The Feminist Paradox of Prostituting Housewives in 1960s French Cinema

Catherine Deneuve in Belle de jour (1967)
Belle de Jour (1967). Images: IMDb

In the year of 1967 two very important films came out in France – Deux ou Trois choses que je sais d’elle (Jean-Luc Godard) and Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel). Each of them deals with completely different themes and issues, however, they have an intersectional point: both centre on seemingly bourgeois housewives who drag themselves into prostitution. Their reasons are different, their lifestyles are different, their motives are different, yet the coincidence of this kind implies that there was some sort of poise in the depiction of a housewife whose life also involved serving clients for varying reasons. 

Belle de Jour tells the story of a young woman, Séverine (Catherine Deneuve), who has absolutely no interest in sharing sexual intimacy with her young and very attractive husband. The film could be classified as a character study: it explores the hard edges of female sexual depravity in the world where her sense of self is shattered by societal and religious pressures. The film examines Séverine’s fantasies, dreams, and childhood memories and blends them all with her mundane, everyday life, where her feminine being is also very limited. Her lack of excitement and repressed sexuality push her to take on a very different identity and, consequently, become a prostitute. To set her true desires free, Séverine has to repress her identity for the sake of staying in touch of cultural demands of being a woman. Séverine’s life and narrative are brimming with otherworldliness. This results from the inability to come out as her true and authentic self. It is highly possible that subjugation of her true nature reaches its peak point when she starts developing feelings for Marcel (Pierre Clémenti). However, her feelings do not transcend to her central life and identity.

Séverine, who lives in accordance with the dogmas of the classic Parisian bourgeoisie housewife, she limits herself to the point where her true desires, feelings, and fantasies are completely vanished; the only shelter for her other truer persona is the brothel which later also becomes a menacing spot. It is Marcel who invades her sanctuary and makes things a lot more threatening for Séverine; as he starts to fall for her, Séverine has to get rid of a very carefully constructed persona because she, in fact, is eager to also live a traditional life. Marcel’s anger heats so fast that eventually everything turns into a clash of male egos. Of course, Séverine, more accurately love for Séverine, provoked the ultimate tragic endings for the main male figures from both of her lives, but her duplicated self is the product of the male-dominated environment she grew up in; Séverine’s tragedy is that as much as she wants to get free from prejudices, she wants to live up to the expectations of her society’s moral standards. She is a character full of doubts and uncertainties.

Belle de Jour (1967)

Deux ou Trois choses que je sais d’elle (“2 or 3 Things I Know About Her”), unlike Belle de Jour, is not an apparent character study with psychological turns and twists. It explores a bigger picture – individual in the context of her environment and culture. This dramatic documentary, or film essay, follows a day of Juliette Jeanson (Marina Vlady) whose 24-hour voyage through the suburban Parisian cafes, motels, shops, and beauty salons unleashes the oppression of modern consumerist trends in the lives of regular working people. Her alienated being illustrates the hardships of capitalist pressure that shoves everyone to participate in the cycle of working, earning, and consuming. Juliette is not satisfied with her job, but she feels the immanent need to keep on working only to be able to meet the standards of suburban consumerist life. She, ironically, transforms herself into a consumable object in order to obtain money for other consumable objects she does not need but is pressured to have.

The aim of this very Godardian sentiment is to make a social commentary on class, gender, and ontological struggles through an extremely Marxist lens. Juliette’s character is the epitome of her director’s worldview. Godard believes that in the contemporary world, full of needlessness and advertising that aggressively demands people to consume all things needless, everyone has to become a prostitute in some form or another. In his belief, people work and earn only to enable themselves the privilege of consumption. Juliette is a very straight-forward example of that notion. It is noteworthy that the scenes where she performs her job-related responsibilities are absolutely drained out of eroticism; there is not a single hint on objectification of her body by a male director behind a camera. It shows both Godard’s devotion to his beliefs and the way he sees a modern-day sexual encounter: systematised, monotonous, and solipsistic. The latter is the recurring theme of the film itself. One of the most memorable scenes explore the alienation of a modern human being – as everyone exists for themselves in a café (a place where, supposedly, people go to gather and have fruitful communication), a young man gets so taken over by himself that he barely notices any surrounding; the shot makes a viewer feel like he is dissolving within himself as he looks down his coffee cup which symbolically resembles space.

Marina Vlady in 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle (1967)
Deux ou Trois choses que je sais d’elle (1967)

Despite the aforementioned differences in both narrative structure and emotional beats, it is undeniable that the “trope” of the Parisian prostituting housewife is a very absorbing, yet short-lived, one. The mere emergence of such character says a lot about the cultural perception of women during (and, maybe, after) this era. Moreover, the Prostitute-Housewife is the cinematic embodiment of Madonna-Whore complex coined by Sigmund Freud. This very dichotomy signifies the polarised conceptions on womanhood and femaleness that are reduced to either chastity or promiscuity. Psychologically, this complex blooms in men who see women either as saint-like creatures, or whores. Consequently, it means that men with this complex are unable to find sexual arousal within their romantic relationships as they see their partners too pure for sexual intimacy. On the other hand, they can find satisfaction when they reduce women to whores. Freud wrote: 

“Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.” (1912)

Séverine specifically is a more vivid example to examine the presence of this complex in cinema. Men with this complex prefer to see their wives as frigid. Séverine strikes as frigid for her husband as she is unable to sleep with him. On the contrary, these men find pleasure when they degrade women. Séverine fits the second category, too. Interestingly, there is no single scene or a line in film that confirms Séverine’s husband’s inclination toward this complex. In this case, we see an internalised misogyny as a product of strict upbringing and the pressure of religion and society. 

Catherine Deneuve and Jean Sorel in Belle de jour (1967)
Belle de Jour (1967)

These two characters personify monstrosities of the cultural wrongness they have to face. They are Madonnas and Whores at the same time; they manage to exist on the brink of these two female-defining attributes. The Madonna-Whore complex, on its own, is the product of masculine frustration that primarily hurts women not only as creatures but also as cultural figures. This is the reason of Prostitute-Housewife character’s enigma – she contains two extremes of femaleness perceivable for such men. However, both Godard and Buñuel use this dichotomy to deconstruct previously established ideals and notions for the better through these characters; they strip the society they live in; they make viewers contemplate about the pattern of their lives in patriarchal hierarchy. In Séverine’s case, her outward purity is shown through many visual choices, especially her clothing – mostly the shades of white. The colour, of course, implies her innocence and chastity. While at brothel, she usually wears darker clothes. Juliette’s character faces the issues of entire society as well as exclusively gendered ones, thus, her depiction is more casual and less dramatic. 

The duplexity of the Prostitute-Housewife character denounces the myth of Eternal Feminine. The myth which consists of the set of ideals regarding womanhood; the myth that glorifies virginity and motherhood. The very core of Eternal Feminine lies in its belief of gender essentialism which means that genders have their pre-designed “essences” that cannot be changed or modified by time. According to this concept, eternally feminine virtues are – modesty, delicacy, purity, politeness, and more. As Simone de Beauvoir argues, there is no such thing as Eternal Masculine, so there is no room for its female counterpart either. The Eternal Feminine (basically, the more glamorous term for the word ‘femininity’) is responsible for a very narrow notions about femaleness. As a result, womanhood becomes the series of expectations imposed on women when, in fact, female experience has the right to define its existence on its own.  

By overthrowing cultural assumptions of her gender, Prostitute-Housewife character enriches female experience on screen. Her presence is paradoxical because she is the person who constantly drifts toward the edges. More importantly, this character emphasises how limited womanhood could be culturally. Even though, these male directors try to show female oppression (in Juliette’s case, the oppression is a broader term), they are very limited in their choices; the contrasting verges of female nature is all they have ever been exposed to, therefore they cannot offer more complex and layered character developments. Nevertheless, the creation of this character in such form is overwhelmingly sardonic for its misogynist beginnings. 

by Mariam Razmadze

Mariam is from the country of Georgia and currently pursues her undergraduate studies in Sociology. She dreams of becoming a film director someday.

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