'Belle de Jour' Movie Review: The Meaning of a 65-Year Opus

Belle de Jour Séverine Serizy Catherine Deneuve Valoria Films
Valoria Films

It has been 65 years since Luis Buñuel’s marvelously crafted “Belle de Jour” hit theaters in 1967. The film stars French icon Catherine Deneuve as the enigmatic and fiercely elegant Séverine Serizy, whose vivid fantasy life often blurs with her reality. A 23-year-old wife, Séverine, struggles to find herself amid her marriage to the perfect husband.

Dr. Pierre Serizy (Jean Sorel) is caring, patient, and endlessly empathetic. In him, “Belle de Jour” conjures a dream man. Pierre does not pressure his wife for intimacy or get angry over how much their marriage lacks. Séverine is haunted by a traumatic past, where it ends, and her secret desires begin, not even she can sort out.

Say what you will of Séverine’s choices, and there can be much dialogue. There is one thing she does, though. Séverine works to leave as little carnage as possible in her wake by working through things in private. Her goal is not to hurt Pierre, whom she truly loves. So, as “Belle de Jour” progresses, she aims to fix what stands in the way of their intimacy issues.

Belle de Jour Valoria Films Séverine Serizy Catherine Deneuve
Valoria Films

Séverine ultimately decides to give men access to her beauty for the day, specifically until 5 p.m., and for a price. But why? Is it a way for her to regain the power she was denied when she was younger? Is it what Séverine believes she needs to do to be worthy of the love that her husband so freely gives to her? Does she feel unworthy of it?

Of all the potential motives, one can be ruled out: money.

Otherwise, “Belle de Jour” leaves most of the “why” left between the lines. This is how many older movies used to do it (and some new ones still do). Still, Séverine’s story of confusion and self-discovery may resonate now more than ever. In 1967, what Séverine was dealing with was hardly spoken aloud. 

When the book of the same name was published in 1928, the idea of a woman’s innermost desires was even more foreign. Nowadays, there are the loud literary adaptations “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “365 DNI.” “Belle de Jour” paved the way for them and many more. 

Catherine Deneuve’s performance in the film is also a benchmark for actresses. Deneuve’s career would set the stage for Nicole Kidman and others, who would follow in Deneuve’s footsteps, proving that sultriness and sophistication could go hand-in-hand.

Belle de Jour Movie Poster Catherine Deneuve Séverine Serizy Valoria Films
Valoria Films

Throughout “Belle de Jour,” you can see the wheels of Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine turning. At first, with a sense of morbid curiosity and then a sort of fascination towards “the life.” At the same time, she slowly winds towards a growing combustion of fear over Pierre learning her secret as an admirer tightens his grip.

Deneuve’s performance supplies depth to a situation that grows sudsier and more slippery by the scene.

It is a movie for those who miss a golden era. “Belle de Jour” reminds us of the power of seeing a silk glove over the hand rather than a bare one. There is much to be seen in dancing when a glove is applied. The fingers’ movements are illuminated to a spellbinding degree. Movies and television could learn a lesson.

There is writing with a fine-point pen and a blunt marker. Netflix’s “Sex/Life” has been the latter in bold letters. There is nothing wrong with it. However, something must be said about the style of letting something stay between the lines, teasing and mind-bending. Provocative scenes are not gratuitous. They are purposeful. Hence, a certain prestigious baring that emanates from “Belle de Jour.” 

While that is largely due to Catherine Deneuve’s steely charm, the writing (Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière) and Buñuel’s direction are equally crucial. It all makes for a towering piece that asks more than it answers. It is a mysterious tale that asks why a woman who seems to have everything risks it all, and for what?

In 2022, we still need help to know the answer. However, we may be able to understand the possibilities that swirl around Séverine, and the enigma of her identity, more. Real life has told us that the story of “Belle de Jour” is not as out-there as we might think, and compassion goes a long way in helping sort the puzzle pieces.

After 65 years, it is impossible to come to one clear conclusion regarding unraveling the meaning of “Belle de Jour.” After all, Séverine is a mystery unto herself. Viewers not as afraid to confront the answers she may want to avoid may find a little more than she does. 

As of December 2022, “Belle de Jour” is streaming on HBO Max.