Walk on the wild side

Luis Bunuel's Belle De Jour is more perverse--and touching--than most current films could dream of being

I love it when a movie leaves me feeling wrung out and exhausted--as if I've been on a tortuous journey I didn't expect to take, but one that showed me things I never would have dreamed I'd see.

Belle de Jour, surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel's 1967 film about a repressed young Paris housewife who becomes a high-class prostitute, is that kind of movie. By turns satirical and sympathetic, farcical and realistic, cruel and tender, it slips between gears so subtly and naturally that you may find yourself wondering whether the filmmaker really planned it all out, or if he was simply following some strange creative siren he'd never heard before--discovering all the twists and turns of a strange story at the same time we discover them.

Out of circulation for nearly two decades, the movie is also a time capsule of sorts. It was made during a time when movies were finally tearing themselves loose from self-imposed shackles of propriety, discovering the thrilling, scary emotions that accompany the transgression of taboos. The same could be said of the movie's heroine, Severine (Catherine Deneuve, all of 23 and as icily gorgeous as Garbo).

She's married to an ambitious young Paris surgeon named Pierre (Jean Sorel) and living very comfortably. But her life is not content; she's prone to fantasies of sexual humiliation, perhaps because her pampered lifestyle and strict Catholic upbringing taught her to view potentially "dirty" experiences as soul-destroying (and therefore fascinating).

During a taunting conversation about prostitution with Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli), a roguish friend of her husband, she hears of a legendary brothel full of high-class hookers. Following instincts even she doesn't understand, Severine visits the brothel, which is run by a poised, sly, vaguely maternal woman with the hilarious assumed name of Madame Anais (Genevieve Page). Severine is instantly offered a job, and to our surprise (and hers), she immediately accepts it--on the condition that she only work during daylight hours so her husband will never find out what she's up to. She picks a new name for herself: Belle de Jour, or Beauty of the Day.

She meets a variety of memorable oddballs, including a crude business mogul who likes being serviced by several women at once; a giant Asian salesman who delights women with a small box containing strangely whirring objects we never get to see; a mansion-dwelling millionaire with the weirdest fixation this side of Oedipus; and a prominent gynecologist who obsessively performs a roleplaying fantasy in which he's a screwup servant who must be flogged for his incompetence by the lady of the house.

One of the persistent complaints against Bunuel is that when operating in satirical mode, he rarely lowers himself to truly understand his characters; he prefers to cut them down and serve them up for our sophisticated amusement. His clean frames and precise camera moves are the cinematic equivalent of surgeon's gloves: evidence of a man who wants to explore humanity's messiest innards without risking contamination himself. It's not hard to score points off privileged people who hide their sexual kinks, and Bunuel--an anti-authoritarian prankster who shredded the rich and pretentious in such films as The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie--surely isn't challenged by the prospect of doing it again here. You'd think the result would be a movie made on autopilot.

Surprisingly, you'd be wrong. The story of Belle de Jour seems to have curbed his Olympian smugness and reawakened his sense of empathy in a way that recalls his other great humanist work, the Depression-era ghetto fable Los Olvidados. Belle de Jour's first half, which consists mostly of Severine and her fellow hookers interacting with clients, has a strange and unexpected tone. It seems like satire, but it isn't--not quite. Bunuel, who cowrote the script with Jean-Claude Carriere from a popular novel by Joseph Kessel, is interested in these characters beyond their value as social targets. He doesn't draw them coldly or cruelly, but with the cockeyed warmth of Jean Renoir or Robert Altman.

When Severine says goodbye to the Asian businessman after a tryst, they smile at each other like old friends reunited after years of separation. When the landlady of the brothel tries to bond with Severine by offering platitudes about prostitution, Severine smiles like the Mona Lisa and murmurs, "What would you know about it?" And when Madame Anais confesses to Severine that she could never understand why somebody would fantasize about being humiliated, Severine's mischievous eyes say, "Watch it--you're turning me on."

It's in the movie's second half, though, that Bu–uel really cuts loose and starts hurling one deliciously melodramatic curveball after another. I won't reveal exactly what I mean by that statement, because I'd like viewers to experience the same baffled delight I felt as I followed the heroine on her journey. All I'll say is that the same thing happens to Severine that happened to Luis Bunuel; entering into a job associated with detached professionalism, she is startled to find herself beset on all sides by people and situations that demand some kind of emotional response. The prospect of dealing with them brings her alive with dread and ecstasy.

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