In Luis Buuel's Belle de Jour, Catherine Deneuve plays Severine, a young Parisian housewife. Her husband is a rich, great-looking doctor (Jean Sorel) who adores her, and toward whom she is frigid. She drifts into an afternoon job as an upscale prostitute in a swanky brothel, where she finds fulfillment, but also, eventually, violent trouble. This once-controversial 1967 film has been out of circulation in this country for many years, and is now being rereleased under the imprimatur of Martin Scorsese. Belle de Jour is scheduled to play for a week in Phoenix at the Harkins Cine Capri. It's probably always worthwhile to check out the work of a great filmmaker, which Buuel certainly was, on a great screen, which the Cine Capri has. (Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch there, earlier this year, was an amazing moviegoing experience.) Yet, though Buuel's mastery is never in doubt, Belle de Jour does finally seem like a misfire for him, and for a very odd reason--Deneuve's impossible beauty. Throughout the film, Buuel shows the degradation fantasies that haunt Severine--being violated by coachmen under her husband's supervision, being tied up and pelted with mud and filth. The whole film seems intended as Buuel's little joke on Deneuve, but the joke's on him.
Deneuve's poise is unassailable; Buuel's attempts to strip away the frigidity that is part of her screen persona--the major part, perhaps--bounce off her as feebly as do her husband's bedroom advances. Deneuve is always touted as "the ice princess with hidden fires," but I've never sensed any fires. She's a decorator's idea of a movie goddess--utterly and relentlessly tasteful. Even abandoned to lust, she's tasteful.
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There is something distinctly surreal about this, so it's not hard to see how she would appeal to a filmmaker like Buuel. But surrealists love the fleshy messiness under the surface of formal perfection, and Buuel wasn't able to crack Deneuve's surface--how maddening her Teflon impenetrability must have been. After the screening of Belle de Jour I attended, a friend of mine said, "She's the only woman in the world who looks good in dung." It's true--other actresses (and actors) take on a perverse beauty when they're sullied, but Deneuve simply doesn't sully. She wears filth as well--and as carelessly--as she would an Yves St. Laurent ensemble.