Severine (Catherine Deneuve) is newly wed to a successful, young, handsome Parisian doctor, Pierre (Jean Sorel). He loves her deeply, but yearns for her to express her love in more sexual ways. Severine is chaste in her marriage, but her fantasy life is vivid and encompassing. She moves from reserve to abandonment in her mind, and we find ourselves involved in her life and her fantasies. She learns of a place where well-to-do, bored young wives play at being prostitutes. She's drawn to the idea and finally begins a hidden life from her husband, but only from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. She becomes Belle de Jour. She finds a need for released sexuality, and for humiliation and masochism. One of her clients is a young, tough hood with steel teeth, a sword cane and brutal manners. She's drawn to him, but who is using whom? She pulls back, and a confrontation may or may not be conclusive. Is it real, or another fantasy?
This is a great Bunuel film, sexual, serious, satirical. It's all about what's going on in Severine's head, and the erotic sexual life she lives. And its about sexual fantasies, most of which appear absurd when looked at. While Severine's story is fascinating, there is much of Bunuel's typical love of fetish at what he shows. The movie opens with Severine and Pierre taking a horse-drawn carriage ride into the country. The bells on the carriage begin to jingle and Pierre stops the carriage and orders the two drivers to pull Severine from the carriage, whip her and rape her. When did the fantasy in Severine's head start? In one scene Pierre and his saturnine friend played by Michel Piccoli are in the country and begin shoveling black, stinking mud into a pail. In the next instance we see Piccoli throwing handsfull of mud onto Severine, tied up and dressed in a virginal white gown. Throughout the movie the sounds of bells tinkling and cats mewing trigger a shift into erotic fantasy for Severine.
Bunuel's satiric look at mankind also shows through clearly. Severine, working afternoons as Belle de Jour, encounters a world famous gynecologist who dresses as a servant so he can be humiliated by a prostitute acting as the lady of the house. There is the large man with something in a small, enameled box that buzzes which makes one of the women say, "No," but which intrigues Severine. We never learn what's in the box. There is the duke who is aroused only when he can play the mourner with a woman pretending to be a corpse in an open casket. It all sounds grotesque, but it's funny, too. And there's not a moment of explicit sex in the film, and only a glimpse of partial nudity.
The movie is almost 40 years old and is still a fascinating look into Severine's life and her fantasies, and probably into ours as well. Deneuve is what makes the movie work. She may appear at first to be a perfectly groomed ice queen, but before long you know that a great deal is happening behind that face. Like Isabelle Huppert, she can imply serious, unsettling emotions just by looking calm.