Luis Bunuel's "Belle De Jour" is an enigmatic film..much like the mystical beauty at the heart of it.
Ravishingly beautiful, but a woman of a few words and seemingly aloof, Severine (Catherine Deneuve) is what you would call the typical "bored housewife", but not for any fault of her husband's mind you. Pierre (John Sorel) is a handsome, loving husband and together they lead a luxurious life, yet Severine is somehow averse to the idea of sleeping with her husband. Hence, although they share the same bedroom, they don't share the same bed, much to Pierre's dismay, but he chooses to hang in there hoping Severine would come around and overcome her discomfort.
Their family friend Henri (Michel Piccoli) openly flirts with Severine and she keeps rejecting his advances and asks him to keep his compliments to himself!
So aloof is Severine, that sometimes her mind wanders off (and the audience has to watch carefully to find out "when"), and she has vividly erotic fantasies of masochistic nature. Given her quiet nature, some of these fantasies manage to shock....for instance, when she imagines herself being tied and stripped and whipped and molested by two carriage drivers in the middle of the woods!
A chance information about an acquaintance entices her to explore something new...she decides to spend her afternoons in a high class brothel working as a prostitute!
"Belle De Jour" is a complex film. This doesn't refer to its plot..that part is fairly simple. What is complex, then, is Severine's troubled psychology. Only through various images and Severine's mood and expressions, Bunuel tries to convey to us what exactly brews in her head. It is with great dexterity that Bunuel directs the scenes in the brothel. Just like her, we are in for a surprise, every time a new client comes in. Her interactions with the several clients with bizarre fetishes of varying proportions are showcased in some of the film's best scenes.
Bunuel cleverly intersperses the narrative with fleeting shots depicting her (possibly traumatic) past...which give subtle clues about her behavioral traits. Some aspects of her psyche are revealed in some surreal sequences (some of the best I've seen in film).
For the most part, Bunuel directs like a true master and builds the film beautifully as it takes the form of a potent psycho-sexual drama which works to mesmerizing effect. But he does not rely on gratuitous sex and nudity to accomplish his goal. In fact there is not a single scene with explicit nudity in "Belle De Jour". Bunuel instead relies on shocking images including the situations in the brothel, Severine's outlandish fantasies, the overall tension between some characters (including a lesbian subtext) and of course, the fine performances. Suffice to say, "Belle De Jour" is one of the boldest films I've seen, especially for its time.
However, the episode involving a particularly violent client of Severine, Marcel (Pierre Clémenti) in the final act seems a bit forced and has the trappings of a pedestrian thriller, which could've been done away with or handled differently. The film would be just as effective, or even more, without this particular plot development. Nonetheless, it doesn't render this otherwise flawless film any less watchable.
At the center of this spellbinding experience, is the woman herself, Catherine Deneuve, the breathtaking beauty, who enchants us with her arresting performance as Severine. In spite of not being in agreement with her about some of the decisions she makes, one can't help but root for her. On some level, her character in "Belle De Jour" reminded me of her character in Roman Polanski's classic psychological thriller "Repulsion"..although both films as such are entirely different.
It wouldn't be wrong to say that although there are plenty of films depicting a married woman and her repressed sexuality out there, only a handful few, like Luis Bunuel's "Belle De Jour" actually stand out, the reasons for which you'll find out when you are done watching it!