Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) is travelling through the woods in a horse drawn carriage with her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel), and they are discussing their marriage, with he expressing dissatisfaction with her aloofness and general lack of affection. They begin to argue, and suddenly he demands the footmen stop the journey so he can drag Séverine out into the woods, with her protesting all the way until they reach a tree which he ties her to, then rips open the back of her dress. He then orders the footmen to take the whips they use on the horses and use them on her, then allows them to begin raping his wife...
More tea, vicar? Actually, that entire opening sequence to famed surrealist director Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour is a dream, or more accurately a fantasy, except it's not one of Pierre's, it's one of Séverine's which should be odd because the next thing we see her do after she's snapped out of it is turn Pierre down when he tries to climb into bed with her. From this we can judge she is frigid, a favourite subject matter of many a cult director who liked to see their leading ladies warmed up by the right set of experiences, and in this case those events are prompted by Séverine's friend asking her if she knew a mutual pal had become a prostitute?
This triggers a thought in her mind, as she wonders what it must be like to turn to selling herself not because she needs the money - new spouse Pierre keeps her very well - but for the pleasure of enjoying multiple partners of all kinds. But does she act on her impulses? That is a question which has vexed audiences ever since Belle de Jour was released, for there are assuredly sequences here clearly fantastical as Séverine imagines herself in sexually humiliating circumstances, though nothing realistic, yet the manner in which the plot develops could also suggest that the whole movie is taking place inside her head.
Is she trying to get over the disgust she felt at being molested as a girl or is that part of her imaginative life as well? Is she really drawn to the brothel mentioned by Pierre's mate Husson (Michel Piccoli) or is she just envisaging what it would be like to work there on afternoons (since she has to be back in the evenings for her oblivious husband) and meeting with a variety of clients? The more this goes on, the more it resembles a combination of movie-like scenarios, with melodrama, comedy and gangster thriller all appearing, yet though romance is inextricably linked to them all, so is sex. Will Séverine finally be liberated by her newfound carnal freedom? She certainly seems to have all the power at the end that she didn't have at the beginning.
Questions, questions, there are a lot of them conjured up by Belle de Jour, mainly thanks to the way it gropes through a plot instinctively over a more intellectual purpose, leaving it open to many interpretations. With its bright, flat colours and lighting mixed with Deneuve's patented Ice Queen demeanour, it may be about the subject of eroticism but its curiosity about what what is really going on in its heroine's mind - and by extension, the minds of every woman - leaves it a strangely cold experience, guarded and reticent to take on the implications of what it might have to state in any assurance with anything but more questions. Which could be just as well, for from some angles it looked as if Buñuel and his co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière, adapting Joseph Kessel's book, were endorsing that old chestnut of the unreconstructed male, that all women needed was a good, hard shag to sort them out: for all the empowering Séverine undergoes, it was men writing her story and they were not perhaps as enlightened as they might seem.