Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)

What's it about? Severine (Catherine Deneuve) is a sexually frustrated young housewife with hidden masochistic desires who works occasionally as a prostitute in the afternoons, whilst her husband is at work. She is known to her clients as Belle de jour.

Is it any good? Opening with one of the most provocative scenes in cinema, this study of eroticism is a challenging and ambiguous film which lends itself to many interpretations. What scandalized audiences in the 1960s is that it is the secret sexual desires of a woman that are explored and depicted onscreen (the screen writer Jean-Claude Carrière insists all the fantasies depicted were those of real-life women he interviewed). Nowadays, women fall over themselves to share such things, from 'empowering' programmes on late-night TV to the pages of women's magazines (or so I'm told), but back in the day this was pretty controversial stuff, not least because of the sexual violence. However, unlike late-night TV and women's mags, Belle de Jour retains interest by not being explicit or gratuitous, but by leaving things mostly to the imagination. In one scene, a client opens a small, mysterious, buzzing box for Severine and urges her not to be afraid as she is simultaneously repelled and intrigued by the contents. "What was in the box?", pleaded audiences. "Whatever you want there to be", Buñuel would answer evasively, before running away cackling.  Cop-out, you might think, but it's the correct answer, for this is a film in which aims to stimulate the viewer's imagination, rather than other parts of the body. As Buñuel knew, showing too much would cheapen the topic and reduce it to mere titillation. This reservedness is reflected by Deneuve, who exudes a cool style and sexiness, but who portrays Severine as a blank figure who can be whatever you want her to be. So the whole thing becomes a classier approach to a subject which could easily have slipped into sordid territory and is therefore a disappointment for those looking for a quick flash of T & A. For anyone put off by Buñuel's reputation for surrealism, rest assured this is relatively straightforward in its matter-of-fact presentation. However, as the film blurs fantasy and reality, particularly in the ambiguous final scene, it forces the viewer to consider what parts of the film were real or imagined. The result is a film to be puzzled over, but not in an annoying way.

Anything else I should know? For those who have never heard of Buñuel, but recognise the name Belle de Jour, it's probably because you're thinking of the real-life Belle de Jour, a London call-girl who was inspired by the film to use the name as her nom de plume on her blog, which recounted her intimate adventures in prostitution, and which led to a best-selling book and TV series. When she revealed her identity in 2009 as Dr Brooke Magnanti, it turned out she had turned to prostitution for a couple of years to earn some money on the side whilst she completed her PhD, before going on to work as a biostatistician. She now works as a research associate in Bristol University, a position which doesn't pay as well as the wanton wheelbarrow one, but which is less hard on her back.

What does the Fonz think? I know what's in the box. I put it there.

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