According to the film's co-scenarist, Jean-Claude Carrière, the great psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was once asked to present a lecture on female masochism. Lacan simply screened Belle de jour (1967), and afterwards claimed he had nothing more to add. Indeed, for all its fathomless mysteries, for all that's abbreviated, blurred, mischievous or left unspoken, this sublime and, in its way, fairly radical adaptation of Joseph Kessel's 1928 novel feels devoted to invoking the troubled psyche of its haut bourgeois Parisian housewife, married to a handsome and unspeakably dull young surgeon, who secretly becomes a prostitute so as to fulfill her desire for controlled debasement and humiliation. The film is faithful to Séverine's experience of life as a merging of fantasy and reality. Whatever that is.
Belle de jour, now available from Criterion, was a turning point for its director, Luis Buñuel, the then-sexagenarian Spaniard and one-time card-carrying surrealist. It was an atypically elegant production, his greatest commercial success, and thus met with suspicion by the sort of admirers who are conservative in their ideas about subversion. It was also the turning point for its star, Catherine Deneuve, even more so than Repulsion (1965), because it used her icy reserve as a gateway to transcending reserve: the moment, following a date with a hulking Asian man who speaks almost no French and carries with him a lacquered buzzing box that scares everyone else away, when Séverine raises her tousled platinum head from the bed upon which she's experienced what was likely her first truly satisfying sexual encounter, is one of the cinema's great entrances. It's the entrance of the complex, intimidating, empowered woman hiding behind Deneuve's girlish neurotic.
The famous fantasy sequences, which find Séverine whipped, bound, and pelted with mud, were nowhere in Kessel's moralistic novel; they were inserted by Buñuel and Carrière, based on interviews with women. They were integral to the film as an autonomous work, not just as a manner of asserting Buñuel's signature but as a way of fomenting Séverine's journey of self-realization. This is a story of a woman desperately attempting to juggle two seemingly irreconcilable worlds and it ends with what, however baffling it may be, functions as a convergence—the shot leading into the final sequence is, quite literally, a dissolve. And as a way of resolving the conflicting desires that exist between a husband and wife, it is so much richer, and more haunting, than the somewhat similar ending of Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
Directed by Luis Buñuel