|Belle de Jour: Severine and the carriage driver.|
Catherine Deneuve was only twenty-three years old when she starred as Severine Serizy in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967). Deneuve is one of those actors whose appeal has less to do with the versatility or dynamism of her talent than with a certain onscreen presence that, when properly harnessed, produces extraordinary effects. The enigmatic blankness of her expression, her impeccable poise, her cool, low voice are put to perfect use by Buñuel in Belle de Jour, in which she plays a woman paralyzed by the repression of unorthodox sexual fantasies. Severine is, at twenty-three, already trapped in an upper-middle-class bubble she finds stultifying, married to a “nice” (read: bland) surgeon who gives her chaste goodnight kisses and sleeps in oversized baby-blue pajamas. She bristles at his touch, not because she’s frigid but because she secretly wants a very different type of sex with a very different type of man; in her fantasy life she imagines being dominated by rough trade, whipped and fucked by coachmen, defiled by farm laborers.
It is a kind of reverse image of the character Deneuve had played two years earlier in Repulsion, Roman Polanski’s considerably bleaker study of female neurosis. Both films suggest that their heroines suffered abuse as children (a brief, almost subliminal flashback in Belle de Jour shows Severine being fondled by a workman in paint-stained overalls). But where Repulsion’s Carol has grown up into a woman who cannot bear the touch of any man, Belle de Jour takes Severine in another direction, as if the two films proceed from the same starting point and then diverge onto two different forking paths. For Severine, the abuse seems to have “opened a door” (Linda Williams’ phrase) to a very pleasurable, if taboo, realm of masochism and kink. Deneuve’s blandness and blankness float over the gulf between the separate spheres of Severine’s life: on the one hand the skiing trips and Yves Saint-Laurent clothes and lunches, all photographed in Eastmancolor to look like a photo spread in Paris Match, and on the other hand the afternoons spent at a brothel submitting to the whims of thugs, businessmen, “foreigners”—also photographed to look like a photo spread in Paris Match, because of course this is a Buñuel film. (In one of the film’s most quintessentially Buñuelian images a client’s ratty socks rub up against Severine’s designer shoes.)
According to Melissa Anderson, Buñuel advised his actors “don’t do anything. And above all, don’t perform.” That may be why Deneuve was ideal casting for Severine. Her flat affect is of a piece with the tone of Buñuel’s films, in which perversity simmers beneath banal surfaces. Buñuel used Deneuve the way a child uses a Barbie doll to act out stories. She looks like a princess out of a fairy tale, a model out of a catalog, a shop-window mannequin. When we first see her riding in a carriage with her husband, we could be in the world of a romance novel, a perfume commercial, or “Cinderella.” Then, as she’s dragged from the carriage and her dress is torn away to expose her perfect Barbie-doll back, and the carriage drivers lash her with whips while the husband looks on approvingly, it becomes clear that we’re in the world of Sade’s Justine. It would have been a mistake to cast a lustier actress as Severine; the part needs the aloofness and the detached quality of Deneuve in order to give meaning to the intensity of her repressed desire.
It’s possible to see Belle de Jour as a misogynistic fantasy of revenge against privileged, uptight “bitches” like Severine, the suggestion being that all such women need is a good rogering by the local handyman. But it’s also possible to see the film as a delicately shaded (and remarkably accurate) portrait of a budding fetishist’s journey to self-discovery. The erotic appeal of Severine/Deneuve in Belle de Jour doesn’t have to do with the suppleness of her body or the specific details of the sex she has, neither of which Buñuel shows us much. It has everything to do with the knowledge that behind the serene Barbie-doll mask—a mask that only really slips once in the film, when we see Severine basking in the afterglow of her own ravishment—lies something insatiable.