Belle de Jour

Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) is a film about sex, though there’s not much sex in it. That’s because the film is concerned with the effects of repressed sexuality. A rebel and a surrealist, Buñuel often targeted hypocrisy in bourgeoisie life — via class, religion, or politics — in order to expose its inconsistencies and logical fallacies. He also preferred to approach his subjects in an unorthodox fashion. As a result, his films often have one meaning on the surface, but an entirely different meaning just below the surface.

Buñuel isn’t an easy director to decipher. The structure of his later films challenge narrative conventions in the same way his characters challenge social conventions. Belle de Jour begins as a deceptively simple story but blossoms into a multilayered exploration of alternative realities. But are they really alternative realities? Séverine (played by Catherine Deneuve) is married to a kind and generous young doctor. Judging by appearances, she should be happy. Her daydreams suggest she isn’t. Her secret life at a brothel becomes the means through which she tries to reconcile her rational life with her fantasy life.

In his film Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Buñuel also moved between realities, though with a lighter touch. In that movie, he carefully builds a narrative reality only to suddenly shift to a surreal version of the same reality. With Belle de Jour, the shifts are more subtle, the plot is less whimsical, and the mood is more somber.

While the later Buñuel films have a puzzle-box construction, they’re quite enjoyable without your having to dig deep down. Buñuel’s best films can be read right-side up, upside down, or layer by layer. I don’t know of any other director who could craft films with such complex, even contradictory messages.

Belle de Jour
(1967; directed by Luis Buñuel; cable & dvd)
Miramax
List Price: $19.95

Saturday, February 25 at 4:15 a.m. on The Movie Channel