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Belle de jour


For people who find pleasure in sexual kinks but aren't quite comfortable with their appetites, Luis Bunuel's "Belle de Jour" is the ultimate candy. Perversely funny, and told in a manner that's elegant and nonjudgmental, "Belle de Jour" gives depravity a touch of class -- and lets its audience indulge their guilty pleasures with impunity.

Today, after 20 years in limbo, during which the film was out of circulation, Bunuel's 1967 erotic classic is back. Released by Miramax Zoe, a new division of Miramax Films that's dedicated to French cinema, and "presented" by film preservation buff Martin Scorsese, it opens today at Bay Area theaters.

It's true that revivals of film classics are frequent, especially in a city as film- friendly as San Francisco. But I'd venture to say that the "Belle de Jour" revival is as much of a cinematic event as the collective release, in 1983, of five Hitchcock films that had stayed out of circulation too long ("Rear Window," "Vertigo," "Rope," "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "The Trouble With Harry").

Starring a ravishing, letter-perfect Catherine Deneuve as Severine, a bored Parisian housewife who dabbles in prostitution, "Belle de Jour" is a wise, enormously enjoyable film about the power of fantasy -- a toast to the importance of dreams.

Married to Pierre (Jean Sorel), a handsome young surgeon who doesn't make her shiver, Severine finds herself checking out of reality and daydreaming of elaborate floggings and bondage. When she hears of a woman who earns extra cash at a high-priced brothel, Severine acquires the address from a friend (Michel Piccoli) and takes a meeting with Anais (Genevieve Page), the chic-but-stern madam who runs the joint.

After a bumpy start with a candy manufacturer who finds that she likes to be slapped and dominated, and an episode with a masochist who dresses as a servant and wants her to walk on his face in heels, Belle de Jour develops her own style and clientele.

"You'll like her," the madam promises one of her regulars. "She's a real aristocrat."

Directing with cool, wicked detachment, Bunuel strips bare Deneuve's rich fantasy life and in brief flashbacks psychologizes Severine's taste for kink. Raised a Catholic, she was molested as a young girl, presumably kept it a secret and developed an unspoken passion for bondage and domination -- talents that her husband lacks.

Under the shield of her new profession, Severine explores her inhibitions, uncorks her imagination and experiences such a wide, delicious release that she comes to love her husband more.

Whether her liberation is ultimately beneficial -- in Bunuel's view -- is one of the mysteries of "Belle de Jour."

Bunuel, who was 67 at the time he made "Belle de Jour," had a wicked, playful humor that didn't spare his audience any more than his characters. On the surface, he seems to withhold judgment about Severine's sexual journey, and in fact envies the courage of her pursuit and the strength of her imagination.

But in the film's finale, which echoes an image from the opening scene, Bunuel confounds us. Has Severine merely fantasized the whole episode at Madame Anais' brothel? And if not, and her encounter with a jealous gangster (Pierre Clementi) is in fact real, then what will the impact be on a faithful, uncomprehending husband?

Deneuve is a great actress, and even though she's been typecast as the cool, inscrutable blonde, she plays that character exquisitely and uses her beauty in crafty, unexpected ways. Like so many people with elaborate secrets, her Severine creates a protective screen with her frosty reserve and draws power from her aura of impassive mystery.

It's a subtle, endlessly fascinating performance, and apparently pleased Bunuel a great deal: In his next film, the superb "Tristana" (1970), he again cast Deneuve. One can hope that the revival of "Belle de Jour," which has not become dated one bit, will inspire the return of "Tristana" as well.
Date Added: 05/18/2013 by Vibrations
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