She Couldn't Say No

Who would argue against Luis Bu*uel's deserving a place in the filmmaking pantheon? Not only have many of his works become roundly considered classics, but the man produced great art for nearly half a century. Bunuel displayed a talent for using vivid imagery to jolt audiences from the first scene of his debut film, Un Chien Andalou (made in 1928 in collaboration with Salvador Dali). Bunuel himself wielded the straight razor in the film's notorious eye-slitting opening scene. Simultaneously condemned for its anarchic spirit and nonlinear storytelling technique and hailed as a masterpiece of cinematic surrealism, the film immediately established Bunuel as an artist to be reckoned with. His second picture, 1930's L'Age d'Or, created another stir by depicting Jesus Christ as an attendee at an orgy hosted by the Marquis de Sade. Shocking as those films were, the director didn't even hit his stride until his sixties. From 1961 through 1977 Bunuel, who was born at the turn of the century, completed a remarkable string of films, including Vridiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel (1962), Belle de Jour (1967), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and his final picture, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

Throughout his career, Bunuel integrated the dream world into his films, often employing hallucinatory tableaux to blur the line between dream and reality, in the process revealing to audiences the inner workings of his characters' minds. Religious hypocrisy and repression among the bourgeoisie were recurring targets for the director's wrath. So impressive was Bunuel's international stature and so widespread his acclaim that even iron-fisted Spanish dictator Francisco Franco exempted his work from censorship.

Belle de Jour, in which Catherine Deneuve plays a bored aristocratic Parisian housewife named Severine who leads a double life as a high-priced call girl, stunned viewers with its combination of formal elegance and perverse eroticism. While scenes depicting Severine's taste for degradation and humiliation at the hands of her customers have lost some of their power to raise eyebrows over the years (after all, nowadays you can walk into almost any mom-and-pop video store and rent videos showing John Wayne Bobbitt's reattached penis in action, or Anabelle Chong gang-banging over 200 guys in a single night), Bu*uel's case against the idle class remains every bit as valid today as it was in 1967. One need only observe the denizens of the VIP lounge of almost any trendy SoBe night spot for confirmation.

Viewing Belle de Jour in 1995 (the film never made it to video in the U.S., nor has it screened here for almost twenty years) is more than just the act of a dutiful cineaste paying homage to a master. True, in the post-Belle era, hundreds of movies and television programs have touched on the concept of a bored housewife with a jones for a little nasty side action. Nor has it remained unique to Bu*uel to trace adult perversity back to its roots in sexual abuse as a child. But even with Bunuel's example to guide them, few filmmakers have managed to combine those elements into a story of such distinction.

Bunuel's vision stands the test of time in large measure because of the cool, nonjudgmental eye with which he surveys his surroundings. Had he caved in to the temptation to preach or sensationalize, his film might have dated as badly as, say, The Valley of the Dolls, which was once scandalous but which now seems merely campy -- almost charming in a nostalgic way. (Of course, the latter film is also vacuous, an accusation never leveled at Bu*uel's work.)

And then there's Deneuve, who hauntingly embodied the ice princess archetype with her portrayal of the ambivalent Severine, and whose immutable beauty transcends the changing fashion trends of the 28 turbulent years since the film was shot. It may have taken a few years, but with the revival of this dark, psychosexual tour de force, the enigmatic French lovely once again reigns as the movie world's belle de jour.

 
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