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Essential Cinema: Belle De Jour
This week our film critic recommends you watch an old French sexual thriller.

Belle De Jour is one of the greatest films ever made about sex; however, this isn’t a bare-all softcore extravaganza for the Mr. Skin crowd. Instead, the film is about desire and fantasy, exploring the often-unspeakable thoughts that slip through our heads. It’s a dirty movie that you can actually feel smart and cultured for enjoying.

Directed by Luis Buñuel, it traces the fantasies and thoughts of a stiff Parisian housewife, Severine, played by Catherine Deneuve. Her character opens the film in a stagecoach with her boyish doctor husband Pierre (Jean Sorel). They whisper sweet nothings until the coach suddenly stops and Pierre instructs the drivers to whip and rape his wife. Then the film cuts to Severine lying in their bed, the shocking opening merely the fantasy of an outwardly frigid and obedient woman whose life is limited.

What follows may not ever quite live up to the fascinating opening scene, but further develops the themes. Severine is soon approached by Pierre’s sleazy friend Husson (Michel Piccoli), who suggests that she work in a local high-class brothel. She’s initially disgusted by the idea, yet secretly fascinated. Curiosity soon gets the better of her and she convinces the Madame (Genevieve Page) into letting her work in the afternoons as a belle de jour.

A double life emerges with Severine entertaining all manner of paying perverts (most memorably a Japanese man with a mysteriously ominous humming box that frightens the other working ladies) during the day and playing innocent housewife at night. A threat emerges when a silver-toothed gangster becomes a repeat customer, falls in love and threatens her home life. All the while Severine keeps dipping in and out of her sexual daydreams, suggesting the entire experience may be little more than the dark fantasy of a bored housewife.

The mysterious mixture of fantasy and reality in the film can be directly attributed to co-writer/director Buñuel. Cinema’s first and finest surrealist began projecting dreams on the big screen in the 20s with Salvador Dali and was in his mid-60s when he went into production on Belle De Jour. Despite his senior discount status, Buñuel remained one of the most subversive directors alive and the movie is dripping with fetishistic imagery, like his Tarantino-esque affinity for close ups of women’s feet. With so much of his career dedicated to dream logic and fractured reality, it’s appropriate that he eventually made a film about sexual fantasy; it’s hard to imagine anyone else topping his accomplishment. Nothing in the film should be taken wholly at face value. Buñuel dips in and out of reality so freely that he invites us to question everything. Whether or not Severine actually worked as prostitute is beside the point. Even if she never acted on it, the fantasy consumed her and the way such fantasies can control all our lives is what interested Buñuel in the subject matter.

The film is erotic, but rarely explicit. Every moment is packed with sexual tension and even the scenes in which Severine’s criminal client threatens her husband feel like a fantasy. Ultimately, the subject of the film is the uncontrollable nature of fantasy and desire. Even the concept of an outwardly classy member of the bourgeoisie secretly working as a whore feels like some form of collective fantasy that Buñuel tapped into for commercial appeal. Often dirty minds come in the most innocent packages. The filmmaker offers no moral judgment or clear answers. His film was never about that; rather it was a chance to explore the secret and mysterious thoughts we all share (often with a healthy dose of shame). In the 60s, such a vision was incredibly radical. In the age of the internet, it’s almost quaint with the exception of a few deeply bizarre moments such as when Severine dreams of having men fling mud at her while tied up. While I’m sure there are several websites dedicated to that practice now, it doesn’t dull the perverse power of the scene or the film as a whole. We all have some sort of secret fantasy life buried in our subconscious, but rarely are we willing to explore it as openly as Buñuel. That may or may not be a good thing. It is certainly worth musing or daydreaming over though. Just be careful who you share your thoughts with.

Belle De Jour will be released on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection on January 17.

Phil Brown writes about classic films for Toronto Standard‘s Essential Cinema column.

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