Belle de Jour ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

This is one of those iconic films that manages to come to the attention of pretty much anyone interested in film. It's been on my radar since my adolescence, when it was always conspicuously prominent for some reason at the local movie rental place. Maybe it wasn't conspicuous and I just gravitated toward it? I don't know. But as an adolescent, I knew I couldn't ask to rent it and by the time I was in my teens it just seemed intimidating.

I finally decided to stream it this morning, though, after almost watching it yesterday afternoon. Typically, I prefer to watch amoral films about sexuality later at night, but since the premise of this one is that Séverine is a daytime prostitute, it seemed appropriate to watch during the daylight hours.

There's quite a lot here to enjoy and appreciate. There are several surprises throughout, including that jarring first scene. Initially, I thought perhaps it was going to be one of those things where the film starts at the present and then jumps backward to explain how we got there. I was somewhat relieved when it turned out to be a sordid daydream. That set the tone for the rest of the film, and I was mostly satisfied with its consistency.

[By far the, strangest scene has to be the older guy who hires her to lie in a coffin as his deceased daughter. Seriously: WTAF?!]

I enjoyed the performances, too. Every person in the film felt authentic; Catherine Deneuve is rightly praised for her terrific turn as Séverine. Whole volumes of praise have been written about her work here, and I'll defer to those. I will say that what I appreciated most is the subtlety of her performance. Her surreptitious facial reactions and her body language imbue the character and the film with a great deal of depth.

One of the hardest things about adapting literary work to film is that interior thoughts are very difficult to put on screen. Really, the only way is through voiceover and that's often a very cumbersome technique. Deneuve's performance here stops just short of narrating Séverine's internal thoughts while still conveying them. We know what she's thinking and feeling, but only because we're in on it with her. It's the voyeuristic equivalent of sharing an in-joke in front of other people.

I also particularly enjoyed Pierre Clémenti as Marcel; simmering in every shot, imposing yet captivating. Credit also to Geneviéve Page for her meticulous and cool Madame Anaïs. Even when she's off-screen, she sets the tone for everything at the brothel, and by extension, the entire film.

Despite some rich characters and several genuine surprises along the way, Belle de jour suffers in the end from feels like a rushed finale. We're headed toward problems with Marcel all along, and he's clearly a bad apple, but shooting Pierre and then being shot himself? It happens so quickly that it feels as though we're now mindful of the clock and need to wrap things up. It's not even the sequence itself that's the matter for me so much as the editing. It's unclear whether Marcel knew Pierre would come by soon, or if it was a crime of convenience. It's too abrupt and tidy for my liking, particularly after the first hour and a half was spent exploring things so off the beaten path.

I also feel a bit cheated out of the story of Séverine & Pierre's relationship. I feel that too much was told, not shown. Séverine appears frigid, but why? What is the basis of their relationship? It's clearly not sex, so what then? It would have given me a greater sense of the context of Séverine's self-exploration had I better understood her life before we meet her - and if we'd checked in more intimately on her and Pierre throughout the film.

I rarely think of how to recast a film and rarer still do I think of such things while watching, but this time through I couldn't help but come up with some contemporary cast choices:

Séverine Serizy - Jeri Ryan
Pierre Serizy - James Marsden
Madame Anaïs - Samantha Bond
Marcel - Cillian Murphy or Benicio del Toro

How It Entered My Flickchart
Belle de jour > The Gravedancers
Belle de jour > Ernest Scared Stupid
Belle de jour < Summer Interlude
Belle de jour < Role Models
Belle de jour < Howard the Duck (a guilty pleasure!)
Belle de jour < The Dream Team
Belle de jour < The Bad News Bears
Belle de jour < Silent Hill
Belle de jour < Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Belle de jour < Kill Bill Vol. 2
Belle de jour < You Only Live Twice

Belle de jour entered my Flickchart at #354/1413