Before it was announced last year, Belle de jour was often tossed around liberally in conversations about the most surprising omissions in the Criterion Collection (ignoring the cold hard facts of rights). This is both because the film is an acknowledged classic and because it's arguably Buñuel's best-known film from a decade where every other film he produced is in the Collection (this pattern, by the way, is similar to that of another Criterion fave, Bergman, who's most famous 60s film, Persona, is also non grata (puns!) to the Collection). That Criterion finally got the rights to the film, then, was something of a big deal among the so-and-sos that follow this sort of thing.
But even without the historical significance of the film and its importance in Buñuel's catalog, it was also a real coup for Criterion on a purely cinematic level. The politics of sexuality aside, Belle de jour is one of Buñuel's most entertaining films. Similar to his next smashing success, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Belle de jour takes a sly whip to the sexuality of the contemporary French leisure set and - though the film is largely presented as a drama - delivers a slanted comedic tone that is uniquely Buñuel.
Then there's Catherine Deneuve, one of the great French stars of all time, looking completely gorgeous and serving as the film's burning sun, taking up everyone's attention both in the film and in the audience. Séverine allows her to combine a porcelain veneer with a twisted undercurrent that underscores the star's status as a modern icon. It's probably the first film people think of when they think of Deneuve, no small feat considering her catalog over fifty years.
Then there is that pesky matter of sexual politics, and that's where the film trips up a bit for me. Buñuel has always had an obsession with Catholicism and its discontents, and here he seems to be merging his uniquely Catholic sexual hang ups with a cold - and often backwards - depiction of female sexuality masquerading as subversive content. Séverine lusts after men, but feels unable to express her true sexual feelings towards her husband, whom she insists she loves but acknowledges she is cold towards. Becoming a prostitute helps her "understand" him - presumably because she can understand male sexuality better - but it excites her own sexuality even more. She is both terrified and intrigued by the male presence - her two flashbacks to childhood consist of a vaguely pedophilic encounter with an older man and her own rejection of the Eucharist. Is the assumption to be made that Deneuve's sexuality was formed by a perversion of man and a rejection of God, or does the director have more surreal reasons for these moments? Similarly, Séverine seems to be a representation of the conflict between innocence and confidence in sexual appeal while simultaneously serving as the suffering Jesus figure in Buñuel's sexual New Testament, setting herself spiritually free and then sacrificing for her sins (of course, like the end of The Last Temptation of Christ, it could all prove to have been just a dream). Either way, Buñuel's main thesis seems to be that underneath every bourgeois housewife there's a saucy little minx, which in 2012 comes off more like a tired yearning of a dirty old man than a sly takedown of European piety.
I couldn't help being reminded throughout Belle de jour that this was a movie about a woman directed by a man. The fact that we never explicitly learn why Séverine wants to be a prostitute was a deliberate choice by Buñuel, but the absence of this motivation makes her character seem that much more like a fantasy devised by a man on the outside looking in. The original novel upon which the film is based (written in the 1920s by a man) was much more straightforward and clearly gave Séverine her motivation by having her molested as a child (it also makes the masochism of her fantasies more explicit). Buñuel certainly made the right decision by keeping this out of the film, but its absence leaves the viewer with little to grab onto with regards to Séverine's inner-life. It leaves us with a complex character that nevertheless feels just as surreal as anything Buñuel has made. The film ends up saying a lot more about its creator than about its protagonist.