Long before Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut“, there was Luis Buñuel’s “Belle De Jour”: the story of a refined young wife of a reputable surgeon whom out of boredom secretly works at a brothel once or twice a week.
Some critics, including the late great Roger Ebert, believe this film to be the best erotic movie of all times. Buñuel never saw eroticism as something that only exists in nudity and the act of sexual intercourse but rather delved into human imaginations and strange fetishes and shamelessly depicted them in his movies. The audience follows the story of “Belle de Jour” through the eyes of Severine (played by Catherine Deneuve). For Severine sex is a dull act unless she is subjected to a vast amount of attention over it – even violence.
She finds her marriage with a seemingly perfect young surgeon Pierre (played by Jean Sorel) whose response to her refusal of sex is a single good night, to be terribly tedious. Pierre, on the other hand, sees her frequent avoidance of intercourse as a sign of virtue and adores her for that. They have a family friend Henri (played by Michel Piccoli) who is also in love with her seemingly moral character and proper mannerism – annoyed by it Severine always dismisses his compliments and resents him.
In Severine’s fantasies, Pierre demands sex or orders others to rape her, and she loves him for it. Her main fetish is to be dominated and humiliated by her lovers. She dreams about being tied to a tree while Pierre and Henri throw mud at her. She also has other small turn-ons and fetishes to which Buñuel hints throughout the movie – the sound of carriage bells and cats’ meows.
Severine’s fantasies find a way of realization when Henri accidentally tells her about a high-class brothel in which housewives work part time to earn an extra income.
Memorized the address of the brothel mentioned by Henri in their conversation Severine walks in there a few days later and is admitted in by Madame Anais (Genevieve Page)- the owner of the brothel. She gets scared at first and runs away, but the curiosity and temptation bring her back. As she tries to avoid sleeping with a fat middle aged man, Madame Anais pushes her and orders her to do so, surprisingly she promptly obeys her, something that compels her to conclude:” I see you need a firm hand.”
It can be very shocking for today’s audience to find out that there are no explicit sex scenes in one of the most erotic movies ever made. Buñuel’s interest was to show us the weirdest human fetishes and sexual “ fantasies” thus the camera always shies away when it comes to the real act of sexual intercourse. Buñuel masterfully toys with our minds and leaves us intrigued in the scene where an Asian client of the brothel who cannot speak French properly keeps showing the girls an object that looks like a music box. We never find out about the content of the box the only thing we get to see is a bloody bed sheet and Severine’s playful smile – insinuating the client’s fetish with the mysterious box.
One day, two gangsters come to Madame Anais’s brothel. One of them is Marcel (played by Pierre Clementi). He is very young, wears a leather cape, carries a sword -stick and has several unsightly steel teeth. Severine is especially impressed by his bad manners, his taunts, and his gangster persona. Marcel falls in love with her, not knowing that he’s a puppet in her hands, a toy with which she satisfies her sexual fantasies and fetishes – the best one.
Luis Buñuel who is undoubtedly one of the greatest directors of all time was a surrealist who collaborated with Salvador Dali as a young man in “ Un Chien Andalou.” He was very amused by the vast and diverse world of human fantasies and intended to depict that in his movies. He believed that most of us are hard-wired into sexual patterns from an early age and there is no escape from that – Severine also says that it is out of her hands and she’s lost.
Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and Luis Buñuel’s “Belle De Jour” are both about women whose marriages do not satisfy their uncontrollable hard-wired sexual patterns, and their husbands, suffering from the same fate remain clueless. It is all human nature.