Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Belle de Jour

(France, 1967)

An upper-class wife who seems to be frigid with her loving husband finds out that she has a compulsive need to work in a high-class bordello. She doesn’t repsond well at all to tenderness, but when she is attacked in any way she immediately becomes totally passive. (There is a hint in one very quick scene that she was sexually abused as a child, but this was 1967, and you couldn’t come out and say that.) The movie is filled with her fantasies, all of which involve pain, abuse, humiliation, degradation. In fact, there is a theory that the whole movie until the last minute is a fantasy. Luis Buñuel, the writer-director, claims he doesn’t know what the last scene means any more than we do, which is easy to believe coming from the co-creator, with Salvador Dali, of the meaningless surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalou. Their rule for that short was that any time anything started to make sense, they would immediately cut to something completely off the wall, selected at random.

My problems with this movie come not from the enigmatic story but, oddly enough, from the technical aspects of it. Most of them have to do with the state of the art, and of morality, in 1967. These days things could have been much more true-to-life, but there were depths not even a French film could plumb back then. In particular, the bordello. I didn’t believe it for a second. It was so neat and tidy and clean. This wasn’t helped by how bright it all was. You could perform surgery in any of the rooms. And that, of course, is a problem with all interior scenes in color films of the ‘50s and ‘60s. They needed buckets full of light if they weren’t to come out all murky and out of focus.

These days you can shoot in practically no light at all, and we’re used to more realistic scenes. These days when I look at a film like this everything screams “movie set!” No one’s fault, of course, but you can see why film noir died out about this time. Audiences wanted color, so the studios gave it to them, even in a film that cried out for B&W, as I think this one does. Many people love the bright colors in this film, but I’m not one of them.