Cutting like acid through the turgid high-fat Christmas fare comes BELLE DE JOUR, the French surrealist movie that for me is the high water-mark of Luis Buñuel's career. Based on an equally bonkers novel by Joseph Kessel, BELLE DE JOUR is enigmatic, erotic, blackly funny, beautiful, disturbing, enchanting - so many things all of which stand up to the rigours of time and proclaim this a work of genius.
The movie focuses on an astoundingly beautiful but frigid young Parisienne called Severine Serizy. She is played by Catherine Deneuve at the height of her beauty and dressed with the precision of Hitchcock in Yves Saint Laurent. You could write a PhD on her proper little pillar box shoes and the fact that Buñuel so often leads into a shot from a close-up of them. Severine is married to a dashing young doctor called Pierre who loves her intensely but has to be content with twin beds. The couple also have a sinister and sleazy best friend called Henri, who will become the key driver of one of the most bizarre and cruelly funny movie endings in history.
Severine's name echoes the hero of Sacher-Masoch's novel and hints at her suppressed masochistic urges. Throughout the film these manifest themselves as highly erotic, violent dreams involving rape by servants and pseudo-necrophilia and incest. The fantasies also become harder and harder for the viewer to distinguish from reality. Severine soon becomes a high-class prositute by day (hence her professional name) in order to fulfil her sexual needs - submitting to requests other prostitutes refuse and finding pleasure in them. She even falls in a sort of love with a filthy hood who has false teeth and holes in his socks!
BELLE DE JOUR is visually stunning - evoking surreal fantasy worlds that befuddle the viewer but pique our interest exactly because of their ambiguity. It is brilliantly dark, often very funny, and undeniably the work of an auteur at the top of his craft. For those of us raised on a diet of video or DVD releases, we now have a rare chance to see the movie on the big screen - a chance not to be missed.
BELLE DE JOUR was first released in 1967 where it won the Golden Lion and Pasinetti Awards at Venice. It is available on DVD and is on limited cinematic re-release in the UK.