Belle de Jour
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Blonde and beautiful Catherine Deneuve became a star in France in Jacques Demy's 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and earned rave reviews with her riveting portrait of madness in Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965). But it was Luis Buñuel's controversial erotic masterpiece Belle de jour (1967) that made her an international star and became a worldwide box office blockbuster.
Deneuve plays Séverine, an elegant, aloof young housewife who loves her husband but is unable to respond sexually to him. She is plagued by fantasies in which she is sexually debased and abused by her husband and other men-and enjoys it. When Séverine learns that an acquaintance has been working in a brothel, she is disturbingly attracted to the idea, and visits the establishment. Soon she is working there every afternoon, under the name "Belle de jour" (Daytime Beauty), and not only juggling her two lives, but making her dangerous fantasies come true.
Spanish-born director Luis Buñuel was in his late sixties and in the remarkable final act of a prolific career that had seen him go from founding surrealist, to political documentarian, to exile in Mexico, to renowned international filmmaker. In 1966 Buñuel was recruited by producers Robert and Raymond Hakim to make a film version of Joseph Kessel's 1928 novel Belle de jour. According to critic Michael Wilmington, "Though Belle de jour wasn't a project Buñuel initiated or even a novel he much liked, he found in it the classic 'Buñuelian' elements: dark comedy, l'amour fou, unsparing social criticism, and intoxicating, terrifying dreams."
In his autobiography, Buñuel wrote, "The novel is very melodramatic, but well-constructed, and it offered me the chance to translate Séverine's fantasies into pictorial images as well as to draw a serious portrait of a young female bourgeois masochist." But he also notes slyly that he relished the task: "I was also able to indulge myself in the faithful description of some interesting sexual perversions. (My fascination with fetishism was already evident in the faithful descriptions of El (1953) and the boot scene in Diary of a Chambermaid, 1964.)" Along with his co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (who co-wrote most of Buñuel's later films), Buñuel reportedly visited brothels in Madrid to soak up the atmosphere, and talked to many women about their sexual fantasies.
Deneuve was already attached to the project, and Buñuel had no say about her casting. She found him remote. "It wasn't a terribly positive experience. Buñuel had been surrounded by protective producers, and we didn't talk much," she recalled in a 2004 interview. The nudity was also a problem for her. She felt "very exposed in every sense of the word, and very exposed physically, which caused me distress; I felt they showed more of me than they'd said they were going to...I think it's a wonderful film, but...the producers isolated Buñuel, I couldn't really talk to him, or see the rushes. There were moments when I felt terribly used. I was very unhappy." For his part, Buñuel said Deneuve was so shy that the hairdresser had to bind her breasts so they would not show. But he did admit that she was a very good actress, and when investors insisted that he cast her in the title role in Tristana (1970), he agreed. Deneuve says the latter is a favorite among her films-even though making it was also difficult.
Looking back on working with Buñuel, Deneuve mused, "French is not his language, so on Belle de jour, I'm sure that it was much more of an effort for him to have to explain. I've always thought that he likes actors, up to a point. I think he likes very much the idea of the film, and to write it. But I had the impression that the film-making was not what he preferred to do. He had to go through actors, and he liked them if they were easy, simple, not too much fuss." Buñuel has a cameo appearance in Belle de jour, sitting at a table with one of the Hakim brothers, in the Bois de Boulogne fantasy sequence where Séverine is picked up by the Duke.
Belle de jour won the Golden Lion Award at the 1967 Venice Film Festival, and opened worldwide in the spring of 1968 to ecstatic reviews and great box office. Arthur Knight wrote in the Saturday Review, "It would be difficult to imagine any actress more entrancingly right in this pivotal role than Catherine Deneuve. With her blond, wide-eyed beauty and patrician elegance, she seems wholly credible, immune to the sordid life into which she plunges herself." New York Times critic Renata Adler called it "a really beautiful movie, and somehow, letting the color in-this is Buñuel's first color film-has changed the emotional quality of his obsessions in a completely unpredictable way." Audiences and critics speculated endlessly on the meaning of the fantasies, and of the film's ending. Belle de jour became Buñuel's (and Deneuve's) biggest commercial success, which the director attributed in his autobiography "more to the marvelous whores than to my direction." He also had one complaint: "Of all the senseless questions asked about the movie, one of the most frequent concerns the little box that an Oriental client brings to the brothel....I can't count the number of times that people (particularly women) asked me what was in the box, but since I myself have no idea, I usually reply, 'Whatever you want it to be.'"
by Margarita Landazuri