Undoubtly Luis Bunuel's most accessibly film, Belle de Jour is an elegant and erotic masterpiece that maintains as hypnotic a grip on modern audiences as it did on its debut 40 years ago. Screen icon Catherine Deneuve plays Severine, the glacially beautiful, sexually unfulfilled wife of a surgeon, whose blood runs cold with ennui until she takes a day-job in a brothel. There she meets a charismatic but sinister young gangster (Pierre Clementi), and ignites an obsession that will court peril. Expertly dramatizing the collision between fantasy and reality, and between depravity and respectable bourgeois values, Bunuel, working from the novel by Joseph Kessel, fashions an immaculately designed (the fetishistic interiors and production designs are astonishing) and amoral comedy of manners.
This was Luis Bunuel’s biggest commercial success, and it is still a highly regarded movie today- an eminent film historian provides the talk-track as one of the extras on the DVD. It is undeniably stylish and succeeds in creating a powerfully erotic atmosphere without actually revealing very much bare flesh- there are a few shots of Catherine Deneuve in her faintly scary sixties lingerie, but most of the frisson comes from the internal fantasy sequences where she imagines a life far removed the rather chaste and sterile world she inhabits with her husband. It was these sequences that Bunuel invented, grafting them on to material from the original novel to explain how Deneuve’s upper-middle class Severine ends up working in a brothel. Bunuel’s assistants tell in interviews how they did extensive research into female sexual fantasy (tough job, but someone’s got to do it!), but I’m unconvinced about how many women would actually get that hot under the bodice about being pelted with cow dung and whipped and ravished by randy coachmen. Maybe it was more a question of male fantasy, Sr. Bunuel? Throughout it all, though, Deneuve’s icy, mask-like impassivity reveals nothing either way.