Rumoured at the time of its first release in 1966 to be director Luis Buñuel’s farewell to the cinema, ‘Belle de jour’ in fact turned out to be merely the first in a string of masterpieces celebrating his return to European film-making from exile in Mexico. Replacing the jagged asperities of Buñuel’s earlier work came a new serenity, an effortless grace in which the characteristic scurrility about sex, religion and the bourgeoisie smoulders undimmed beneath the golden glow of an exquisitely polished surface.

The source for ‘Belle de jour’ is a psychological novel by Joseph Kessel, first published in 1928, in which a young woman becomes aware of her body for the first time as the result of an illness. Hitherto happily married in a well-bred sort of way, she now discovers within herself irresistible urges which drive her to spend her afternoons (hence her designation as a ‘daytime beauty’) in a brothel, pursuing a part-time career that is imperilled when she becomes passionately involved with a brutish young thug. When she refuses to abandon her husband, the thug shoots him; and after learning the truth, now permanently paralysed, the husband maintains an equally permanent silence towards his erring wife.

Unlike Kessel, to whom he is otherwise essentially faithful, Buñuel offers no explanation of the woman’s sudden discovery of her physical needs. Instead, jettisoning all rationalisation, he opens the film on a teasing note of ambiguity. To the sound of coach bells, husband and wife are seen driving down a country lane in an open landau, she talking of her love for him. Suddenly he leaps from the carriage, orders the coachman to tie his wife to a tree, then has her whipped and violated. But in the next shot they are together in their home, calm and conventional, as she opens the conversation: ‘We were driving in a landau . . .’

There is little doubt here as to which scene is real and which imagined. But as the woman (Catherine Deneuve at her most enigmatic) proceeds on her odyssey of discovery through humiliation and gratification, Buñuel’s quirkish sense of humour embroiders details—the chirping box containing some unnameable aid to sadism, the coffin employed to satisfy the erotic fancies of a duke mourning his daughter—that inhabit a weird twilight world in which fact and fantasy gradually shade into each other, each taking on the other’s protective colouring.

A scabrous surrealist fairytale which shines with a strange inner purity, ‘Belle de jour’ defies logical analysis but it does have meaning. In the final scene (a complete departure from Kessel), the paralysed husband suddenly rises and goes to his wife after learning the truth; and we see the same landau, now empty, driving down the same country lane. Suggesting an exorcism of the wife’s forbidden desires (or of the husband’s incapacities), this scene also intimates that she has at last found a balance between the two kinds of love—physical and spiritual, hallowed and illicit, factual and fantastical—she has hitherto been desperately juggling.—Tom Milne.

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