Classic Film Club: 'Belle de Jour' (1967)
Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. Luis Buñuel's 'Belle de Jour' (1967)
The plot is a daydream within a daydream: Severine, played with icy distraction by Catherine Deneuve, is a bored bourgeois housewife who dreams of sexual humiliation, but cannot bear to have her straight-laced, keenly devoted husband touch her. Intrigued and aroused by the story of a destitute former acquaintance forced into prostitution, Severine dreams up a double life in which she is employed at a high-class brothel under the name ‘Belle de Jour’ ('the day-flower').
Buñuel never hides the fact that the entire film is a fantasy, but whose fantasy? The daydreams of a bored woman keen for sexual danger, or of an ageing, dirty-minded surrealist filmmaker? A bit of both, in the end: Buñuel is too observant a storyteller to be unaware of his own furtive interest in the subject, and too honest an artist not to alert his audience with a sly nod and a wink. But he’s also genuinely interested in his central figure, treating her with sympathy and, at first, respect.
It’s when this respect begins to flag that the film starts to feel outdated. Ever the old-school revolutionary, Buñuel’s preoccupation is as much with class as it is sexuality, and he revels in taking potshots at the staid, restrictive world in which Severine suffers (even her dreamworld, the brothel, is festooned with frills, her customers almost exclusively wealthy). But there is sometimes a sense that Buñuel delights a little too much in picking Belle apart, peeling her open, layer by layer, with the tools of his superior intellect. It’s a fascinating process, but discomfiting: Buñuel is undoubtedly sympathetic towards his Severine, but it’s an arch, superior form of sympathy that verges on pity, and there are times when the character begins to seem more like a case study, a butterfly under glass.
The film’s cruel, cynical ending seems to confirm this. Reality and fantasy blur, leaving Severine’s husband in a vegetative state following a shooting by one of her jealous johns. She quits her job at the brothel, and seems poised to confront her new reality, saddled with a paraplegic husband and rumours of her indiscretions escaping into the world. But instead she retreats once more into fantasy, only this time her fantasies are more acceptable, even ‘normal’: a happy ending with her miraculously healed husband, and the promise of a contented life together. Buñuel can no longer suppress his derision: for these characters, happiness can only ever be a fantasy, their lack of self awareness leading them into ever more inescapable psychological traps.
Admittedly, this is a very twenty-first century reading of a staunchly mid-twentieth-century work of art. There’s no denying ‘Belle de Jour’ is a great film: beautifully structured and photographed, sumptuously designed, flawlessly acted. Ironically, it’s the cold cynicism that Buñuel used to isolate his characters that has now served to isolate his film, leaving it feeling like a gorgeous, fascinating museum piece, remarkable but no longer relevant.
Author: Tom Huddleston
Director Tom Hooper and his cast tell us how they turned the super-musical into movie blockbuster.
The Time Out film team weighs in on the nominees for the 2013 Academy Awards
Get ready for the big guns… Spielberg, Tarantino and Bigelow
Daniel Craig’s 007 comeback, a genius indie romcom and all the mysteries behind ‘The Shining’ unravelled.
The results of our study on the state of films and filmgoing in 2012.
Read 'Time Out film debate 2012 highlights'
'The Hobbit' actor tells us why he wouldn't have a pint with Bilbo Baggins.
Dave Calhoun speaks to the director of 'Skyfall' about the latest film in the Bond franchise.
The genre-hopping director tells us how he invented a new genre with 'Life of Pi'
The twice Palme d'Or-winning director discusses 'Amour'.
Read our interview with Michael Haneke
The Danish director talks about his powerful new drama 'The Hunt'.
Read our interview with Thomas Vinterberg'
Time Out looks back at the impact of the 'Twilight' saga.
Discover what 'Twilight' has done for us
Time Out heads to the Lake District to visit director Ben Wheatley on set.
Read about our visit to the 'Sightseers' set
The director talks about 'Frankenweenie', which he describes as 'the ultimate memory piece'.
Read our interview with Tim burton
Our pick of the best films showing over the festive period.
Read 'The top ten Christmas films of 2012'
Mean Girls? Dirty Dancing? Tell us your favourite film guilty pleasure.
Read 'Film guilty pleasures'
What will Disney do to 'Star Wars'?
Read about the new 'Star Wars' trilogy
Ten young actors come of age on the silver screen.
Read 'When teen stars turn serious'
From Connery to Craig, we revisit all 22 Bond films.
Read '50 years of James Bond'
The director talks Scientology and working with Joaquin Phoenix.
Read the interview
Ten funny horror movies which went spectacularly off the rails.
Read 'Hilarious horror films'
The director talks psychopaths and theatre – 'my least favourite artform'.
Read the interview
We round-up the five best horror movies of Autumn 2012.
Read about this Autumn's best horror movies
Time Out visits Istanbul to see the latest Bond movie being made.
Read 'On the set of Skyfall'
Does Skyfall refresh or rehash the James Bond franchise?
The British director explains why 'Ginger and Rosa' is her most mainstream film yet.
'I’m almost as in demand as Brad Pitt’