Now, by the below description, one would not think about this movie primarily as a Catholic film, but perhaps it is worth talking about it a bit further. Referred to as Bruñuel’s most accessible film, we see the story of Severine (Deneuve) exploring herself through a serious of increasingly disturbing sexual experiences, much to the eventual chagrin of her husband (Sorel). There are spoilers ahead, of course.

While contentedly married to a doctor, Severine cannot bring herself to commit sexually. Instead, she indulges in wild erotic fantasies, leading her, unbeknownst to her husband, to become a prostitute in the afternoons.
In my research, it has been said that Bruñuel, born a Catholic, was highly critical of the Church while being unable to shake his ingrained convictions much in the same way that Ingmar Bergman was unable to shake his Protestant ones. Indeed in Bruñuel’s early films (Un Chien Andalou, and especially in L’Age D’Or) the church is criticised particularly as being an aged institution which gets in the way of one having perfectly natural and fun pre-marital sex. Belle De Jour seems, on first viewing, to be confirming the view he has espoused previously but ends up, in my view, supporting the Church’s position without perhaps the director being aware of it.

The principles and advantages of chastity are perhaps beyond the scope of this post (I try to keep them to 300 words but often fail!), however, it is clear that the director understands them. From the first, we see Severine distracted by dream sequences in which she explores her fantasies. There is an extraordinary opening scene where she is riding in a horse and carriage with haunting bells attached to the horses followed by a scene where Severine is tied to a tree and whipped by the carriage drivers. She then wakes up from this dream when her husband asks her what she was thinking about, she replies “I was thinking about us”. This is the first in a series of increasingly shocking dream sequences. Severine is aware that her thoughts are not helping her marriage and increasing the distance between her and her husband, but continues to have them throughout the film.

Severine being shown how to be a good employee

The main thrust of my argument was germinated in my mind when Severine is about to start working at the brothel. I say brothel but it more of a maison than an underground seedy club that one might more typically associate with the word. She looks down the stairs and has a flash back to being in church as a child, presumably during her first communion. She refuses the body of Christ to a much puzzled priest. Then she enters the brothel and things deteriorate from there for her. As she increases in proficiency at her work in the afternoons at the brothel, her dream sequences become increasingly more degrading. On one stage she is tied to a post and has mud flung at her by her husband and friend Piccoli (Henri Husson) while murmuring she loves her husband. This points to her deteriorating mental state, in my view on account of her employ. The multitudes of men, some in and one outside of the brothel, the degrading acts, colourful in their variety but never explicit, and the increasing distance that indulging in these fantasies puts between her and her husband puts Severine in a state of mental anguish.

The last half an hour of the film sees Severine meet her final lover, Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), whose casual encounter develops into an obsession on both sides. Severine’s husband confronts her while they are on a beach holiday. She keeps asking to go back to Paris and her husband begins to suspect that something is keeping her there. Though he does not make the obvious leap in logic until it is too late for him. The film culminates in the conclusion of Marcel’s obsession. Severine is confronted by Piccoli in the brothel and decides to quit forever, without telling Marcel. Marcel, an intuitive cocaine merchant and career criminal, has her followed home. He makes it into her apartment and threatens to wait for Severine’s husband and tell all. When Severine finally convinces him to leave, he picks up a picture of Severine’s husband and pronounces “voila l’obstacle”. He then goes down the stairs, shoots the husband, crippling him for life, and is subsequently killed himself by a Police officer who gives chase.

Severine looking after her husband

Why is this a Catholic tale? For me, on my second viewing of the film, Belle de Jour seems to warn against indulging one’s fantasies. It seems to showcase, at times dramatically, the possible outcomes of living an illicit life or by not investing the energy of sexual fantasies into one’s marriage. Indeed it seems to make the case for chastity, both in terms of self indulgence and taking multiple partners. Belle de Jour is stating in the clearest reading that indulging your fantasies will lead to the death of your marriage. While this is a comedic film, I don’t think even viewers without their red Catholic hat on can conclude that Belle did not come out better for her indulgences in the end. While Bruñuel seems to be criticising the Catholic church, he ends up quite supporting one of its core tenets, the call to be chaste, both inside and outside the marriage. The call to put the core of one’s sexual life in the other, in the proper context, not based in the self, as Severine’s is. The perilous outcomes are self evident from this film.