Belle de Jour (1967) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

People were better able to relate to this film when in came out in 1967, because it had a powerful emotional impact at that time. If you view it now, you'll find it to be a tame, elegant film that happens to have repressed sexuality as a main theme. In 1967 this was considered one groundbreakingly sexual and anarchic film. It had powerful anti-religious elements, it had a beautiful woman walking around in a completely see-through nightgown, and its central story revolves around a woman who longs to be degraded. It was roundly condemned by any right-thinking decent person in 1967. That, of course, made it a must-see for wrong-thinking indecent persons, and I was in the theater on opening day.

It's quite surprising to read what people write about this film. Some people call it a comedy, although there is nothing even remotely funny in any scene, and there wasn't for 1967 audiences either. It is sneeringly contemptuous which, as I have often noted, some people often mistake for humor. Sneering contempt may or may not be funny, depending, of course, on whether it has any humor in it. Other people call the film erotic, but whatever shocking frankness it may have had by 1967 standards, it now seems less erotic than Remembering the Titans. You won't be clouting the kielbasa after watching this one, lads. I'll guarantee you this if you watch it - no hard-ons, no laughs. Nothing even close.

Some people have even praised the acting, although it is probably the worst-acted of any film considered a screen classic. Catherine Deneuve, although possessing one of the most beautiful faces in history, is a stiff performer with a single facial expression. Of course, her character in this film, Severine, is supposed to be frigid sexually and emotionally, so Deneuve was cast as well as she could be, but her stiffness extends far beyond that. Frankly, she's just a mannequin who delivers lines.


Catherine Deneuve shows her buns through a diaphanous nightie, and her breasts from the side (maybe nipple, maybe not). Although she has a beautiful face, Deneuve's body is ordinary at best.

Here is what some people think it is about: Deneuve plays a housewife who can't bring herself to have relations with her husband. She has a severe sexual dysfunction, which seems to relate to the fact that he treats her respectfully while she longs to be debased and fantasizes about being whipped. Her need for degradation seems to stem from a childhood sexual incident. She finds out about a local brothel, and she ends up working there daily between two and five in the afternoon, because the job will allow her to be treated like a whore. Or something like that. They call her "Belle de jour", a jokey derivative of the French expression "belle de nuit"  - a hooker, equivalent to the English phrase "lady of the evening". Since she never works evenings, she's a "lady of the afternoon".

Finally, a mob guy becomes obsessed with her, follows her home, attacks her husband ......

Or not.

Maybe that happened or maybe it didn't, because it is a Luis Buňuel film, and that means that there is no reality, only different levels of surreality.


Well, you can't really spoil an ambiguous film that never resolves anything, but here goes ...

Actually, the film isn't as hard to understand as it seems to be, but it does engage you with a trick that requires your participation. You have to ask yourself, "is this like a real brothel, or is it what a sheltered Catholic school girl would imagine a brothel to be? Could this guy be a real gangster, or he is what a sheltered Catholic school girl would imagine a gangster to be like?" The answers are obvious, but it is not obvious that the question needs to be asked. Once it dawns on you to ask those questions, the film isn't that opaque.

That doesn't solve all your problems, however. It is still open to many different interpretations.

  • Reality is never explicitly defined, so you could ask yourself this - is the entire movie imagined in the mind of a schoolgirl? We see Severine as a girl in flashbacks - or are they flashbacks? maybe they are the 'real" time, and the film is in flash-forwards, her vision of the future. A good case could be made for the contention that she is still a girl, thinking about the unpleasant incident, and is imagining her adulthood. She imagines herself exquisitely beautiful. She imagines an unimaginably handsome husband. She imagines a married life with - with two single beds??? Get it? What young couple lives in a house with two separate beds in the main bedroom? Who would think of such a thing besides a young girl with elderly parents who sleep in separate beds? What young husband with a sexually frigid wife doesn't ask her to seek psychiatric help, but simply accepts it lovingly? There is evidence that even her very marriage is a fantasy.
  • It is also possible to say that the movie takes place in her adult life, and the marriage is reality, but that the period in the brothel is just another of her sexual daydreams, like the coachmen and the whippings.
  • It is also possible to say that the brothel really existed, and the husband was really crippled, but that his recovery was one of her daydreams (although this interpretation doesn't really hold up as well to the light of scrutiny, if you try to fit it to the facts).

DVD info from Amazon.

full-length commentary by Buňuel Scholar Julie Jones
Original U.S. Theatrical Trailer & 1995 Re-Release Trailer
excellent image restoration compared to VHS versions
Widescreen letterboxed format, 1.66:1 ( a common ratio for European films of the time)

Tuna says:

Deneuve is married to a doctor whom she loves, but can't bring herself to be intimate with him. She does have a very vivid fantasy life. She eventually becomes a prostitute in the afternoons, where she is able to have sex with people she doesn't care about. This, of course, gets complicated.

I found the film a little hard to follow in spots, as I was not always sure what was real and what was fantasy. Ebert mentions a particular scene, which demonstrates Luis Buňuel's mastery of the erotic. A Japanese customer in the brothel shows Deneuve (Belle de Jour) an ornate box. She opens it, and shakes her head no. We never learn what was in the box, and many people have been wondering for 35 years. Much of the sexuality takes place in Deneuve's head, and off camera, requiring us to use the strongest of all sex organs, our brain, to imagine what she is doing and feeling. The film won several European awards, and was nominated for a BAFTA. This is a B.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Maltin 4/4

The People Vote ...

IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this is usually considered a good movie, even a great movie, but is clearly a D or an E by our definition. Although film critics seem to love Belle de Jour, and the photography is excellent, it is a difficult (nearly impossible) film to relate to, offers no resolution at the end, and is edited sloppily. Unimportant transitional scenes drag on much too long, and virtually every scene is longer than it should be. Even if you like French and/or Spanish cinema, or the films from the period just before the 1967 cultural revolution, you'll probably hate this one, which is deliberately opaque. In fact, this is my kind of movie, and still I can't watch it, so imagine your reaction. Needless to say, if you are not inclined to watch subtitled 35 year old surrealist movies, stay away, because you won't be able to stay awake. You'll be hoping for it to end, and then when it does end - you'll be upset with the ending.

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