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‘Belle de Jour’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 14, 1995


Luis Bunuel
Catherine Deneuve;
Jean Sorel;
Michel Piccoli
sexually explicit scenes and nudity

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After an absence of 20 years, Luis Bunuel's "Belle de Jour" returns to American theaters under the auspices of Martin Scorsese, a longtime fan of this 1967 psychodrama. Catherine Deneuve is at her iciest as the perverse Severine, a Parisian housewife whose double life as a prostitute allows her to explore the masochistic fantasies that fill her dreams.

Bunuel, a pioneer of surrealism in the '20s and '30s, easily travels between Severine's real and fantasy worlds, presenting both with equal clarity. This technique keeps audiences off balance and tricks them into mistaking the heroine's dreams for what Bunuel referred to as the "other reality."

The opening scene, in which Severine and her husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel), enjoy a carriage ride through the French countryside, is really an elaborate sight gag. What appears to be the sumptuous opening of a period romance ends with the panting Severine bound, gagged and whipped by the coachmen, who were ordered to do so by her husband. Then, Severine opens her eyes and Pierre, in his chaste pajamas, enters their elegant bedroom and slips into one of the twin beds. A surreal gotcha.

Bunuel's sense of humor has been lauded by critics and fans, but this smug, stylish study in sexual degradation affords few laughs. Of course, how funny this film is depends on whether one finds amusement in Bunuel's disgust for middle-class institutions. This time, he goes after marriage, with its sterility and constrictions.

The brothel where Severine works becomes the metaphoric antithesis of marriage. Here, customers and prostitutes alike are able to express genuine passion and experience genuine turn-ons. This notion went down well with art house patrons in the '60s, but that was before feminists like Lizzie Borden grew up to make films like 1986's "Working Girls," a harrowing documentary on prostitution. As Borden made clear, working girls aren't exploring their erotic yearnings, they're selling sex to men—most of whom don't look anything like Hugh Grant.

Severine prefers her creepy customers to her handsome and tender husband, a hard-working surgeon who mistakes her frigidity for a lingering shyness. The enigmatic Severine, a precursor of "Twin Peaks's" Laura Palmer, has flashbacks that link these erotic compulsions to childhood sexual abuse.

The director may have been ahead of his time, but he displays no more compassion for his characters than a psycho killer shows for his victims. Bunuel, who adapted the screenplay from Joseph Kessel's 1928 novel, does give the audience a choice of endings. The happy one is obviously another of Severine's fantasies. "Belle" seems the work of a beast.

Belle de Jour, in French with English subtitles, is rated R for sexually explicit scenes and nudity.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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