Criterion // 1967 // 100 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // February 8th, 2012
Madame Anais: "I have an idea. Would you like to be called 'Belle de
Jour' (Beauty by day)?"
Severine Serizy: "Belle de Jour?"
Madame Anais: "Since you only come in the afternoons."
Severine Serizy: "If you wish."
Belle de Jour is a 1967 masterpiece from surrealist artist Luis Buñuel that looms large in film history as a sexy, off-kilter, iconic work. It stars a very young Catherine Deneuve (The Hunger) embodying a frigid housewife who becomes a prostitute only during the day. She's the picture perfect dutiful wife by night, and a scandalous woman of ill repute in the broad daylight. The basis for the story came from a popular 1928 novel by French author Joseph Kessel, but Buñuel found a way to insert his own stamp on the proceedings by creating erotic fantasy sequences that explain the housewife's inner life. Buñuel took a linear narrative and spruced it up with vivid dreams that turned the lead character's world inside out. It is the director's most celebrated work, and one of the best roles for one of France's most recognizable stars.
Deneuve plays Severine, a porcelain perfect young wife of a celebrated Parisian doctor (Jean Sorel, The Day of the Jackal). They appear to be the perfect couple, yet there is a wall between them preventing both sexual and emotional intimacy. Severine hears talk about an infamous bordello near their well-appointed home, and she becomes curious. Something about the place stirs her, and she takes a job as one of the girls. Her only stipulation is that she will work in the daylight hours exclusively while her husband is at work. She finds it is a place where she can be free and explore her darkest fantasies. Soon one of her husband's friends (Michel Piccoli, Atlantic City) finds out about her new profession, and a dangerous gangster (Pierre Clementi,Hideous Kinky) falls for her hard. These two things risk her happiness, and threaten to make her two very different worlds collide in the worst way imaginable.
Belle de Jour has long been one of my favorite films, quite often topping my short list of the best of the best. It has a lot of what I love about cinema, and it advances the idea of movies as stylish waking dreams remarkably. The story is dark and emotionally rich, the acting is good, but in the end the visuals are what stick with you. Catherine Deneuve never looked better, and the narrative is the perfect vehicle for her icy blonde appeal. She was foisted on Buñuel by the studio, yet she is the only actress who could have pulled this off. She plays a woman who revels in masochistic surrenders, but her inner strength keeps that from becoming offensive or exploitative. It is an erotically thrilling movie with hardly any graphic nudity or traditional sex scenes. Most of the tantalizing parts are left to the imagination of the viewer, as are the horrifying sequences of sexual violence. Instead we are given the moments between the two extremes and the fantasies that fuel them.
Criterion's latest release of Belle de Jour comes loaded with an improved transfer, clearer subtitles, and plenty of extras to satisfy fans. The aspect ratio remains true to the theatrical presentation that was standard in Europe at the time (1.66:1). The print is pristine and color levels are greatly improved from previous DVD releases. Colors used to be too bright and almost washed out without much clarity, but this new Blu-ray edition looks reference quality. The sound is an uncompressed monaural in French, and there are none of the dubs offered. Instead viewers can only choose the newly improved English subtitles, which offer nice translations that clarify some of the more confusing exchanges. This must be what it was like to see the film when it was newly shown in France back in 1967. It is gorgeous, which helps the film immensely.
Extras include a nice audio commentary from author Michael Wood, who wrote the book on Belle de Jour for BFI Film Classics. There is a video segment in which we get takes on the film from feminist icons Susie Bright and Linda Williams. They analyze the feature from a woman's point of view quite nicely, and discuss the sexual politics of what a stylish ode to a female submissive means today. There is a nice new interview with screen writer Jean-Claude Carriere who penned the script with Buñuel. There is a vintage black and white interview with Deneuve and Carriere from a television program aired in France when the film was released. All the various theatrical trailers are gathered together including the original release versions as well as the 1995 rerelease trailers that were shown in America. There is also a nice booklet featuring an essay by Melissa Anderson as well as an interview from the '70s with the director.
There have been many releases over the years of this film, and although the Criterion version is the most well-produced there are plenty of great extras the other editions offer. I wish they could have grabbed at least the Julie Jones commentary from the Miramax DVD release, but I am sure studios often retain the rights to their supplements. If you want an exhaustive collection of essays and commentaries on the film you will have to invest in all the previous incarnations of Belle de Jour.
Criterion gives Belle de Jour an amazingly clear transfer along with strong supplements that enhance the experience. It's certainly not a film for everyone, but remains a classic of surrealistic cinema. It is a project that could not be made today because it is an erotic essay on a woman who revels in her role as a masochist without any apology or explanation. The current political climate would find this hooker rape fantasy revolting, but in Catherine Deneuve and Luis Buñuel's hands it all makes stylish sense. They both give the character a certain strength that makes it tolerable for her to explore these dark and degrading fantasies. It is these two forces of nature that make Belle de Jour work far above what could easily have been a salacious b-movie or piece of exploitation. Instead we have a masterpiece of storytelling through surrealistic sequences and small moments in the untidy life of a woman who longs to live in two wildly different worlds. This is easily one of my favorite films ever made.
Guilty of being an erotic classic of surreal cinema, which means it is free
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1967
MPAA Rating: Rated R