forms the backbone of the movie. Buñuel’s movie is a movie about a certain kind of long-forgotten cinematic eroticism, the languid sexual charge of unspoken possibilities and of the subtle and secret indulgences in a baser nature. The film manages to be both beautiful and profane without anything resembling pornography, a frankness that is concerned entirely with the inner life and desires of its protagonist, the visual splendor of Deneuve lounging in various states of undress more loving appreciation for her beauty than any sort of exploitation voyeurism.

And it’s that implicit understanding of its protagonist that makes Belle de Jour feel still relevant and satisfying even today, when it’s social politics are starting to feel fairly quaint. It is a film about the struggle to embrace one’s true self, even when it clashes with the identity society puts upon you. In that way, and in a very similar vein, I would compare it to a movie such as Secretary, which explored similar concepts in a more conventional (as if such words were ever used for that movie) romantic comedy setup. But few movies delve so deeply into the strange and bewildering blurred lines between reality and fantasy like Belle de Jour, where the unconscious and the consciously suppressed merge to become one complex, delicate lens through which Séverine (and everyone, really) views the world.

On Prostitution and Feminism in 60s French Cinema

This is where we get to the more personal reflection period. Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on French culture, feminism, or 60s cinema of any region. So anyone who wants to offer informed opinions (or even uninformed guesses) is welcome to respond with their own ideas about the thoughts presented within. I’m mostly thinking aloud about this subject, and have no real answers.

The thing I noticed early on in Belle de Jour was that it was another big French film from the era that glamorized prostitution. The one I think of first and foremost is Godard’s amazing film Vivre sa Vie (Which I already wrote about for this column here). I assume there are others that don’t jump to mind immediately. But the same presumptions that fuel the inclusion in both movies is interesting and worthy of comment, I think, because it doesn’t really translate easily to the world of 2012.

In Paris at this time, if my meager research is correct, prostitution was legal though not exactly the world’s most respectable profession. But the films of the French New Wave (and ensuing cultural offshoots) seem to have an opinion about prostitution and women who pursue it that’s somewhere between ‘cool’ and ‘symbol of freedom’. And that’s where the confusion sets in. This was the 60s, so we’re dealing with concepts that could be described as proto-Feminist theory, but the films in question both involve women who are trying to take greater agency in their lives. The problem in both is that society does not allow them the freedoms they desire, either for economic (in Vivre sa VieAnna Karina’s character turns to prostitituion to survive after a failed stint at acting) or social reasons (Séverine wants to be the person she constantly fantasizes she should be, even if the world won’t let her).

More than mere exploitation, Séverine in the brothel represents its own strange form of liberation.

The thing is that while the films present prostitution as a way to achieve that liberation it does so in a way that doesn’t exactly represent a comprehensive concept of feminist freedom as we recognize it today. Sure, they are working (usually well paid) and detach themselves from the more poisonous aspects of their lives, but at the same time they do so through a different, no less fundamental dependence on men. And that doesn’t even begin to mention the danger inherent in the profession (Vivre sa Vie and Belle de Jour both have serious consequences based around their protagonists choice of profession). Both of them attempt to escape society, only to find themselves trapped under some kind of moral oppression that leads to their undoing.

So the question I have is: why include these things? Neither film is in any way exploitative about their use of prostitution, certainly not at all to the extent we think about these things after the excesses of sex in film in the 70s. But it doesn’t exactly feel like a giant step forward for women when the path to freedom from a traditional, domestic lifestyle immediately falls face-first into turning tricks. Can that really be a proper, empowering choice for these women? It’s complicated, because they do indeed show growth, and it’s not like people taking control of their sex lives (especially in the more repressive situations presented in these movies) are necessarily bad. And the movies are otherwise actually quite rich in the kind of complex portrayals of women that would put 99% of most films today to absolute shame.

For a movie that is otherwise rather delicately shot, Séverine's fantasies play out as realer-than-real, in more lurid colors. Her inner life is more immediate to her than the one she inhabits daily.

I don’t really have an answer. I’ve heard it said that the atmosphere of French cinema is one of a sort of lazy, baked-in misogyny. But I don’t know if that’s accurate or furthermore if it applies to the directors and time presented in these movies. I do know that outside of this, these movies have some of my favorite actresses of all time doing some of the greatest roles in all of film, so I’d hesitate to lambaste the whole thing as a bunch of dimwitted male interpretations of the emerging concepts of feminism. But at the same time, I think casually saying it’s all fine and okay is also weird.

I don’t have an answer. I tweeted early on watching Belle de Jour that if someone could explain the fascination 60s French films have with these sorts of strange portrayals and glamorization of prostitution that I would buy them a drink (or cookie if booze isn’t your thing). The offer still stands. In the meantime, I will continue to hope that answers make themselves apparent over time.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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2 Responses to Criterion Cuts: “Belle de Jour”

  1. Dessy says:

    Commenting after all this time because I literally just watched it on TCM. In my opinion, they pick prostitution as subject matter because the saint/whore dichotomy was and still is very much a framework for the portrayal (and perception) of women. In this context, turning tricks could be liberating in a way, especially if the society shames women for wanting and enjoying sex as much as the men around them do. Unfortunately, since the culture is patriarchal, the women in these movies are still forced to deal with shame, guilt, and pressure to be virtuous. Nothing liberating about that. I think the sexual looseness of 60’s cinema was ready to show women taking on sexual agency, as long as it looked glamorous, fun, and sexy. (I’m referring to those fantasy sequences.)
    I wouldn’t call the Buñuel and Goddard films feminist, but they definitely were notable for showing that sex workers could be three-dimensional human beings and not just mindless victims. The one problem I had with Belle du Jour was that they reveal Severine to be a sexual abuse survivor, as if to explain her desires. It rubbed me the wrong way, even though I’m sure there are people who work out what happened to them in the safety of the bedroom.

  2. Dessy says:

    Belle DE Jour. Stupid late night commenting typos

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