Belle de Jour (1967) is a Bunuel film about a woman coming of age. The young female protagonist enters into a degrading relationship that she finds sexually liberating.
The film stars Catherine Deneuve as Severine, a comfortably middle-class, frigid wife. Belle de Jour doesn’t look too closely at the motivations of Severine. Granted, her life is dull. She’s a housewife with no children and a boring social life. She and her husband sleep in twin beds and are polite to each other. But in her dreams, she is being ravaged by her husband. He flings mud on her and ties her up.
Through the grapevine, she learns that one of her neighbors moonlights as a prostitute. Severine is fascinated at the thought. She then seeks out that brothel, but not without trepidation. The madam accepts her flimsy cover story and gives her a stage name: “Belle de Jour”. She then begins an affair with a possessive, younger man. He threatens to kill her husband to be with her. On top of that, her husband’s lascivious friend discovers her secret and threatens to tell her husband.
By leading this double life, she becomes a more affectionate and well-rounded person. However, she feels guilty. After her first day on the job, she burns the underwear she wore. The dream world and the real world collide uncomfortably. Her lover, Marcel, is the exact opposite of her husband. The new person she is becoming clashes with her comfortable bourgeois life. Her husband can’t or won’t reciprocate affection.
She chooses to work only during the day, between the hours of 2pm and 5pm. These hours become the “witching hour”. A funny episode in the middle of the film, is when Severine is propostioned by a man with a monocle. He asks her to be in nothing but a black veil, while lying in a coffin. It is the only time a dream world scenario plays out in the waking world, and it comes with shame.
We are ashamed to live our dreams and fantasies, women more so. When her husband’s friend discovers her, he says he has lost all interest in her. Before, he would leer at her and come on to her, but now that he knows she enjoys sex, he thinks she’s dirty. He can’t wait to ruin her reputation. The real world is harsh and full of hypocrites and shame.
Despite the dream sequences and ambiguously happy ending, the film’s politics feel dated.