Belle de Jour and Catherine Deneuve – The Role of her Life

Article by Dr. Ingeborg Kraus – Karlsruhe, 14th February 2018

Edited by Ulrike Maier – Translation: Firdes Ceylan

The film „Belle de Jour“ is a masterpiece. It is not a sexist film. It is not a film about a woman who wants to live her sexual phantasies, or a film about a woman who wants to break out of a prudish society. No other film was misunderstood as much as “Belle de Jour”. Catherine Deneuve herself who represented this role perfectly, has never understood it. It is the role of her life: a woman who does not recognize sexual abuse.

Why is it that a beautiful woman from a good family lets herself being mistreated, humiliated and sexually abused? There are only two short movie scenes that solve the riddle. For a few seconds during minute 14 of the film you can see a girl, little Séverine, who is being kissed by an adult – his hand grabs under her dress. The second scene: Shortly before Séverine knocks at the door of the brothel for the first time she gets a flashback: she sees little Séverine who refuses the host. She feels guilty for what had been done to her. It is not the adult woman who goes to the brothel, it is the girl feeling guilty. It is striking how the adult self constantly apologizes. She is suffering from recurring nightmares in which she is being humiliated, in which dirt is being thrown at her, in which she is being insulted, whipped, raped. Adult Séverine is often absent in her life, like in a trance, unfocused. She drops things. She cannot develop a real closeness to her husband. Through prostitution she becomes livelier, happier and can accept more intimacy by her husband. However, her life as a prostitute becomes out of control. A jealous punter follows her and shoots at her husband who in the aftermath becomes paraplegic. The last scene is hard to bear since her husband gets to know from a john that she had worked as a prostitute and that she is thus partly responsible for him sitting in the wheelchair. She is – so to speak – pronounced guilty. He sheds a tear and the next moment she says that she has no dreams anymore and flees into a fantasy world.

What is happening here from a psycho-traumatological point of view? Séverine is a woman who was sexually abused during her childhood. This memory is split off of her mind, it´s a traumatic amnesia. Constantly, fragments of memory appear which she does not understand. She is not aware of her trauma. Fragments of it are stored in her trauma-mind in a dissociated manner. It is a different part of her brain that is not willfully accessible to her. That is why she cannot tell what happened to her. It remains unaware. Thus, her trauma is not integrated in her narrative mind either. However, again and again it becomes activated and shows itself in her adult life in form of flash backs, nightmares, states of trance, dissociation, unsecure behavior, emotional numbness, closeness-distance problems. She does not understand these states. She cannot live sexuality with her husband because it is linked to masochistic images. She feels magically attracted to the brothel and doesn´t understand why she prostitutes herself. Here, prostitution is considered as a reenactment of her dissociated trauma. She goes through life, tortured by masochistic images and a deep feeling of having done something wrong and being guilty for something. But she cannot analyze it. She doesn´t understand why. Following formula is applied in traumatology: „ A trauma that is not realized will be experienced again.” It is the attempt to give the inner pain an outer shape to relieve oneself from the inside. There is a good example for this: At the beginning of the last century masses of Japanese women let themselves being photographed in a gagged position to visualize their suppression. They said that afterwards they felt freer. But it is not a real liberation. It is an enactment of the inner suffering and if it is self-harming it is the continuation of the trauma. In this vicious circle Séverine is trapped  „Belle de Jour“ is not sexual liberation, it is not an escape from a puritanical society as Nora Bossing also represented it in a totally wrong way in her book “Redlight”. “Belle de Jour” is not a woman who enjoys masochism. No, “Belle de Jour” is the symptom of a severely traumatized woman who was sexually abused in her childhood.

And now the mature woman, Grand Dame Catherine Deneuve, is speaking. She is complaining about the “MeeToo” campaign. Ironically, it is her who turns to the nation and warns from losing the clear view on what is rape is and what is “only” an annoying flirting attempt. She claims to intend to protect sexual freedom and denounces the campaign as being totalitarian and a fallback to puritanism.

„Belle de Jour“, produced in 1967, is a film that shows in subtle details all trauma reactions of a woman who had been a victim of sexual violence in her childhood. In a time, in which the psycho-traumatology was still in its infancy, this film was a milestone in that respect. However, it was misunderstood by many. In the end also misunderstood by Catherine Deneuve herself who maybe even today thinks that „Belle de Jour“ meant liberation for Séverine. No, it was not a liberation. It was her destruction. Catherine Deneuve remains in the role of „Belle de Jour“, who does not understand what she is doing.

For millions of women who painfully brought themselves to talk about their abuse and who perhaps would not have had the courage to speak up without the protective shield of the „MeToo“ campaign this is a slap in the face and a betrayal of the cause of women. Everybody has the right to remain blind but not the right to deny others to openly see the truth.

Dr. Ingeborg Kraus

Psychologist and expert in psychotraumatology
Initiator of the appeal “German psychologists and the scientific case against prostitution