The opening of Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour remains one of the great perverse jokes in movie history. In what appears at first to be a scene out of the 19th century, a demure young woman (Catherine Deneuve) and her beau (Jean Sorel) are in the back of a horse-drawn carriage, riding down an idyllic country lane. The two exchange banal words of love. Then the man becomes angry and orders the woman out of the vehicle. The two top-hatted carriage drivers take her to a nearby field, tie her to a tree, and begin to whip her savagely, at which point the man informs them that they can have their way with her. Outrageous? Yes, but not as outrageous as what follows: a shot of the young woman lying in her bed in modern-day Paris, where — it is now revealed — she has fantasized the entire scene. There are many filmmakers who could have dreamed up this nasty bit of sado-porn horseplay. But only Bunuel had the audacity — and wit — to place it in the imagination of a polite young bourgeois housewife.
Belle de Jour, which is being rereleased 15 years after it was withdrawn from circulation by its producers (it’s being presented by Martin Scorsese), is no longer as shocking as it once seemed, but that hardly means it’s out of date. If anything, the times have finally caught up with Bunuel’s brilliant deadpan comedy of erotic liberation. When the film was first shown in American art houses in 1968, it was greeted by many as a cool-eyed litany of kink, the work of a director notorious for pricking the complacency of middle-class audiences. By contemporary standards, however, there’s nothing very scandalous in this story of a Parisian ice princess, Severine (Deneuve), who plays out her sexual daydreams by going to work in a classy brothel. There’s one customer who likes to lick shoes, and another who has Severine lie in a coffin, pretending to be his dead daughter. We’re also given peeks into Severine’s sadomasochistic fantasies, which are funny, exquisitely filmed, and far less wild than the dangerous games of Last Tango in Paris or In the Realm of the Senses.
As it turns out, the real subject of Belle de Jour isn’t ”perversion” at all; it’s the untamability of the erotic imagination. The movie depicts transgression as the unruly dark half of true love. Then, like Blue Velvet, it asks: Can the two sides — the sacred and the profane — be joined? Deneuve was never again this good. She plays the ”cold” Severine with a warmth and sympathy that has us rooting for her every furtive naughtiness. Severine’s problem is that she can’t hold her tender feelings for her husband in the same heartbeat as she does her forbidden desires. But when one of her customers, a gangster (Pierre Clementi) who looks like a Carnaby Street rock star, grows obsessed with her, the two halves of her life come crashing together — the film’s metaphor for Severine at last becoming whole. As an artist, Bunuel spent his life fighting the dragon of Victorianism that cast its shadow over the 20th century. In Belle de Jour, he finally put a stake through the dragon’s heart. A