Backlog #3: Belle de Jour (1967)

This is a cool, composed but mad film. It’s an attack on the middle class and their values – a surgeon’s wife tries to assuage her boredom by becoming a prostitute, through which she successfully satisfies her emotional needs, to the benefit of her marriage but then its ultimate destruction.

It’s fascinating to watch – Severine is so very buttoned up in her emotional life (as is her husband). She only lets on through her actions – she never allows herself to express her feelings at all. Catherine Deneuve is outstanding in this – Severine’s social introversion is perhaps mildly overemphasised, but Deneuve is masterly at bringing out the character’s battle with her timidity and her urges.

Belle de Jour is an attack on love and marriage and its assumptions and clichés: those of keeping face, the ideal of the loving housewife and the strong husband. The title is a key demonstration of this – as part of the pretence Severine only works during the daytime and must return to her deceived husband for his arrival home. As soon as the female finds the courage (or madness) to break out of this social structure, she is in very unfamiliar territory and has to be able to protect herself: unfortunately for Severine, she is unable to do this.

The agent of Severine’s actions in this film is Husson, marvellously conveyed by Michel Piccoli. He is a strikingly suave and charming blackguard, entirely at home in the milleu of the upper bourgeois, like a winning crocodile in velvet. Severine is repelled by him, but he triggers her actions and unfortunately for her, has the complete measure of them.

Belle de Jour has the most logical storyline of the Bunuel films that I watched (although he uses dream sequences and an enigmatic conclusion to effect). It’s the best example of his films in the qualities that typify them: their economy, coolness and the effortless way they challenge and puncture the social, political and clerical structures of our western societies. Heavy stuff, but done with a lightness of touch.

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