Belle de Jour is a 1967 French film by Luis Buñuel, based on the 1928 novel of the same name by Joseph Kessel. It stars Catherine Deneuve as Séverine Serizy, a young and beautiful housewife who, unable to be intimate with her husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel), spends her midweek afternoons as a high-class prostitute while he, unsuspecting, is at work as a doctor in a hospital.
“Belle de Jour” (“beauty of the day”), the name Séverine adopts as a prostitute, is a pun on the French expression belle de nuit (“beauty of the night”). She isn’t available at night to satisfy her erotic desires, which involve BDSM, something her mild-mannered, bourgeois husband would never approve of.
Here are some quotes in English translation:
Pierre Serizy: I’d like everything to be perfect too. If only you weren’t so cold.
Séverine Serizy: Please don’t mention that again.
Pierre Serizy: I didn’t mean to upset you. I feel a great tenderness for you.
Séverine Serizy: What good is your tenderness to me?
Pierre Serizy: You can be very cruel when you wish.
“Forgive me.” –Séverine (repeated line)
“Pierre, please, don’t let the cats out.” –Séverine
Henri Husson: You should see a specialist about your obsessions.
Renee: He’s rich and idle. Those are his two main illnesses.
Henri Husson: Don’t forget the hunt. I also have a special weakness for the poor. I think of them when it snows, with no fur coats, no hope, no nothing.
“You go in. The women are there. You pick one. You spend half an hour alone with her and after you leave, you’re depressed all day. But what can you do? Semen retentum venenum est.” –Pierre, to Séverine
Séverine Serizy: I can’t understand women like that.
Henri Husson: It’s the oldest profession in the world. It’s mostly arranged by phone now, but the women in those houses are a special breed.
Séverine Serizy: I’m sure you know them well.
Henri Husson: Yes, I used to go a lot. I enjoyed it. There’s a very special atmosphere. The women are complete slaves. I remember a few around the Opéra. Especially one run by Anaïs. 11 cité Jean de Saumur. I have marvelous memories.
Madame Anais: You’re nice and fresh. Just what they like here. I know it’s hard at first, but who doesn’t need money now and then? We’ll split it fifty-fifty. I have my expenses.
Séverine Serizy: Thank you very much, but I must be going.
Madame Anais: Come on. You’re just a bit nervous. I bet it’s the first time you’ve worked. It’s not really so awful.
Madame Anais: You’re doing fine. You’re a big hit already. Mr. Adolphe is a simple man, so don’t get upset. Do what he wants. That’s all he asks.
Séverine Serizy: No, I want to go.
Madame Anais: What? You about done putting on airs? Where do you think you are? Go on!
Monsieur Adolphe: No, you’re not running off now! Who do you think you are, you little slut?
[slaps Belle de jour]
Monsieur Adolphe: You get me excited and then pull me up short?
[pushes Belle de jour on the bed]
Monsieur Adolphe: You can put on airs for a while, but I’ve had enough!
[Belle de jour lies calmly on the bed]
Monsieur Adolphe: There. See? That’s more like it. So, you need the rough stuff, do you?
Henri Husson: [In Séverine’s dream fantasy, she is wearing a long white, sleeveless dress] How’s your wife?
Pierre Serizy: Very well, thanks.
Henri Husson: Where is she?
Pierre Serizy: Right over there. Want to say hello?
Henri Husson: I’d love to. How are you little slut?
Pierre Serizy: Everything okay, you tramp?
Henri Husson: [throwing mud on Séverine] Old whore!
Pierre Serizy: Maggot!
Henri Husson: Sodomite!
Pierre Serizy: Scum!
Henri Husson: Fellatomane! Tramp! Harlot!
Prof. Henri: I love you. I love you, I tell you. Now walk on me. Spit on me. Stomp on my face.
Charlotte: Dirty old man! Pig! I’ll teach you!
Prof. Henri: But I love you! Marquise, hit me harder!
Duke’s Butler: [Fantasy sequence] Monsieur Duke, shall I let the cats in?
Duke: To hell with you and your cats!
“I’d slit my father’s throat for less, but friendship comes first. We’re not gonna fight over some slut, eh?” –Hippolyte
Marcel: Leave your stockings on. A girl tried to strangle me once. Poor thing.
Séverine Serizy: If you like, I won’t charge you.
Marcel: Naturally. Plenty of girls would love to be in your place.
Séverine Serizy: Don’t tell Pierre.
Henri Husson: Pierre? I admire him more and more.
Séverine Serizy: Please don’t tell him. At least try to understand. I’m lost. I can’t help it. I can’t fight it. I know I’ll have to atone for everything one day. But I couldn’t live without it. Fine! Do as you like with me!
Henri Husson: No. Not now, anyway. I guess what attracted me about you was your virtue. You were the wife of a boy scout. That’s all changed now. I have principles, unlike you.
The film begins with a scene of Séverine and Pierre riding in a coach on a country road covered in autumn leaves. The jingling of sleigh bells is heard. Husband and wife declare their growing love for each other, but she remains cool to his sexual advances. Though normally gentle and sensitive to her wish not to rush into love-making (actually, they’ve already been married for a year, with him never having her…even once!), Pierre suddenly gets angry, orders the two coachmen to stop, and he tries to pull her out of the coach.
When she demands that he let her go, he has the two men grab her and take her out to the trees, where she, resisting all she can, is tied to one. Pierre tears away her top and bra to bare her back, and he orders the men to flog her. She begs him to stop.
During the flogging, she oddly asks Pierre not to let the cats out. When the flogging is finished, he tells one of the men to enjoy her while he smokes a cigarette and watches. The coachman’s kisses, on the back of the neck as he’s about to have her, cause her to close her eyes and sigh with pleasure.
The scene suddenly switches to her in her bed, with Pierre in his pyjamas, approaching. The whole coach scene has been a sex fantasy of hers…not a sexual assault.
In this fantasy, we can glean a number of things about her character. The jingling of the bells, a motif heard many times, and in many forms, throughout the movie during her sex fantasies, symbolizes the vibrating pleasure she feels in her vagina (the ‘bell’); the clappers of the bells (or their ball-bearings inside) can be seen to represent either her hymen–as we assume that her frigidity has made her wish to return to virginity, if it hasn’t kept her a virgin the whole time–or they represent a phallus jerking away inside her.
Either way, in this symbolism we see Séverine’s central conflict: to bang, or not to bang. She is cold to her husband’s passion, yet she fantasizes of wild, transgressive sex with strangers. Her name, a feminine version of Severin, the name of the main character of Venus in Furs, suggests her masochistic tendencies. Yet her beauty, as well as her urges to cheat on her man, suggests cruel, sadistic Wanda from the same novella.
So what we have in Belle de Jour is the sublation of the contradictions of sexual purity vs. licentiousness, of sadism vs. masochism, and of woman’s sexual subservience vs. her sexual liberation. In Venus in Furs, we had Severin’s arousal fuelled by opposites that are never properly reconciled (Sacher-Masoch, page 29); in this film, we see a constant unity of opposites…or at least an attempted unity of them.
‘Not letting out the cats’ seems to be a reference to the exposure of her genitals. While she says chats (cats) instead of chatte (pussy), this seems to be a distortion in her wish-fulfillment, a censoring of her erotic desires that is comparable to Severin’s use of Katzen in Venus in Furs (see my analysis–link above). Séverine says she wouldn’t have “the cats” let out, yet her eyes wish they’d be let out.
The next day, she and Pierre meet with Renée (Macha Méril) and Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli), this latter man being discomfiting to Séverine in how frankly he tells her of how “séduisante” she is. She rejects his sexual advances with a harshness she never uses on her gentle, nice-guys-finish-last husband; but over the course of the movie, we realize that Husson is involved in her dreams and repressed fantasies, too.
Recall her dream, much later on in the movie, of being with him at a table in a restaurant, the two grinning as they look in each other’s eyes: he breaks a wine bottle–symbolic of her broken hymen–and the two of them go under the table, where he gives her an envelope, symbolic of sex (i.e., a phallic letter in a yonic envelope). Pierre and Renée are at the table, too, fairly indifferent to it all, beyond his mild curiosity. Séverine wants Husson, but she’ll never admit to this.
I mentioned earlier the many sublated contradictions in this film; but there is one contradiction that cannot be reconciled, no matter how hard Séverine tries. This is the contradiction between her hypocritical bourgeois morality, her wish to retain her respectable public image, and the satisfaction of her private, transgressive desires.
Exposing bourgeois hypocrisy is a favourite theme of Luis Buñuel, and he pushes this theme to the hilt in this movie. Husson would seem to be Buñuel’s mouthpiece here, in his sardonic wish to expose Henriette’s, and later Séverine’s, wish to be prostitutes; but I suspect insincerity in him when he says he worries about the poor when left out in the cold…especially when we learn that he likes frequenting whorehouses, places where poor women are mercilessly exploited by pimps and madams.
Séverine’s wish to work for Anaïs (Geneviève Page), the madam of a high class brothel, is a strange one, apart from her already-established masochistic tendencies. These tendencies seem rooted in a childhood experience of having been touched inappropriately by a man: did the touching get carried any further…towards penetrative rape? We don’t know. In any case, it explains her frigidity (recall the repulsion towards sex that young Deneuve has acted out elsewhere in cinema).
Given that the film was made in 1967, during the rise of second-wave feminism and its drive to encourage housewives to leave the home and pursue careers, we find it curious that Séverine, a well-provided-for bourgeois housewife, should choose prostitution of all things as fulfilling work. Though she is escaping the patriarchal prison of the house and her husband as her only sexual partner, she is also willingly subjecting herself to the sexual degradation of being objectified and used by lecherous men.
In this contradiction, we see the controversy between anti- and pro-prostitution feminism. In her masochism, Séverine is subjecting herself to exploitation, as an example of the excesses of the pleasure-pain of what Jacques Lacan called jouissance; but unlike proletarian women and girls forced into such exploitation because of the poverty that capitalism creates, Séverine, as a bourgeois woman, freely chooses it.
Naturally, she is conflicted about selling herself at first. She meets Madame Anaïs, but tries to run away, making her procuress force her into yielding to such louts as the porcine Monsieur Adolphe (Francis Blanche). As a bourgeois woman, Séverine could easily leave; her masochistic jouissance, however, forces her to stay and service him. It is her need to preserve her hypocritical bourgeois public image that makes her unwilling to give her body over to male lust, not any feeling of disgust.
When she first learns, through her friend Renée, that a woman they know, Henriette, has been selling herself, Séverine says with a frown that it must be horrifying to have sex with strangers…yet the thought of becoming a prostitute herself is turning round and round in her mind. She later asks her husband about his experiences in brothels, which he says were few and ultimately unsatisfying; but when he says in Latin that semen retained is poison, she is disgusted with him.
This here is an example of the hypocritical bourgeois liberal mentality: her id has all these wild, untamed desires, in her case leading to the excesses of jouissance; but her harsh, overly-judgemental super-ego demands that she live up to the ego-ideal of a proper bourgeois lady. Small wonder her dreams and fantasies include her being either punished or degraded in some way. Her inner battleground is between her conscious and unconscious mind.
Buñuel’s critique of bourgeois moral hypocrisy is personified in Séverine, and expressed elsewhere by Marx: “But you Communists would introduce community of women, screams the whole bourgeoisie in chorus.
“The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion, than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women.
“He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.
“For the rest, nothing is more ridiculous than the virtuous indignation of our bourgeois at the community of women which, they pretend, is to be openly and officially established by the Communists. The Communists have no need to introduce community of women; it has existed almost from time immemorial.
“Our bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each others’ wives.
“Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with, is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized community of women. For the rest, it is self-evident, that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.” —The Communist Manifesto, II: Proletarians and Communists
When Séverine finds the address of Anaïs’ whorehouse and approaches the door, a woman coming down the stairs makes her pretend she’s waiting at the elevator instead of wanting to knock on Anaïs’ door. Immediately before this hiding of her true intentions, another childhood memory of hers runs through her mind: this time, we see little Séverine (about the same age as when that man inappropriately touched her) in church during Mass, refusing to take the Host in her mouth. We hear a man’s voice (that of Pierre?) ask, “Séverine, Séverine, what’s the matter with you?”
Reminded of the memory of the man touching her, we might wonder if there’s a connection between it and the scene during Mass. Is her refusal of the Host symbolic of childhood sexual abuse from the priesthood? Or does her guilt, including a fear of eating the body of Christ unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:27), fuel her masochism?
After a few sexual encounters with men like Adolphe, she seems to have processed the childhood trauma she suffered (or, at least, gotten over her bourgeois inhibitions), and now she feels more comfortable as a prostitute. She enjoys servicing an Asian client, who rings a tiny bell as she grins lasciviously at him, standing next to him without her panties on.
A masochistic professor (François Maistre) wants her to help him act out a fantasy of himself as her grovelling servant; but her failure to act out her part as he wishes causes him to bark orders at her, then demand that Anaïs get Charlotte (Françoise Fabian) to take Séverine’s place, for she apparently is only of use in the kitchen. As we can see, masochistic submission becomes dominance: more sublation of opposites. In fact, we can hear the professor ordering Charlotte to hit him harder.
Recall how Freud once said that every sadist is always at the same time also a masochist. Séverine is disgusted to see the professor lower himself so, yet in her fantasies, she’d lower herself much further. Séverine would never have liked Severin, in spite of herself.
Her dreams, as revelatory wish-fulfillments of her desires, continue. We hear cowbells clinking in the background as Pierre and Husson discuss the names of cows: Remorse and Expiation. Here we see an explicit link between Séverine’s masochism and her guilt feelings over cheating on the husband she’s not even once had sex with. He and Husson sling mud at her, symbolic of shit, while she’s tied up, wearing an angelically white gown; they call her “little slut” and “pig.” Her saintly raiment, sullied with the mud, is the sublation of sinner and innocent.
Remember how any ringing of bells, be they cowbells or jingle bells, symbolizes her sexual arousal; so she unconsciously enjoys Husson’s presence as well as his and Pierre’s symbolic defecating on her, though in her conscious mind, bad boy Husson repels her.
Later, she hears those coach sleigh bells in her dream about the Duke (Georges Marchal), who would have her play the role of his dead love in a coffin. In his passion for her as she lies practically naked in the coffin, wearing only a black see-through garment, we see the sublation of libido (part of Eros, the will to live) and Thanatos, the death drive…or the pleasure-pain of jouissance. (We’d need only hear the Liebestod as heard in the soundtracks of Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, and the scene would be perfect.) The coldness of her ‘corpse’ before the Duke suggests a displacement onto him of her frigidity towards Pierre.
Cats are heard meowing. The Duke’s servant knocks at the door, asking if his master wants him to let the cats in; again, in my interpretation, the cats are a symbolic reference to Séverine’s genitalia. The Duke curses at his servant about the cats, suggesting more of the hypocritical bourgeois reaction formation to any frank expression of sexuality.
Shortly after this cursing, the Duke slips down under the coffin with a guilty frown on his face. She feels a jiggling of the coffin, suggesting that the Duke is stimulating her genitals or buttocks in a perverse, disturbing way. After the encounter, and when she’s dressed, the servant brusquely kicks her out of the Duke’s mansion, to leave her in the rain: again, in her fantasizing, she must be punished for her jouissance; also, in the servant’s rudeness to her, we see the bourgeois hypocrisy in enjoying the services of a prostitute, but in also treating her as bestial and beneath the upper classes.
More dualities to be sublated are implied in Belle de Jour vs. belle de nuit, the opposition of day and night. Linked with this idea is the Duke’s reference, in his chat with Séverine at an outdoor café before their encounter in his mansion, to the soleil noir (“dark sun”), the sublation of jour and nuit. He also considers his sexually perverse encounter with her “a religious ceremony of some sort.” Sublation of the sacred and the profane.
Jouissance, especially the zesty, almost mystical, feminine kind that Lacan commented on, is a poetically resonant word when applied to Séverine’s sexual excesses. Apart from it meaning such things as “enjoyment” and “orgasm,” jouissance also refers to the enjoyment of property rights, which is instructive given her status as a bourgeois woman. In fact, Lacan’s notion of plus-de-jouir (“surplus enjoyment”) is inspired by Marx’s notion of surplus value, which–when applied to this film–is perfectly personified in the willing bourgeois prostitute.
The surplus value of Séverine’s masochistic pleasure-pain is something she, as a bourgeois woman, can enjoy and give up whenever she wishes to; but a proletarian prostitute is unable to escape her world of exploitation and degradation…herein lies the crucial difference. Having a madam force the girls into sex work is no less oppressive in principle than when a pimp forces them. For Séverine, though, as soon as she sees the danger in Husson finding out her secret (tempting him to tell Pierre), as well as the growing jealousy of her favourite client, Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), she can quit, and Madame Anaïs must accept it.
Séverine’s preference of the crude, violent bad boy Marcel as a lover, over sensitive but boring Pierre–in spite of how she must keep up appearances as his faithful wife–can be seen to symbolize how the hypocritical bourgeois liberal wants to be seen publicly as gentle and respectful of human rights; but when tensions rise in the world, even liberals will embrace violence to protect their class interests.
While Pierre, as a doctor, represents the gentle, liberal bourgeoisie, mafiosi Marcel and Hippolyte (Francisco Rabal) represent the nasty, violent, and even fascist-leaning side of capitalism (note how the mafia can be seen to represent capitalists in other movies). The two men beat up and steal from a man in an elevator, Epstein-like Hippolyte shows a sexual interest in the underage daughter of Pallas (Muni), and jealous Marcel attempts murdering his rival, Pierre, but ends up paralyzing him and putting him in a coma instead.
Séverine, in her overwhelming guilt, allows Husson to tell Pierre about her dalliances. She then sees her teary-eyed husband, emotionally destroyed and unmoving in his wheelchair (reminding us of Wanda’s wheelchair-bound husband before he died–Sacher-Masoch, page 20; recall another line from the novella: “Is there any greater cruelty for the lover than the beloved woman’s infidelity?”–page 4…Severin + Wanda = Séverine). Instead of having another sexy dream, though, she reverses course and has a wholesome one of her husband smiling, getting up from his wheelchair, and embracing her.
The film ends with the sleigh bells heard outside. She looks out the window and sees the coach riding down the road strewn with autumn leaves, as in the film’s beginning; a return to the beginning of the cycle, but without the couple as passengers. The empty seat is symbolic of Lacan’s notion that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship. There is sexual activity between men and women, of course (as we see constantly in this movie), but there is no rapport between the sexes, no harmony, as between her and Pierre. Their love is an illusion: at best, theirs is a Platonic friendship, and this–in combination with her superficially sexual relations with other men–indicates the general alienation felt in capitalist society.
This motif of autumn is important. It symbolizes her growing coolness towards her husband, and the fallen leaves suggest her fall from grace. Before, during the height of her jouissance at the brothel, she fantasized about Pierre and Husson shooting her in the head with phallic pistols out there in the woods, among the autumn leaves, the blood flowing from her head being symbolic, perhaps, of the pleasure-pain of getting a facial. She’s tied to a tree, her wound making her look rather like St. Sebastian: sublation of sinner and saint.
Now, however, having emotionally killed her husband, she can dream only of an unattainable return to innocence. Her shame doubtless will deter her from ever satisfying her desires chez Madame Anaïs. Will Husson finally have her? It’s doubtful, now that he knows she hasn’t the voluptuous virtue he thought she had.
There will be no more sublation of her sex fantasies with the reality of a prostitute’s life. In a futile attempt to assuage her guilt, she is compelled to escape reality and have innocent fantasies, of her restored husband, from now on. Now, she can only have pain sans pleasure. Fate has been most severe with Séverine.