A cult hit upon release, Luis Buñuel’s Belle De Jour turns 40 this year. And while its gift turns out to be an extras-lite DVD reissue that’ll leave cinephiles feeling like a kid who expected a new bicycle and received a puncture-repair kit, the film itself remains fresh and vital.
Based on Joseph Kessel’s same-titled novel (“Cheap fiction,” sneered Buñuel), this erotic, enigmatic tease of a film flits between reality and fantasy as it burrows into the head of Séverine (Catherine Deneuve), a bored surgeon’s wife who eradicates her ennui by turning tricks in a high-class brothel. At home, she’s unable or unwilling to indulge her passions beyond a chaste kiss; at work, she sates her unvoiced masochistic desires, a sly smile curling the corner of her lips as her first John throws her on the bed.
Séverine’s innermost fantasies also present themselves in a series of daydreams, with Buñuel and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière adding a “phantasmagorical dimension” to the source novel. These sequences, barely signposted, see our glacial, elegant heroine whipped and raped, bound and pelted with mud and subjected to unspecified sexual abuse with a broken bottle. Yet another episode – maybe real, maybe fantasy – has Séverine visit the castle of a Duke, her pallid, motionless body laid out in a coffin for her host to masturbate over his dead ‘daughter’.
Cryptic and illuminating, disturbing and liberating, Belle De Jour resists clichés and coarseness as it explores female eroticism, a subject previously relegated to the dark corners of film noir and Val Lewton’s B-chiller Cat People. It also scratches at Buñuel’s familiar themes, humourously attacking the bourgeoisie, the Catholic church and the stifling conventions that so many of us not only accept but seem to crave.
Any questions that can be answered – and many can’t, Belle De Jour defying psychological analysis even as it invites it – are cleared-up in a half-hour documentary and a muttering, stuttering commentary by film professor Peter Evans. What is it that buzzes in the box carried by an Asian client? Why is the soundtrack littered with mewling cats and tinkling cowbells? And what the hell does the closing scene signify, with its assembly of motifs and its head-on collision of reality and fantasy? Perhaps very little at all, suggests Carrière, explaining how it amused Buñuel to toy with viewers’ desire to psychoanalyse, to solicit their “reductive readings”.
Carrière also lends insights into Buñuel’s adoption of Surrealism in the mid-1920s, his ensuing, peripatetic career in Spain, America, Mexico and France and the tenacity with which he researched Belle De Jour, visiting psychiatrists and prostitutes. “All the fantasies described in the film have been experienced at some point by a woman,” attests the writer. Yes, even the one where Séverine plays dead, the Duke shuddering with pleasure as he says, “Worms are eating you up...”