Even after 50 years, Luis Buñuel’s erotic odyssey still brilliantly tantalises.
Spanish screen icon Luis Buñuel is perhaps the definitive provocateur in our medium. Working in multiple languages, and curating cinema from its foundation years, he is among the most pivotal figures in visual art; forever pushing the creative, and contextual, boundaries with each passing title. His universally-lauded 1967 classic, Belle de Jour, returns to Cannes to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, in which a ravishing 4K restoration has been bestowed. This honour is further elevated by the festival’s selection of screening room: the Salle Buñuel…
An integral work of an experimental era, Belle de Jour is, much like its auteur, fearless and without restraint. Uncovering every possible taboo with reckless abandon, his timeless piece stares forcibly in the face of sexual repression, femininity, religious indoctrination, and sadomasochism. The effervescent Catherine Deneuve – one of the hottest Parisian properties at the time – stars as Séverine Serizy; a classically beautiful, upper-class housewife, who moonlights (well, daylights…) as a high-end prostitute whilst her husband is away at work. She loves Dr. Pierre (Jean Sorel) deeply, but he fails to ignite her arousal. For he is just too perfect and clean; lacking that rugged, raw sexual energy which feverishly fills her fantasies.
Coyly critiquing the French terminology for “prostitute” – or “lady of the night” – Séverine is a housewife by night, and a sex worker by day. She is a “Belle de Jour”, not a “Belle de Nuit”. The title alone is enough indication to see just how Buñuel intends to approach this material; smart, forward-thinking, unruly. Loosely inspired by Joseph Kessel’s 1928 novella, Belle de Jour is an expressive and intimately woven film, one which beautifully compliments an outstanding oeuvre of unforgettable cinema.
What’s so impressive about Buñuel is his artistic approach. Even half a century on, the aesthetic design and craft of Belle de Jour remains entirely disarming. You see, despite its confrontational material – residing in a world of dreamed beatings, and humiliation – nothing is ever direct or adversely explicit. Instead the power of the image, and its connotations, are heightened because he approaches at a side angle. Nothing is on-the-nose; nothing is expected. Buñuel’s film, and indeed much of his life’s work, exposes the raw nerves of topics explored through the scope of celluloid. His camera penetrates like eyes to the soul; his lens afloat in a flight of fancy, even when such fantasies are gruelling or abusive. Even his earlier works, like Un Chien Andalou (1929) with Salvador Dalí, have a sense of the enigmatic, because that’s entirely what film is supposed to feel like.
Some will wish to pigeonhole a piece like Belle de Jour into the comfortable frameworks of genre. At its essence, the film is a drama, or thriller dependant on your stance, but tonally, visually, creatively, Buñuel’s exploration of desire is perfectly uncategorisable. Complex dark shades are splashed across its rosy canvas with forceful intent, whilst an unmistakable sense of fizzy humanity resides within its protagonist. The film contrasts and contradicts form with palpable glee; at times psychological, others warm and welcoming. Deneuve’s renowned performance brilliantly bottles such subtextual depth throughout, managing to convey charm, poise, frigidness, lust, and calculation almost simultaneously. Those unfamiliar with the material wouldn’t be ill in presuming the film is merely fluff piece, with a strapping blonde showing off her assets for 101 minutes, but upon inspection, you’ll realise the dexterity of her character depiction.
From its mesmerising sound design, to thoughtful and rhythmic editing, via Yves Saint Laurent’s unmistakable costume design, Belle de Jour is an opulent feat of narrative filmmaking. Buñuel audaciously bends the rules – fracturing our ideas of womanhood and class – and in the process compiles a timeless study which remains as potent today as it did yesteryear.