50 years of Belle de jour: eight later films exploring transgressive female sexuality

With Luis Buñuel’s 50-year-old masterpiece Belle de jour back in cinemas, we recommend eight more films that push the boundaries in their depictions of female desire.

Sophie Brown

Belle de jour (1967)

Belle de jour (1967)

Luis Buñuel’s adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s novel Belle de jour was a reluctant and defiant piece of work. He didn’t like the original racy text, nor Catherine Deneuve, who was attached to star, yet persevered in an attempt to transform it into something that pleased him. It won the Golden Lion award at Venice Film Festival in 1967, and Deneuve was nominated for a BAFTA for her performance, but she was unhappy with Buñuel’s insensitive, bullish direction.

Deneuve is young, discontented housewife Séverine Serizy, who is in love with her winsome husband Pierre, yet unable to sexually engage with him. Although Séverine is repelled by their sleazy mutual friend Husson (Michel Piccoli), his experience of brothels spikes her curiosity, and she independently approaches Madame Anais (Geneviève Page) to take up afternoon work at the brothel.

Séverine’s descent into her fantasies reveals complex layers of identity and trauma, which feed into the ways she regains control and agency in her sexuality through experimentation. With its off-kilter tone and intrusive fantasies, the style is immediately recognisable as Buñuel. The present shifts into flashbacks and reverie in a way that makes reality seamlessly unstable. Disorientating slips between Séverine’s violent sexual fantasies and her middle-class lifestyle of ski-chalet jaunts and breezy privilege are both dynamic and deliciously surreal.

Here are eight feature films that have followed Belle de jour in the provocative ways they explore transgressive female sexuality.

Maîtresse (1976)

Director Barbet Schroeder

Maitresse (1976)

Originally refused certification by the BBFC upon its submission in 1976, Barbet Schroeder’s film is a love story between a professional dominatrix and an inept burglar. In a bungled robbery, Olivier (a young Gérard Depardieu) stumbles across a BDSM dungeon and is held captive as punishment by Ariane, who requests his assistance in her work. He falls for her and comes to the belief that she needs saving from her work – failing to take into consideration that she may actually enjoy it.

Kissed (1996)

Director Lynne Stopkewich

Kissed (1996)

Based on Barbara Gowdy’s short story ‘We So Seldom Look on Love’, Lynne Stopkewich’s Kissed tells a tale of childhood curiosity blossoming into an adult fascination that overflows into disturbing behaviour. From creating elaborate burial ceremonies for animal corpses as a child to preparing human bodies in a funeral home as an adult, Sandra has intense spiritual experiences in the proximity of death. Be it the story’s roots in female erotica, however, or Stopkewich’s ethereal and hypnotic approach, for a film about necrophilia Kissed is remarkably empathetic and dreamy. Stopkewich remarked that Sandra is a woman in charge of her sexuality, and although her antics are increasingly disturbing, it’s refreshing to see a frank exploration of a woman’s sexuality, which is so often portrayed as seedy titillation for a male gaze.

Romance (1999)

Director Catherine Breillat

Romance (1999)

Catherine Breillat is known for pushing the boundaries with films about female sexuality. The way she explores the dynamics of desire is nuanced and confrontational. In Romance we meet Marie (Caroline Ducey), who is falling deeper into despair as her partner Paul (Sagamore Stévenin) has lost his desire to touch her or be touched. Marie’s feelings of frustration and isolation draw her into progressively more dangerous sexual encounters with men, where the tension between her sense of control as an object of desire in these situations, and her fantasy of being overpowered by their desire, is violently wrestled from her. The subtleties of power and control in fantasy and reality are a delicate balance, and Breillat explores transgression with brutal honesty and insight.

Trouble Every Day (2001)

Director Claire Denis

Trouble Every Day (2001)

Fifteen years after making her stamp as the hypersexual, volatile Betty of Betty Blue (1986), Béatrice Dalle goes deeper into psychosexual desires as Coré, a woman with a violent streak so dangerous that she is locked up by her neuroscientist husband. Beautiful and lustful, Coré is prevented from indulging in her sexual urges because of their grisly results. Coré’s cannibalistic urges, triggered by her sexual arousal, transforms her into something more akin to a praying mantis, an insect that devours the male after copulation. And due to her sexual appeal to men, she isn’t lacking in victims. However, there is something incredibly satisfying about watching lecherous men biting off more than they can chew.

Nymphomaniac (2013)

Director Lars von Trier

Nymph()maniac (2014)

Charlotte Gainsbourg is Joe, a woman at the end of her tether after decades of sexual obsession have led her to increasingly extreme, masochistic relationships. The candid exploration of her sexuality from childhood delves deep into her psychological turbulence, revealing her to be a combustible cocktail of fixated and fearless. Joe is compelled by her urges, putting herself at risk, on an escalating path of self-destruction. Lars von Trier’s film is graphic, but provides an unflinching and layered representation of dark drives that challenge normative notions surrounding female desire. It also explodes the usual fluffy fantasies attached to the label ‘nymphomaniac’.

The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

Director Peter Strickland

The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

In this surreal British film with folky 1970s aesthetics, the dynamics of a sub-dom relationship come into focus as a couple play out their BDSM fantasies. Cynthia and Evelyn engage in elaborate, repetitive role-plays as servant and mistress of the house. As Cynthia’s strict routine repeats, cracks begin to appear in the fabric of their rituals. Cynthia struggles to meet the demands of Evelyn’s voracious fantasies, and her love for her has a tenderness that she is forced to suppress. The tension that emerges from the all-consuming fantasy explores the surrenders made in love and the intricacies of power shifts in romantic relationships.

Elle (2016)

Director Paul Verhoeven

Elle (2016)

Paul Verhoeven’s track record of making macho Hollywood films about seductive women who are manipulative with their sexuality puts him in the top tier of directors least qualified to make a film that broaches female desire and rape. But the subject matter of Elle, and the female protagonist’s agency with her own sexuality, is surprisingly transgressive. Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is raped in her home by a masked assailant, but due to her family history decides to avoid police intervention, instead taking matters into her own hands. Huppert is brilliant in portraying a formidable, resourceful woman who experiments with ways in which she can regain control in an existence already saturated by chaotic, aggressive games of power and sex.

Wild (2016)

Director Nicolette Krebitz

Wild (2016)

Not to be confused with the Wild in which Reese Witherspoon goes walking across America, Nicolette Krebitz’s 2016 film centres on a lupine obsession with transgressive intensity. Ania (Lilith Stangenberg) is a quiet young woman, pushed around and mocked at work, who goes to great lengths to capture a wolf she spies in the woods, then holds it captive in her apartment. As the stench and chaos of her wild hostage takes over Ania’s existence, she becomes more feral and succumbs to animalistic urges. Initially exciting her sleazy boss, her transformation rapidly sends her beyond the social norms of behaviour. She cannot be contained or tamed by the systems that formerly dominated her, and she loses all sense of civilisation in her connection with the wolf.

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