Belle de Jour – Catherine Deneuve still shines in a confounding cult classic

Is Luis Buñuel’s surreal 1967 film about a Paris prostitute a pioneering feminist statement or hoary sexist nonsense? Edward Lawrenson still can't decide

At one point in Luis Buñuel’s 1967 film Belle de Jour (spruced up with a new print, now on rerelease) its title character is shown the contents of a small, intricately decorated box by a portly gentleman with a severe crew cut. Belle de Jour is the name that the respectable bourgeois young woman Séverine (played by Catherine Deneuve) has adopted for her day job (one she keeps secret from her husband and the rest of her elevated society): as a prostitute in a high-class brothel in a Paris side street.

The owner of the box is a client, and he lifts its lid to disclose its secrets before commencing business. Throughout the film Deneuve mostly carries an expression of glassy, impenetrable poise, but staring inside that box – its interior remains hidden to us – she loses her cool. A wave of both fascination and horror grips her. What’s inside the box? Asked that question, Buñuel would say to inquisitive viewers: “Whatever you want to be.”

As befits one of the pioneering figures of surrealism, Buñuel wasn’t the kind to explain his art, and his movies are mysterious things that provoke and unsettle and recoil, like crabs into shadowy places under a rock, from the prodding scrutiny of critics.

She enjoys a rich, erotically complicated life, an elaborate concoction of fetishism, S&M and burly coach men

Some things are clear enough. Séverine is married to Pierre (Jean Sorel), a young doctor whose dashing yet conventional good looks seem plucked from a catalogue. It’s a year into a happy marriage, but their bliss is clouded by Séverine’s reluctance to have sex: the two share a room but sleep in separate single beds (like a couple in a 1970s sitcom), and she flinches at his
attempts at intimacy.

But she also enjoys a rich, erotically complicated life, an elaborate concoction of fetishism, S&M and burly coach men (conveyed in the opening scene as she imagines Pierre terminating a romantic horse-drawn ride to ‘punish’ her for her coldness). That hidden side to the ostensibly reserved Séverine is fully expressed when she embarks on her double-life as a prostitute. Run by Madam Anaïs (Geneviève Page), the brothel answers a need in Séverine that’s boldly left open to interpretation.

There is no doubt that Séverine finds sexual pleasure in these liaisons, emerging from rumpled bed-sheets after the visit of the client with the box is an icon of 1960s cinema. But to claim this film as in any way a celebration or open exploration of female desire, so under-represented in cinema at the time, would be to overstate things. Séverine’s ‘liberation’ is achieved only through situations in which her body is debased, trussed up for abuse and sold to men. Whose fantasies are these? Séverine’s herself, or Buñuel, orchestrating events from behind the camera?

The slippery, confounding nature of Belle de Jour is what gives the film its power. The movie’s veneer of cut-glass realism and elegant restraint hides a wild, libidinous dream-logic geared to provoke. One moment it’s tempting to claim feminist credentials for this unblinking, playful portrayal of a young woman’s erotic interior life. The next moment this soft-pedalled vision of a prostitute obsessed with her clients plays like hoary sexist nonsense.

The fact Belle de Jour resists such settled interpretation is one reason to see it, but to be honest Buñuel has made far better films: The Exterminating Angel, for example, is not just his masterpiece but one of the greatest of all movies. Another reason is Deneuve. She’s magnificent, with a performance that hints at roiling depths beneath her china-doll inscrutability. It’s as much her film as it is Buñuel’s.

Belle de Jour is in cinemas from September 8