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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Belle de Jour

Joseph Kessel

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To purchase Belle de Jour

Title: Belle de Jour
Author: Joseph Kessel
Genre: Novel
Written: 1928 (Eng. 1962)
Length: 158 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Belle de Jour - US
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Belle de jour - Canada
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DVD: Belle de Jour - US
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  • French title: Belle de jour
  • Translated by Geoffrey Wagner
  • Belle de jour was made into a film in 1967, directed by Luis Buñuel, and starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, and Michel Piccoli

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Our Assessment:

B : quite well told and turned, but doesn't dare quite enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 19/4/1968 Paul F. Kneeland
Esquire . 7/1962 Dorothy Parker

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) completely absorbing novel, a study of the disintegration of a personality (.....) No simple eternal triangle, disintegration-of-a-marriage threadbare work of fiction, M. Kessel reaches out beyond the standard cast (two males, one female -- or vice versa) and paints full-length portraits of even secondary characters. And with such quyick, sure strokes." - Paul F. Kneeland, Boston Globe

  • "Curious story, but the stories of compulsion are always curious." - Dorothy Parker, Esquire

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A short Prologue provides the basis and explanation for what comes later in Belle de Jour, a brief scene in which the eight-year-old Séverine is opportunistically molested by a plumber working in her family's house. It's suggested that she immediately represses the memory:

     Séverine's governess found her lying in the hallway. She thought the girl had slipped. So did Séverine.
       The novel proper then opens with an adult Séverine on winter vacation in Switzerland with her husband of two years, surgeon Pierre Sérizy. Among those also there is Renée Févret, the wife of a friend and colleague of Pierre's who has become a close friend of Séverine's, and Henri Husson, who makes Séverine feel deeply uncomfortable: "That voice of his ... it always seems to be looking for something inside you you'd rather not ...". (And there is definitely something inside Séverine that she'd rather not .....)
       At the end of their stay, "Séverine felt feverish and depressed", and when they return to Prais she comes down with a bad case of pneumonia. She recovers well enough, but:
Until her illness she had enjoyed establishing order, because by doing so she created comfort and space and left her own stamp on things. Now, though she still felt a certain pride in this, it was abstract and colorless. Her whole life appeared before her in the same monotone -- well-to-do, measured, assured. Parents seen always through a shield of governesses, years at that English school where she'd been taught fair-play and discipline ... Oh well, now she had Pierre; he was, in fact, all she had in the world
       Still, something is stirring in her. Another encounter with Husson doesn't quite bring it out -- indeed, for a while: "She resumed her former place in this world with assurance" -- but then Renée shares the shocking gossip that a mutual acquaintance, Henriette, " A woman from our level of society, not as rich as we are, of course, but still a woman like you and me" goes: "regularly to a brothel !"
       It plants a seed in Séverine's mind, and she finds herself seeking out a brothel, run by a Madame Anaïs, and joining the small group there, offering her services for a few hours daily. As Madame Anaïs puts it: "Two to five, those are nice hours. You'll be our Belle de Jour, hmm ?"
       Séverine keeps her real identity secret, going only by the name 'Belle de Jour'. She tries to keep her two lives separate, but both exert a strong pull on her, tugging in very different directions -- especially as what she's looking for in prostituting herself is something more than simply giving herself to strange men.
       She: "submitted to their desires without annoyance and without pleasure", but she wants something more. Her domestic relationship is no more satisfying in that regard, either:
     Pierre's manner, his taste, his desire to please, all were poles apart from something in her that had to be beaten and subdued, mercilessly defeated, before her flesh could flame out.
       It probably doesn't help that:
And in her love-making with Pierre she was now more maternal than ever, for without realizing it, she was afraid that some too passionate or skillful movement might reveal the illicit knowledge of Belle de Jour.
       It's only when a rougher type, Marcel, falls for her and becomes a steady customer that she finds more of what she's looking for -- "in a vile room, she knew unutterable joy" -- but it also scares her, and she tries to back off as well. Marcel also has a devoted gangster-friend, Hippolyte, who looks out for him; among other things, he gets someone to learn Belle de Jour's true identity .....
       Things, of course, come to a head, as Séverine's two worlds can not be kept entirely apart. Husson is in the middle of it, too -- realizing too late that the way he plays around with people is too easily misinterpreted by someone who thinks and feels as differently as Séverine does:
Someone like me can't really understand that, I suppose ... so I made my mistake. I didn't foresee what an emotion like that might lead to.
       Séverine, too, makes a mistake, in how she acts on what she fears Husson will do, with devastating consequences.
       The short last paragraph of the novel jumps ahead, and finds:
     Three years have now gone by. Séverine and Pierre live over a quiet little beach.
       But, no, there has been no happy end, for them (or for Marcel).
       It's an odd story of love and passions. In his Preface, Kessel explains that what he wanted to show was: "the desperate divorce that can exist between body and soul; between a true, tender, immense love and the implacable demands of the senses". But he struggles some both with Séverine's deep love for Pierre and with her abandon with the men she sleeps with in the brothel; in both cases, Kessel mostly remains too decorous.
       Belle de Jour is a strange kind of period-piece -- remarkable, in some ways, for having been written in 1928, yet also held back by some of the constraints of the literature and the society of that time. In many ways, it is very conventional -- and that holds Kessel back too much, the novel's greatest weakness.
       Still, Kessel writes quite well, and the story is, for the most part, compelling -- not least because of some of its stranger turns. Not entirely successful, it's still good enough to continue to be of interest, even a century on.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 February 2024

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Belle de Jour: Reviews: Belle de Jour - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Joseph Kessel lived 1898 to 1979.

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© 2024 the complete review

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