Belle De Jour (1967) is a French drama directed by Luis Bunuel and starring Catherine Deneuve.
Note: quotes are from the English dubbing, not the subtitles.
Deneuve plays Séverine (a name probably chosen for its link to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs), the beautiful young wife of a surgeon, Pierre. They seem to have the perfect life, but Séverine is sexually unresponsive, what at the time they would have deemed “frigid.” (“Frigidity” is not a term used any more, at least not clinically.) The only way she can be aroused is by imagining herself in scenarios of degradation and slavery.
The opening scene (which I suspect was partially inspired by the beginning of Histoire d’O) is her fantasy in which she and Pierre are riding in a horse-drawn carriage.
Pierre: “You know how much tenderness I feel for you?”
Séverine: “And what am I supposed to do with tenderness?”
Pierre commands the carriage’s two drivers to drag Séverine into the woods, strip her, tie her up and whip her. Pierre just watches and smokes. Note that after the whipping, Séverine has no visible marks, her makeup is flawless, and her hair is only a bit mussed; the benefits of fantasy. Séverine cries, “I love you, Pierre!” as one of the coachmen take her.
This is apparently what’s running through her mind as she and her husband get ready for the night in their matching single beds.
Later, there’s a brief flash of a young girl being groped by an old man, implying that Séverine was molested as a child and has been sexually repressed ever since. In another, a young girl is taking communion and refuses to accept the host.
Pierre’s playboy friend Husson flirts with her in a slightly sleazy way, and mentions he went to brothels. “I used to go often, if you must know. The perfume of women who were trapped, completely enslaved, was something I found appealing.” Since 1804 under Napoleon, France had a system of maisons de tolerance, government regulated brothels. After 1946, they were shut down. Prostitution itself remained legal, but running brothels and related activities were forbidden. Likely brothels did remain.
To Séverine, to be fully an adult woman and a suitable wife for the man she loves, she must be sexually responsive. She must reconcile love and lust. To do that, she must experience lust separated from love, and that’s why she goes to the brothel. Only available during weekday afternoons, she takes the name “Belle de jour”.
At the brothel, known as Anaïs, Séverine’s upper bourgeois status is contrasted to the more blue-collar women and clients. There’s a lot of tension as the madam pushes Séverine into her first client. “A bit of manhandling is what you need,” the madam says. Séverine seems to disassociate in the arms of the crude man while still wearing her wedding ring.
Back home, Séverine scrubs herself and throws her lingerie into the fire. Still, she has masochistic fantasies, tied up in a white dress while Husson hurls mud and insults at her, while Pierre just watches.
She returns to the brothel, where the madam assigns her to “the professor.” This guy definitely tops from the bottom, with an entire scenario worked out, including a martinet whip and his own butler costume. Séverine doesn’t know how to play her part, and the madam replaces her with another girl.
As Séverine watches the scene through a peep hole with the madam, she says, “I know you’re used to it, but to me it’s repulsive.”
Séverine encounters an Asian man with a mysterious buzzing box, who seems to leave her satisfied. There’s also her pretending to be a nude corpse in an elaborate necrophilia fantasy.
All of this seems to working, as Séverine is more physically affectionate with Pierre.
Things take a turn when Marcel comes to the brothel. Marcel is Pierre’s bad-boy counterpart, a young, violent street criminal introduced wearing a black leather long coat and swinging a cane. (His shiny coat links him to Séverine’s glossy black raincoat in vinyl or PVC.) He obsesses on Séverine, and she is both drawn to and repelled by him.
It gets worse when Husson visits the brothel and has a private room with Séverine. She threatens to scream or jump out the window, and blames him for giving her the name of the brothel. He says, “You enjoy humiliation. Not me.” She admits she’s out of control.
Séverine: “You would make an effort to understand me, at least. I’m helpless. It happens despite me. I’m caught. I’m imprisoned. I know that one day I’ll have to pay for everything I’ve done. But without this I couldn’t live. On second thought, do what you want with me.”
Husson: “No. Not right now, in any case. You see, what attracted me about you was your virtue. You were the wife of a boy scout. Your image has changed. I have principles. I’m not like you. I won’t mention this to Pierre, don’t worry. But I have friends who would adore knowing about you. They’d be good customers. Forgive me if I don’t feel like it. I’ve lost my inspiration. Another day, perhaps.”
Séverine fantasizes again, of Pierre and Husson fighting an old-fashioned pistol duel while she is tied to a tree. Husson dies, and Pierre kisses her rapturously.
Belle De Jour ends in tragedy. Séverine wants to return to her bourgeois life, now that she is sexually responsive, but Marcel follows her back. When she refuses to be blackmailed by him, he shoots Pierre, and is subsequently killed by the police.
Pierre survives, but paralyzed, blind and mute. Séverine tends to him. She has her hair up and wears a black dress with white collar and cuffs; add a white apron and she’d look just like her maid.
Husson drops by to speak with Pierre in private. We don’t know what he said, but Séverine sees Pierre’s response. He cries.
Séverine apparently shifts into fantasy again. With the sound of horsebells, Pierre makes a sudden miraculous recovery.
Note that in Crimes, China is not a masochist in the usual sense. She’s almost always depicted as enjoying herself. Even when she’s doing a rape fantasy scene, she’s just playing a part, and the man she’s with is polite to her outside of the “scene.” Nobody except the cop and the reverend mistreat her. So she doesn’t see what she’s doing as punishment or penance for anything, though it is incompatible with her career woman persona.
In Piano, Erika definitely has masochistic fantasies, and is closer to Séverine than China/Joanna. The problem isn’t the desires themselves, but how to manage them.
Séverine looks perfect in every way, but her lack of sexual response makes her a failure as an adult and a wife, at least to herself. When she asks her husband to watch her as she goes to sleep, Pierre says, “You’ll always be a little girl, won’t you?” Her hesitant foray into the brothel is a kind of self-administered therapy, to bring her own repressed sexuality to the surface and complete her.
Séverine’s duality is reflected in her own splitting: Young and caring Pierre versus the older, aggressive Husson or the rough, volatile Marcel. In two of her fantasies, she is taken by other men while Pierre stands by and watches. Perhaps if she admitted her masochistic desires to Pierre, together they could find a way to overcome her inhibitions. Even the gentle and endlessly patient Pierre might have a touch of sadist in him.
Unfortunately, Séverine meets Marcel, who is almost all sadist. Like a lot of these stories, transgression of normative sexuality must necessarily encounter a violent person who makes the story end in violent tragedy.
Note: Bunuel directed The Phantom of Liberty (1974) which included a flogging scene.