Belle de Jour is a provocative and emotionally complex film about sexual inhibition, liberation, and obsession. Highly controversial, critically acclaimed, and even banned for its mature subject matter, Belle de Jour is an artistic and surprisingly tactful and discreet film, operating on a level that is suggestive and erotic without gratuitous titillation. Severine (Catherine Deneuve), is a repressed, bored housewife, who is afraid of intimacy. Her husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel), is kind, devoted, and understanding. From the opening scene of the carriage ride, it is evident that Severine is aroused by the idea of domination and debasement, and the gentle Pierre is hardly the type of person who would treat her cruelly in order to receive sexual gratification. Her curiosity is heightened upon learning that an acquaintance leads a double life as a call girl. She goes to Madame Anais, a notorious high-class house of ill repute, and assumes the pseudonym of Belle de Jour (since she has to leave by 5:00 PM). However, her domestic life is threatened when an obsessed client, unable to possess her completely, begins to stalk her. The remarkable ending of the film is puzzling, unresolved, and engrossing (I can think of three plausible interpretations). Belle de Jour is a well-crafted, surreal, and taut film about the destructive consequences of human perversion.
The beauty of Luis Buñuel’s masterful technical direction is his ability to create an atmosphere that is sensual and erotic without graphic nudity or explicit scenes. Note the scene involving the rough-looking Japanese businessman with a mysterious buzzing box. All we see is a prone Severine under a blanket with tousled hair after the incident. Another is the man who asks Severine to lie inside a coffin in order to act out his fantasy of mourning a daughter. The casket shakes, Severine looks down, but we never see what he is actually doing underneath. Buñuel uses diffused lighting, dark colors, and shadows throughout the film to temper the gravity and emotional impact of each uncomfortable scene. Left to our own imaginative devices, the result is a film that is highly unsettling, perverse, and inevitably tragic.
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