Since You Only Come In The Afternoons: Belle De Jour (1967)

Not that anybody has noticed, but the blog has been a little low on reviews and activity in general.  A portion of this is due to much needed employment, while the other has been my involvement in an academic side project on Luis Bunuel.  This project, focusing on issues of patriarchy within the Spanish director's work has allowed me to revisit a handful of his films.  As such, I have pondered over which film to review on this blog and decided without waiver on his 1967 work Belle De Jour, as it appears to be his most well-known and enigmatic of works.  Furthermore, the film possesses the treat of having one of the 1960's most prolific actresses in having Catherine Deneuve.  Belle De Jour is a puzzle of a film that is as convoluted as it is sexy, the film is either completely a set of fabrications of a dream or some bizarre alternative reality in which desires of the carnal nature are met with little challenge or social outcry.  Whatever the film is at its core, it is certainly Bunuelian in its composition.  Clearly an attack on all things bourgeoisie, Belle De Jour scours and claws at the frivolity of rich extravagance and complacency with no restraint, and manages to do so without ruining the films enjoyability.  To call this film a romp in one woman's sexual liberation is too simple, instead; it seems better to describe it as a sexual awakening for an entire generation of film goers, as it is a film that revolutionized cinema and sensuality in a way that still has yet to meet a match.

Belle De Jour, in some for or fashion, follows the experiences of Severine (Cahterine Deneuve) as she struggles to find fulfillment in her life as a trophy wife.  In the films opening scene she is shown fantasizing about being whipped and sexually overcome by her husband and his chauffeurs only to quickly awake from this fantasy into reality with her wealthy doctor husband Pierre (Jean Sorel), who is oblivious to Severine's unfulfilled sexual demands.  When the couple travels to Paris on business, things falter even more and Severine longs for a place to engage in her debasing fantasies.  Luckily for her, she overhears a conversation during a cab ride that provides her with the location of a local brothel, run by one Madame Anais (Genevieve Page).  In a moment of spontaneity, Severine decides to seek employment at the brothel under the name of Belle De Jour.  While at first hesitant, Severine quickly becomes enamored with the ways of the brothel and finds herself enjoying the soda-masichist acts she engages in while in the brothel.  All appears well in her alternate life, until she meets a young man named Marcel (Pierre Clementi), a gangster who becomes instantly infatuated with Severine, given that she is clearly unlike other prostitutes.  Despite her constant attempts to explain to Marcel that her employment at the brothel is temporary, Marcel continues to pursue her, going so far as to meet Severine at her house moments before Pierre is to arrive home.  It is at this point that Severine's fantasies and reality clash with great force causing her to confront what she truly values and what is simply left to be forgotten.  The film closes in the usual Bunuel fashion with images that leave more questions than answers, as viewers are never fully certain if what they experienced actually occurred, or if it simply existed in the imagination of one sexually unsatisfied woman.

The academic project I previously mentioned is focusing on Bunuel's use of patriarchal domination as a means to provide stability for his critique of the wealthy.  What I mean by this is that in order for the director's critiques of bourgeois extravagances to appear completely maniacal, he often relies on degradation of women as a means of emphasis.  For example, in his film The Exterminating Angel he attempts to show that if wealthy persons are placed in a situation where decorum is irrelevant their social actions will quickly become barbaric, a point that is driven home by the attempted rape of a woman.  Bunuel knows the shock value of such imagery, yet appears to fail in realizing that he is using his patriarchal power further promote such imagery, even if done so in a critical manner.   Belle De Jour is certainly full of these moments, whether it be the brilliant, yet troublesome scene of Pierre, and what appears to be a working class farmer discussing politics before slinging excrement at a degraded Severine, or Severine being beaten and abused by an Asian brothel customer who appears to win the hearts of women by flashing expensive trinkets.  The issue is simply that Bunuel chooses to victimize women in driving home his point about the problems of wealth and lavish extravagance, when it is quite possible that such ideals could be posited in a much more women friendly setting.  Ultimately, Bunuel fails to ever actually correct this behavior, making his films, no matter how sexually liberal, solid examples of patriarchal dominance in cinema.

Critiques aside, Belle De Jour is a Surrealist vision of a film that is well worth seeing multiple times.  Thanks to the folks at Criterion a Bluray is now available, and is easily one of the best I have seen to date.  Owning is not suggested but heavily demanded.

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