The current best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey, with its female fantasies of bondage, sadism and discipline, has brought an eruption of media comment, as if this were a shocking new cultural phenomenon. The more excitable commentators are advised to watch Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour, made more than 40 years ago and screening in SBS TWO's French Classics season, where they'll learn it isn't anything new at all.
It might seem odd, given that 1967 gave the world the hippy-trippy Summer of Love, but this was also a year that saw a much darker and repressed side of sexuality bursting into cultural view. Many of that year saw the release in French cinemas of Belle de Jour, whose daring scenes of S&M daydreams framed a story of a middle-class wife (Catherine Deneuve) secretly going to work as a prostitute at an upscale brothel. Although French critics sniffed, the French public turned out en masse and in the autumn it was awarded the top prize of the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Lion.
The French premiere was only two months behind the release of The Velvet Underground's Andy Warhol-sponsored debut album, whose bold choice of subject matter, including hard drugs ('Heroin') and sado-masochism ('Venus in Furs', inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novel), was unprecedented in popular music. In a further twist of delicious synchronicity, the name of Belle de Jour's heroine was Séverine. The male character in Lou Reed's lyrics for Venus in Furs? “Severin, Severin, speak so slightly/ Severin, down on your bended knee…”
While these two cultural events were otherwise unconnected, that they appeared almost simultaneously was obviously the result of a general shift in sexual morality accompanied by a loosening up of censorship. Yet while the Velvets would have to wait another decade before their impact would be widely felt, via punk rock, the effect on Buñuel was much more immediate. The film became the most commercially successful of his long career.
A delight in provocation had been the Spanish-born director's stock in trade ever since his 1929 surrealist film collaboration with Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou. His iconoclasm had seen him exiled to Mexico for much of Spain's Franco dictatorship, but in 1964 he began a new and highly fruitful phase of his career in France, usually working alongside screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and producer Serge Silberman, initially on Diary of a Chambermaid, a shoe-fetishist's delight starring Jeanne Moreau.
Belle de Jour, adapted from Joseph Kessel's 1928 novel by Buñuel and Carriere and produced this time by Egyptians Robert and Raymond Hakim, would be the director's second French film. The protagonist is Deneuve's Séverine Serizy, a housewife married to Pierre (Jean Sorel), a wealthy doctor she dearly loves but with whom can't bring herself to have sex. In the arresting opening scene, she daydreams of being picked up in a horse-drawn carriage before being abused and flogged. From here we see her real life as a middle-class woman of leisure who, whether at a ski resort or at restaurants, appears always to be dissatisfied and icily distant.
She is shocked to learn from a female friend that a mutual acquaintance is working as a hooker. Though she finds the advances of her husband's lecherous friend Henri (Michel Piccoli) repulsive, Séverine takes note when he boasts of visiting a particular brothel, and memorises the address. After some initial, nervous prevarication, she ends up working here as a working girl for afternoons only under the nom-de-sex Belle de Jour ('beauty of the day'), while her husband remains blissfully unaware. But as in John Duigan's recent sex-work themed Careless Love, compartmentalising her professional and private lives proves trickier than it looks.
Why, you may ask, does she work here? She hardly needs the money, as made clear by the endless parade of expensive Yves Saint Laurent finery she wears when not stripped down to her underwear. A brief, mysterious flashback to Séverine as a little girl apparently being handled by a sexual predator gives a strong clue (another indication of how far the film was ahead of its time). The strength and perversity of her sexual desires are made clear by the fantasy sequences, and we see enough in the brothel scenes to realise she enjoys the professional sex at least some of the time.
The vacuousness of her comfortably middle-class lifestyle as a 'kept' woman is obviously something to kick against.
For a clue in the costuming department, it seems Buñuel deliberately sends up Pierre by clothing him in a ludicrously camp white, chunky knit sweater that contrasts hilariously with his wife's elegant style.
The deeper reasons for Séverine's secret adventure is plainly spelled out when she declares that “it happens in spite of me… one day I'll pay for my sins, but without this I could not live.” In other words, her behaviour reflects the classic surrealist obsession with unconscious drives – the deep forces, buried beneath the respectable selves we present in public, that guide and even control us.
The film is often called erotic and it's likely its original audiences found it highly titillating and a little shocking. Yet for all its concern with sex, by contemporary standards the brothel scenes are relatively chaste. Deneuve is never seen in a naked full-frontal shot, only unclothed from behind, and we never see Séverine (or any of her female colleagues, for that matter) having sex. Buñuel prefers to concentrate on what happens immediately before and after.
So is this a misogynistic fantasy about a compliant woman who loves being abused by men? By a fluke of timing Buñuel escaped the worst ravages of the puritanical brand of feminism that took flight in the 1970s and according to which all prostitutes were victims of the patriarchy. But it's also important to note that the film, while never politically correct, is about a woman who is bored and frustrated by her social role as a dutiful, stay-at-home wife and determined to rebel.
Like all of Buñuel's work, though, the film's real politics are less about conventional left versus right notions than a personal brand of anarchy in which the unconscious rules. Perversity and human cruelty are forces impossible to deny, and where social and religious hypocrisy (and note the allusions to Séverine's Catholic guilt) are the great enemies. It still makes for compelling viewing.
French Classics Season
Sunday August 5, 10:45pm
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring:Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli
Sunday August 12, 10:45pm
Belle de Jour (1967)
Director: Luis Buñuel
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli
Sunday August 19, 10:30pm
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Henri-Jacques Huet
Sunday August 26, 10:45pm
Director: Jules Dassin
Starring: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel