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Is It Really a Great Movie? Part Twenty-Six: Belle du Jour

by dan heaton

Using Roger Ebert's Great Movies book as a guide, this series of articles will focus on all films included on his list that previously have escaped my notice. Since all lists are subjective, I am not treating Ebert's choices as the essential selection of films. However, his essays offer the perfect chance for me to explore both classics and lesser-known pictures from around the globe.

Heralded by Alfred Hitchcock as the greatest director ever, Luis Bunuel began his career with the 1929 surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou, which has confused film students for countless years. During a diverse career, he has delivered numerous worthy pictures, including Le Journal d'une femme de chamber and Belle de Jour. Originally appearing in 1967, this film was widely heralded by critics and earned numerous awards, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Miramax re-released it in 1995, which garnered a surprisingly large response from art-house audiences. Its muted approach to the erotic material and the nearly expressionless acting of star Catherine Deneuve help the story to keep from growing dated like some other ‘60s classics.

Deneuve plays Severine, an attractive housewife with a loving husband (Jean Sorel) and an apparently comfortable life. However, she feels bored with this normal situation and becomes enticed with the idea of working as a prostitute. The film begins with a dream sequence that shows Severine being dragged through the grass, whipped, and treated awfully, but it comes from her internal desires. Deneuve uses a deadpan approach that masks her character’s true feelings about the imagined events. We assume that she longs for these depraved actions, but can never be sure due to her detached manner. Another dream involves her husband and another man throwing mud at her face, which is silly but again is complicated by Deneuve’s calm demeanor. Severine finds more interest in dreamland than in her own life, which spawns a drastic choice.

The main plot hinges on Severine’s decision to work as a prostitute, but only during the afternoon. This chosen timeframe spawns her name Belle de Jour, and she becomes a favorite among the brothel’s clients. Although this storyline might suggest erotic scenes, the trysts are actually more oddly comical and lack sensuality. Deneuve is an attractive presence, but her cold demeanor and the antics of the goofy men shift the tone away from the job’s sexual nature. While her oblivious husband works as a doctor, Severine enjoys working as a prostitute, but this attraction could generate danger on several fronts. The problems lie with the wannabe gangster Marcel (Pierre Clementi), who becomes obsessed with Belle de Jour and begins to invade her personal life. This plot turn should be more interesting, but Clementi’s work is too conventional to make him a scary figure. Marcel does threaten Severine’s congenial married life, but his “hip” persona fails considerably. His mania does move the story away from its comic aspects and introduce possible tension between Severine and Pierre. The final outcome of this conflict could destroy both sides of her life forever.

Roger Ebert describes Belle de Jour as “It is possibly the best-known erotic film of modern times, perhaps the best.” I agree that there is a certain charm to this picture, particularly visually, but wouldn’t call it a particularly great movie. The segment that remains with me the most is the final sequence, which is probably a dream but is never clearly explained. Bunuel actually stated that he’s not sure what the end means, which is probably true but also could frustrate some viewers. Severine’s journey into the world of prostitution is engaging at times, but it also grows a bit tedious after several lengthy interactions. The deliberate pace matches her approach to life and feelings about everything, but it also lessens the impact and makes it only of moderate interest. The story is appealing and deserves a look, but the overall force falls short of delivering an outstanding experience.

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