Belle de Jour 1967 ★★★★★

Watched Oct 062020

joshmatthews’s review published on Letterboxd:

At the moment, my favorite Bunuel movie.

It’s clever and complex. “Belle de Jour” is simply about a bourgeois French woman, defined by her “class” and “virtue,” who willingly decides to try prostitution during the day. She doesn’t tell her husband about that. What happens if he finds out?

You won’t think of this as an action movie, but it is. Bunuel’s camera moves around incessantly, as if it’s a nervous observer trying to follow every moving character. When the camera isn’t moving, it’s cutting to action, and quite often it’s reversing the composition.

And when those things aren’t happening, we’re in a dream sequence, flashback, imagined world, false memory, or some combo of the aforementioned.

There’s a strong case to be made that several shots in the movie are in Severine’s imagination, and there’s a weak case that nearly the entire movie is her dream. I think even everything but the final scene could be her dream, though I don’t believe it. (Perhaps just the first scene and the last two, after the hospital, are dreams? And the rest are flashbacks?)

So the movie is about the sexual fantasies, or dreams, of a bourgeoisie woman. You’d expect her to be clean in one setting, and perverse in another, and she is. She wants to be perverse, which perhaps is the major point of the first scene. And perhaps that means all bourgeoisie, or all women, or all people, are perverts at heart. We aren’t far from Freud or Alfred Kinsey here. The movie allows Belle/Severine to express her dual nature, her inner wants, and her perversions (according to social norms then).

Maybe the movie’s about feminism. That makes sense for 1967, the woman wanting to free herself of the stale world of bored wifedom, controlling her destiny. Well, maybe, given that Anais runs the show. Yet Severine is more controlled, arguably, when she opts to be a prostitute. Look at all of those shots where she’s confined and minimized as a prostitute — there are maybe dozens of them.

Another lens by which to see this movie is religious. Severine is tempted by a devil of a sort, the libertine Husson, walks up the twisted staircase to Anais’ den, and remembers/imagines herself refusing holy communion during Catholic mass. The rest goes down as a morality play, with Belle suffering the consequences of her sinful choices. I don’t think the movie would deny a Catholic or general Christian reading of this at all, and the “woman as prostitute” analogy is part of Christianity, as the entire church or body of Christians are likened to a bride who wanders or prostitutes herself to idols, if they sin.

Maybe the movie is about sexual fantasies gone awry. Civil society and perversion — do they go together? Husson would like them to, and Anais appears to be a dignified female pimp. I think the movie asks these giant questions about what perversions are acceptable as social norms, which ones need to be locked behind closed doors and never mentioned, and which ones should be completely forbidden. What society can last if it does maintain the appearance of civility, or pass on at the noble lie that we all ought to behave well? 

As I’m arguing, the movie offers viewers many options by which to watch it, and it contains many of the major problems of potentially letting loose sexual kinks into open society. Soon — this being 1967 — you would have X-rated movies, porn galore, and even the normalization of sexual fetishes condemned by most world religions and cultures formally. Severine indulges herself, as now most of the world does, behind closed doors, but perhaps with unforeseen consequences.

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