Catherine Deneuve stars as a wealthy but bored newlywed, eager to taste life to the fullest. She seemingly gets her wish early in the film when she is kidnapped, tied to a tree, and gang-raped. It turns out that this is only a daydream, but her subsequent visits to a neighboring brothel, where she offers her services, certainly seem to be real. This illusion/reality dichotomy extends to the final scenes, in which we are offered two possible endings.
It is a shameful thing for a critic to admit, especially one who holds himself in such high regard, that until four days ago I had never seen Spanish filmmaking legend Luis Buñuel’s 1967 French-language drama Belle de jour.
I was certainly aware of its reputation, had been party to drunken gatherings of film intellectuals who spoke of it with a breathless enthusiasm usually reserved for descriptions of the first steps of one’s firstborn offspring. I would nod and moan in agreement – "Mmmm, Buñuel..." – feigning the deepest respect and most intimate knowledge of the film that is "probably the best-known erotic film of modern times, and perhaps the best," according to the critic’s Gandalf, Roger Ebert.
To watch the film 42 years after it was released, one is immediately struck by how contemporary it still remains. Buñuel’s skill at combining accessible, recognisable characterisations and deeply-affecting surrealist touches makes for an intimate cinematic experience that has rarely been equalled.
Catherine Deneuve is unforgettable as Severine, the psychologically-scarred wife of an upwardly-mobile young surgeon, and – in the alter-ego role of a lifetime – as daytime-prostitute Belle, who hides within debased fantasies as a way of coping with the abuses she suffered as a child. Her descent into the false security and cheap sexuality that comes to redefine her existence is both shockingly sensual and profoundly sad. There is a downbeat poetry to the final moments of the film, in which the tragic realities of her life choices collide with the comforting distance of her fantasy world.
Buñuel was not afraid to rattle the establishment cage – it comes as no surprise to those familiar with his work that Severine’s childhood abuse is intertwined with her Catholicism. (Check out his Vatican-denounced 1961 film Viridiana for a truly fearless examination of the religion.) Nor is it unusual to find a confused, tortured perspective on female sexuality at the core of a Buñuel work. (1952’s A Woman Without Love and the 1977 masterpiece That Obscure Object of Desire allow Buñuel further exploration of one of his favourite themes.)
By relocating to France and embracing the local aesthetic, Buñuel found a perfect setting for his tale of exhilarating yet despairing sex in the Paris of the mid-1960s and a perfect muse in the radiant transparency of Catherine Deneuve.
Buñuel’s Belle de jour is a defining masterwork of moviemaking, both of and before its time.