The early '90s saw the successful revival, on the art house circuit, of certain films that marked the '60s, including Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960) and Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de souffle (1960).
Almost outstripping the historic significance of these films and their directors is the new-found cult value of the hip and cool styles of the '60s they happen to capture so well, in their details of speech, gesture, dress and attitude.
Luis Buñuel's remarkable Belle de jour is an inspired revival choice. Buñuel unfussily described it as pornographic, but added that it explored "chaste eroticism". Indeed, it is probably the last great sex film made before the tidal wave of the Sexual Revolution filled screens with nudity, swearing and graphic depictions of lovemaking in the '70s.
Belle de jour is a sublimely fetishistic film. Buñuel cares not for Catherine Deneuve's nakedness, but for the clothes and veils that cover it, and for her extraordinarily polished and glazed feminine surface.
Although the film revolves around the goings-on at a high-class brothel, sex is never shown. Taking place behind closed doors, within secret nooks, and even in one hilarious scene under a coffin, the sexual perversions hinted at defy the wildest imagination.
Deneuve plays a bourgeois wife who is frigid (perhaps even virginal) with her husband (Jean Sorel). She eventually assumes a double life on weekday afternoons as a prostitute. Here she feels safe, it seems, to explore her prodigious, masochistic sexual fantasies.
However, the neatness of her system is overturned when a flamboyantly seedy gangster (Pierre Clémenti) both wins her heart and intrudes into her respectable life.
Summarised like this, Belle de jour may seem a schematic, preposterous male fantasy. In fact, it is one of the most mysterious, poetic, complex and beguiling films ever made. No character's psychology is ever rendered simply or clearly. Nor is the nature of the everyday world they inhabit.
Quietly but surely, Buñuel leads us into a strange territory poised perfectly between dream and reality. Hallucinatory effects that are both funny and disturbing fill the film – such as different characters referring ominously to "letting in the cats" whom we hear but never see.
Well before the extraordinary final scene, viewers who are open to this seductive, dream-like texture will no longer expect to know what is "really happening" – a sweet liberation indeed.
© Adrian Martin April 1991