Dir. Luis Buñuel. 1967. R. 101mins. France. Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli.
First published on . Updated on 4 Jan 2012.
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One of the sly, Spanish provocateur’s greatest popular successes, Belle de Jour is a mischievously deadpan and classically cool 1967 adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s ‘cheap’ fictionalised tale of a Parisian doctor’s wife who secretly volunteers for the two-till-five shift at an upmarket brothel. It opens with French cinema’s prim, fair Miss Frigidaire, Catherine Deneuve, being roughly trussed and stripped by her husband, before ‘the little whore’ is whipped and distainfully left for the carnal satisfaction of his two coachmen.
As Buñuel and his scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière make clear, this is a mere fantasy in the head of their masochistic heroine. Nevertheless, it was received as a confrontational ‘liberationist’ shock at the time. If, for us jaded children and grandchildren of the ’60s, 40 years of bombardment by explicit sexual imagery has made that impact unrecoverable, the undiminished power of the film resides more in the mesmeric audacity of Buñuel’s method.
The productive friction – be it between the salacious material and the ‘chaste’ formality of how it’s observed; the ersatz ‘elegance’ of the salon and the perverse etiquettes of the Yves Saint Laurent-clothed, cigarette-chewing prostitutes and their clients; or the hallucinatory melding of fantasy and reality – still generates heat like a nuclear reactor. Wally Hammond