“There are many ways to be free. One of them is to transcend reality by imagination, as I try to do.” —Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin
Though Catherine Deneuve was an established force in European cinema by Luis Buñuel’s 1967 sadomasochistic masterpiece, Belle de Jour, she began her career with a little-seen adaptation of the Marquis de Sade: Roger Vadim’s Le vice et la vertu (Vice and Virtue, 1963). A decade before Pasolini’s Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975), Vadim adapted Sade with a WWII setting: Virtue and Vice loosely merges parts of Sade’s novels Justine and Juliette with a backdrop of Nazi cruelty and espionage. The innocent, beautiful Justine’s (Deneuve in her first major film role) fiancé (Jean-Pierre Honoré) is arrested by the Gestapo for his role in the French resistance. She pleads with her corrupt, perverse sister, Juliette (Annie Girardot) to intervene on her fiancé’s behalf, as Juliette is the mistress of a Nazi general (O.E. Hasse). But their lives are further disrupted by the highest ranking Nazi in Paris, SS Colonel Erik Schörndorf (Robert Hossein), who forces Juliette to become his mistress, while Justine is sent to an isolated castle and trained to become a Nazi concubine.
While it’s perhaps difficult to imagine Deneuve starring in what is essentially a lush Nazisploitation film a few years before the genre would fully emerge with Lee Frost’s Love Camp 7 (1969), her career is marked by a series of brilliant performances unafraid to explore taboo sexuality, lust, repression, and violence. She certainly explored such territory in her first years of screen acting with Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), but also in Manon 70 (1968), Buñuel’s Tristana (1970), Benjamin ou Les mémoires d’un puceau (The Diary of an Innocent Boy, 1970), and Marco Ferrari’s mindblowing Liza (1970), where she is outfitted with a dog collar and leash by none other than Marcello Mastroianni. For me, none of these roles quite reach the Sadeian excess of Belle de jour, Buñuel’s romantic, melancholic ode to the masochistic desire of a repressed housewife.
The film follows Séverine (Deneuve), a quiet, lonely woman who frequently lapses into elaborate fantasies where she is tied up, humiliated, and beaten, with scenes of implied rape or sexual assault. In her real life, she is apparently sexually frigid, frequently refusing to touch her loving husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel), who patiently sleeps in a separate bed across the room. Ultimately, she gives in to her compulsions and begins work as a “flower of the day” or day-time prostitute. This name, “Belle du Jour,” is given to her as a pseudonym by the proprietress of the brothel (Genevieve Page), where she becomes a popular fixture. But a violent, young lover (the divine Pierre Clementi, who gives off a sort of white-hot erotic heat in the film, despite inexplicably having a silver grill in his mouth) becomes obsessed with her and her fantasies soon spill over into her domestic life with tragic results.
In most of Belle de Jour, Séverine seeks humiliation and punishment only in her fantasies. Pierre, her husband, either orchestrates or metes out her punishment directly, though she refuses physical contact in their waking life. Belle de jour particularly addresses the intertwined issues of love and sex primarily through masochism and the relationship between the “slave” and “master.” In his essay on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s seminal novel Venus in Furs—the term “masochism” was coined in 1890 by psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebbing from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s name—Gilles Deleuze writes that though the master appears to be in control, it is really the masochist. “Likewise the masochistic hero appears to be educated and fashioned by the authoritarian women whereas basically it is he who forms her, dresses her for the part and prompts the harsh words she addresses to him. It is the victim who speaks through the mouth of his torturer without sparing himself.”
Of course, Belle de jour is concerned with a female slave and a male master (or series of masters), but Belle de Jour’s Séverine is named for Venus in Furs’ protagonist, Severin, slave to his mistress Wanda. Though they have a sexual relationship, most of this is made up of theatrical scenes where Wanda dominates, humiliates, and inflicts pain on Severin until he eventually abandons her when she admits her desire to submit to another man. Séverine is implicitly separate from her masters/lovers/clients and operates with complete agency in the realm of her imagination. These fantasies are detailed, elaborate, and always commence with the jingling of a bell. Events are usually begun by a crueler aspect of Pierre, though he typically abandons her to a fate of physical violence, humiliation, and sexual torture, occasionally taking part himself, but usually just watching. In her first fantasy, which opens the film, the couple travels casually through the woods in a carriage manned by two identically dressed drivers.
Pierre sweetly tells Séverine he loves her, but she pulls away with increasing coldness, saying, “You are everything to me, but . . .” Pierre responds that he wants things to be perfect. He says, “I didn’t mean to upset you, I care about you so much.” Séverine responds, “What good is your care?” Though she apologizes, he soon has the carriage stopped, and she is dragged out of it by all three men, kicking and protesting. Her hands are bound and she is tied to a tree. Pierre rips her red jacket down the back, also tearing her bra. He commands both men to beat her with their horsewhips while he watches. Soon he stops them and says farewell to the tearful Séverine, giving the men permission to rape her. Her fantasy ends here, and the camera cuts back to her home life; she is lying in bed in a nightgown, getting ready to go to sleep, and Pierre is looking at himself in the bathroom mirror. She tells Pierre she was thinking of them riding in a carriage, and he implies that he has heard this fantasy before, though the full extent of his knowledge is unclear. He kisses her goodnight, which she passionately returns, but when he attempts to climb into her bed, she panics and turns him away.
This particular coach and footmen theme is not included in the original Belle de Jour (1928) novel by Joseph Kessel but is instead found in Pierre Louÿs’s La femme et le pantin (1898), which Buñuel used again in That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), another film about a violent, repressed romance. This link between masochism, fantasy, and dreams is of particular importance in Belle de Jour. Deleuze explains that “[t]he masochist needs to believe that he is dreaming even when he is not.” For Séverine, the most important fantasies occur in this waking dream state, where she is able to divorce herself from reality and pursue the sexual utopia she is unable to approach in her bourgeois marriage. She refers to them as dreams at several times in the film, though we witness that they occur in her waking state, where she seems to briefly fade out of reality. This temporal break becomes associated with her daily “missing” or absent time, when she goes to the brothel between the hours of two and five in the afternoon.
She seems to live mostly in this fantasy world until she discovers the existence of Madame Anais’s (perhaps named for erotic novelist and memoirist Anaïs Nin) upscale brothel, though it is arguably an extension of her fantasies brought to life. There, Séverine is successful, well liked, and in demand. She also deals fearlessly and efficiently with the most difficult patrons. Despite this, she continues to have elaborate fantasies involving her husband, though these fantasies are interrupted before sexual activity actually occurs. Deleuze theorizes that this delay is a critical element of masochism. “The masochistic process of disavowal is so extensive that it affects sexual pleasure itself; pleasure is postponed for as long as possible and is thus disavowed. The masochist is therefore able to deny the reality of pleasure at the very point of experiencing it.” Though Séverine theoretically experiences pleasure, the camera never witnesses it, and we as the audience are denied any sort of voyeuristic satisfaction; the fantasy remains incomplete, unconsummated as a public spectacle, a private pleasure for Séverine alone.
Though morally resistant to her newfound profession, she is finally able to find sexual satisfaction. While she openly denies Pierre any conjugal privilege for most of the film, we can infer that sexual experiences occur at the brothel. Thanks to Buñuel’s subversion of such cinematic norms, violent masochistic fantasies unfold on screen, but the only conventional sexual activity is limited to a few chaste kisses. After sadomasochistic scenes are initiated at the brothel, the camera cuts away, only returning to show the room with clothes askance or draped on furniture, Séverine’s hair mussed, and occasionally two pairs of feet rubbing against each other in bed; she is shown lying in bed in lingerie, tired, sweaty, and smiling, with a dreamy expression on her face.
For me, Belle de jour is an ancestor of Sade’s Justine and Juliette. In some sense, Séverine is a sister to Deneuve’s virginal masochistic victim in Virtue and Vice, but the castle walls are a prison of her own choosing and her own creation. Like the various iterations of Juliette, in Sade’s novel and on screen, Séverine is an exploration of personal freedom and a somewhat radical study in female pleasure as independent of male desire. Like many of Buñuel’s films, it is explicitly anti-bourgeois, and the force of middle class repression and guilt—bound up with the role of vision and desire—have a particularly scathing role at the conclusion of Belle de jour. While Séverine is undeniably an object of sexual objectification throughout the film, she gains a degree of agency over her frustrated, controlled life by bringing her masochistic fantasies to life.
Séverine’s actively sexual, perverse internal life contradicts her austere, virginal persona, where she cannot stand to be viewed as a sexual being even by her husband. She breaks the confines of class and bourgeois morals to act out her desires on a costumed, conscripted stage, complete with the indignities and perversions of a whorehouse. Peter Cosgrove writes that “[m]asochism is a fantastic mockery that deflects the threats of a patriarchal culture by investing pain with the erotic pleasure that punishment is intended to deter.” Séverine’s overwhelming desire spills out and consumes the narrative world of the film; for it, her husband is left blind, mute, and paralyzed, rendered infantile by the violence of her repressed lust, finally unleashed.