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Review: ‘Belle de Jour’ is a sexy but sad drama

Catherine Deneuve in a scene from the movie “Belle du Jour.” Credit: RAYMOND VOINQUEL/ Janus Films
Catherine Deneuve in the movie 1967 film “Belle de Jour.”
(Raymond Voinquel / Janus Films)

A new restoration of the 1967 film “Belle de Jour” opens Friday. Below is The Times’ original review from Dec. 19, 1968.

It is one of life’s surprising ironies that the great Spanish director Luis Buñuel, having turned out a succession of masterpieces with no particular box office movie, should now be enjoying the first big commercial success of his career with a movie which is less than a masterpiece, but sexy. And in color.

“Belle de Jour” is a study in female sexuality, and the difficulties thereof. (Alongside Romain Gary’s similar study, “Birds in Peru” which we may or may not get to see sometime in the new year [1969], “Belle de Jour” is a masterpiece, but all things are relative.) The exquisitely beautiful Catherine Deneuve is a new wife, married to a devoted but job-preoccupied doctor, Jean Sorel. There is connubiality but precious little bliss. The movie begins with a long fantasy sequence in which she imagines her husband driving her to the country in a horse and carriage, then watching as she is stripped, lashed and submitted to the reechy kisses of an unshaven and brutish coachman. The fantasy pleases her a good deal and seems to help expiate her feelings of guilt toward her husband.

At last, in no fantasy, she moves in as the deux a cinq lady of the afternoon at a brothel run by Genevieve Page. The indignities to which she is treated (and a couple of them are sketched with acerbic humor by Buñuel) seem, like the fantasies, to ease her guilt toward her husband and to remove, as if by confirming it, her feelings of remorse and self-loathing.

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Then one of her customers — a vicious and ugly young hood, marvelously played by Pierre Clementi — falls for her and pursues her into her private life with devastating consequences. The opening fantasy recurs, but this time the carriage rattles into the woods empty. Guilt is total, but so, Buñuel asks us to believe, is her happiness.

It all sounds at least as sex-drenched as anything since Sadie Thompson vamped the parson in “Rain,” but now with color, candor and some new kinks added. But curiously, even though Buñuel runs through a condensed version of Kraft-Ebbing, he remains considerably too cerebral a film-maker to give us an unrestrained exercise in sensuality.

The strangest habit on view is Buñuel’s: of letting each scene run on several long seconds after it is demonstrably over and done with. In an extremely subtle way, this may suggest a kind of lassitude and saiety which may well have been his intention; in all events, it is pronounced. and finally exasperating.

“Belle de Jour” is, like much of Buñuel’s work, almost icily cold and impersonal but at the same time an oblique and paradoxical testament to love. It is clear that Miss Deneuve loves her husband, even if she cannot adequately fulfill or express it. And she is seen to be a figure of some pathos, although a rather distant figure.

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The root of the dissatisfaction with “Belle de Jour,” I think, is that for once Buñuel’s approach — cerebral, detached, cryptic and symbolic is less than perfectly appropriate for getting to the heart of what is a drama of the heart, or a tracking of the devil in the flesh.

At that, “Belle de Jour” is more interesting and provocative than the great run of pictures one ever sees. Buñuel’s handling of color is gorgeous. And the acting is impeccable. Miss Deneuve has a rare, cool elegance which suggests far more fire than it reveals. Genevieve Page is tough but touching as the madam whose heart belongs not to the daddies but to the girls.

Pervading the film, usefully enough, are not the enticements of sensuality but the sadnesses of a society in which love and sensuality are seen too seldom as a unity and too frequently as a mutually destructive tangle.

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‘Belle de Jour’

In French with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: Landmark Nuart, West L.A. Read the full review online at latimes.com/entertainment/movies/reviews.

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