Sex, sentiment and surrealism in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour

Editorial Assistant Roshana Wickremasingh examines the ideas of dynamism of the sexual role in ‘Belle de Jour’.

Throughout many aspects of French culture, there is a more explicit portrayal of love and sex than we may be used to. In Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, the dynamic of the sexual role of the submissive is explored to a great extent, including its place both in the marital home and an exclusively sexual environment. Buñuel portrays this in an intriguing manner due to his status as a surrealist, giving the film a unique quality through his exploration of both the fantasy and reality realms of his protagonist, Séverine. This becomes a fascinating medium through which Buñuel is able to explore the themes of love and sex, additionally through Séverine’s relationships with her docile, yet kind husband Pierre and her clients in the brothel, providing contrasting views on the role of love and sex in French culture.

Although a married couple, Séverine and Pierre are yet to consummate their marriage, despite a clear affection that the two show for each other; Buñuel demonstrates the possibility for love to exist without sex. Pierre’s own approach to sex remains clinical, pertaining to his profession as a doctor. In a conversation with Séverine on prostitution, he states his feelings of guilt after having slept with a prostitute, relating to the Catholic fear of sex without the purpose of procreation. Consequently, Buscombe argues that Pierre views ‘sex as something forbidden, perverse and dirty’ (59), taking a contrasting view to the world portrayed in the fantasies of Séverine. This notion of Pierre as an opposing force to the liberalised view of sex is further cemented by the character of Husson, who tells him that ‘men like you are rare’, implying that his conservative views and ‘sexual diffidence’ (Buscombe 59) belong to an older generation.

Whilst there is a clear attachment between Pierre and Séverine, it is impossible to ignore her sense of detachment in their moments alone, with Sandro stating that ‘Séverine’s glance is characterized as weak … (and) lacking direction’ (50). This is Pierre’s influence, as it is part of her role as a bourgeois wife who must carry out traditional marital duties. Séverine’s fulfilment of this role manifests in Buñuel’s choice of elaborate costumes and sets, depicting a superficial involvement in her conventional, ‘loving’ relationship. The pristine image of her Saint Laurent dresses and elaborate suites also serves as a contrast between Séverine’s marital, sexless life with Pierre and her erotic role as a prostitute in the brothel. The two sets differ greatly: the latter is claustrophobic and confined, with the prostitutes dressed in ill-fitting coats and cheap looking underwear, emphasising Séverine’s vastly different background where sex and love manifest through more conventional mediums.

It is impossible to discuss the nature of the love and sex that exists between Séverine and her husband without discussing the film’s ending, where Pierre is confined to a wheelchair having been shot at by Marcel, Séverine’s tempestuous lover. Before he is shot, Marcel describes Pierre as ‘the obstacle’, a polarizing view as it could relate to him coming between Marcel and Séverine or, upon further examination, as the obstacle to Séverine’s sexual satisfaction. In contrast to this interpretation, at the film’s conclusion we find a seemingly happier Séverine, enjoying the dominant role of Pierre’s carer, demonstrating an alternative manner in which their love has manifested. She tells him that ‘since your accident, I haven’t dreamt’, emphasising the notion that she is enjoying her role as the dominant in their relationship and feels newly fulfilled. However, in spite of this declaration, there is a seamless transition into a fantasy of Pierre regaining his eye sight and ability to walk, with Kernan drawing the conclusion that ‘he becomes revived in Séverine’s eyes and her guilty feelings drive her back to masochism’ (39), implying that even at the film’s ending we are left with an ambiguous conclusion, unsure as to whether Séverine will continue with her sexual fantasies and prostitution. This lack of a clear ending is typical of Buñuel, and provides the interpretation that love and sex do not follow clear guidelines and conclusions cannot be reached on their nature within human existence.

Buñuel makes clear that Séverine is able to achieve sexual gratification through leading ‘a covert double life’ (Wilmington 38), emphasising both the hidden and manifest aspects of her life as playing a role in her overall satisfaction. Her life is emphasised as ‘covert’ through her innocent attitude towards sex that we are initially presented with, remaining a virgin at the age of 23 and being unaware that brothels existed, showing her innocence to the world of sex, let alone its perversions. She provides a contrast to our pre-conceived views on ‘the oldest profession’, which Buñuel draws attention to through the opinions of various characters. For example, from Séverine’s friend we hear the opinion that all women do it for money, something that Séverine is clearly not in need of. The friend also comments on the enslavement of women that it causes, again proved wrong by Séverine as it does the very opposite, liberating her from her own sexual fantasies. As Kernan suggests, prostitution ‘combines her needs for erotic role-playing, expiation and punishment’ (40), which reinforces the profession as the perfect role for Séverine for exploring her sexual freedom, in strong contrast to how it is usually perceived in society. 

Belle de Jour could not be classed as a surrealist film without its extensive use of the world of fantasies, used ‘to exploit the power of the subconscious to disconcert us and subvert normality’ (Buscombe 59), establishing its power to portray our true, repressed views of love and sex in a Freudian manner. Buñuel’s approach to the depiction of Séverine’s fantasies is of great interest, due to the absence of ‘self-conscious, structural emphasis’ (Kernan 38 ), stressing the notion that our sexual fantasies are far more fluid and intertwined with our realities than we might think. This is highlighted by the sequence involving the necrophiliac Duke, as Buñuel insisted that despite the surreal details and subject matter, the scene is in fact a part of Séverine’s reality. This additionally draws attention to our own aversion to sexual perversions in our attempt to define the sequence as fantasy.

In addition to the surreal fantasy sequences that demonstrate Séverine’s desire for abuse and rape, there is a continuous transition between her own time frame and the events of her past. Firstly, it is implied that she was abused as a child, as the camera pans up her infantile body as a workman caresses her, with Buñuel merely hinting at its significance within her childhood. These scenes are skilfully integrated, as Séverine has a flashback to her past as she enters the brothel of Mme. Anaïs for the first time.  Without any audible warning, Buñuel shows the young Séverine receiving communion, refusing to take it, as she doesn’t believe that she is holy and pure, due to the sexual abuse that she has been subjected to. This theme relates back to the emotions that she feels as she approaches the brothel, though in an inverted manner, as she feels far too pure and virginal to enter a brothel and take up work as a prostitute. From these connected themes, Buñuel implies that Séverine’s sexual abuse is an on going presence in her life, emphasising the dangers of sex at the hands of misuse. Kernan writes that ‘to Buñuel, childhood is a monstrous trap and there is nothing romantic to him about innocence’ (40), reaffirming his view that we cannot escape the influence that we become subjected to as a child, and the root of our opinions of love and sex universally originate within our upbringing.

In conclusion, Buñuel successfully subverts our views of the role of love and sex primarily through his surrealist blurring of fantasy and reality, emphasising the dangers that surface when we attempt to reconcile the two. As we attempt to alter our lives and gain sexual satisfaction, we do so at the risk of love, as Séverine presents the dangers that come with transforming fantasy into reality. The film’s lack of a concrete conclusion through its final fantasy sequence demonstrates the underlying view that there are no concrete ideals for the concepts of sex and love; our varying views originate and form in childhood and we cannot avoid what it is that gives us sexual satisfaction.

Works Cited

Belle De Jour. Dir. Luis Buñuel. Perf. Catherine Deneuve. Allied Artists, 1968. DVD.

Buscombe, Edward. “Tied Up by Buñuel.” Film Quarterly 65.4 (2012): 57-59, JSTOR. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.

Kernan, Margot S. “Review: Belle De Jour.” Film Quarterly 23.1 (1969): 38-41, JSTOR. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.

Sandro, Paul. “Textuality of the Subject in Belle De Jour.” SubStance 9.1, Issue 26, (1980): 43-56. JSTOR. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.

Wilmington, Michael. “Belle De Jour: Love’s Labour’s Cost.” The X-list: The  National Society of Film Critics’ Movies That Turn Us on. By Jami Bernard. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2005. 38-40. Print.