Flashback Fridays: Luis Bunuel's "Belle de Jour"

The cinema of Luis Bunuel is like a journey through the dreamscapes of our most powerful emotions and hidden desires. As audiences flock to see the shallow, supposedly kinky antics of "Fifty Shades Of Grey," here is Bunuel's surrealistic "Belle de Jour," a film from 1967 that does a better job at capturing the erotic mindset. The film stars iconic French actress Catherine Deneuve as Severine, an upper class Parisian housewife bored with her handsome, yet bland husband (Jean Sorel). Severine loses herself in nightmares and daydreams involving humiliation and sadomasochistic moments. After hearing from a friend about a local brothel in Paris, she decides to secretly work there during the day. Her experiences with different clients and habits unchain her deepest curiosities, but not without high cost.

Bunuel's film has been cited by critics such as Roger Ebert as one of the greatest erotic films ever made. The film established Deneuve as a major international star, even more than her work with Roman Polanski in "Repulsion." And yet the film contains not a single graphic sex scene; the nudity is sparse and things are hinted at instead of shown. In one famous scene an Asian client brings a small box to the brothel where Severine is secretly working. When he opens the box in front of another prostitute a small buzzing noise emits, she turns away, disgusted. When he's alone with Severine and opens the box, she only smiles and says "ok" to the client. What was in the box? What kind of sexual instrument might it be? Not even Bunuel claimed to know. In his entire massive body of work, Bunuel always focused on how the imagination fuels desire, suspicion, violence, obsession and all the other details, traits and behaviors that make us human.

In "Belle de Jour" Severine isn't engaging in her actions out of spite for her husband, but instead she is pursuing her fantasies towards some kind of real life personification. For Bunuel what's fascinating isn't the sex, but what drives Severine to even ponder going to the brothel. What drives us to make most of our crazy decisions in life? Most of the time it's simple curiosity spurned by what we imagine.

"Belle de Jour" has a sense of eroticism driven by the surreal power of dreaming and imagining. Severine seems to be a masochist, but it is a masochism fueled by what's being formed in her head. In the opening scenes of the movie she rides in a carriage with her husband, and suddenly the carriage stops and the husband orders the carriage drivers to drag Severine into the woods, tie her hands and "have her." In another dream sequence, after Severine has secretly become a prostitute, she dreams of having mud thrown at her by her angry husband.

Bunuel, a veteran of the Surrealist movement of the 1920s and a man radicalized by the Spanish Civil War, was always a darkly funny critic of the upper classes. In "Belle de Jour" the characters live within a sterile, formal existence from which Severine escapes through her adventures at the brothel. If her husband is a (nice) bore, then the brothel offers her a chance to pursue her fetishistic fantasies while traveling through an underworld that feels so distant from her comfortable lifestyle. The wealthy in Bunuel's world can be brought down to taboo social levels because of their own, farcical selves. In one scene Severine is hired by a wealthy man to visit his castle and pretend to be his dead wife, laying in a coffin as he recites a heartbroken monologue.

The Spaniard Bunuel, one of the great 20th century directors, first gained prominence as a Surrealist in 1929 with the short film "Un Chien Andalou." Written with his then-friend Salvador Dali, the film opened with an immortal shot in cinema history: A hand slices open a woman's eyeball with a razor blade. His following film, "L'Age d'Or," released in 1930 caused such a stir among right-wing groups in France due to its depictions of lust and anti-clericalism that it was banned for 40 years. When the Spanish Civil War broke out and the Spanish Republic was overthrown by Francisco Franco's fascist forces, Bunuel was forced into exile in Mexico. There he directed a curious, but always engaging set of movies ranging from melodramas to masterpieces like "Los Olvidados" and "The Exterminating Angel."

In his late 60s Bunuel became a top world director when he was able to return to France and make a series of astonishing, dreamlike set of satires, dramas and dreamscapes such as the Oscar-winning "The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie," "The Phantom Of Liberty" and "That Obscure Object Of Desire." Yet none of them made as much money as "Belle de Jour." A radical and cheerful cynic until his death, Bunuel knew how to probe into our thought processes and take shots at our social norms.

It is hard to say what Bunuel would comment on "Fifty Shades Of Grey," but it is more than likely he would have found the material vapid and telling of our materialist times. While a film like "Belle de Jour" is about the psychology of sex, "Fifty Shades" takes the idea of S&M and turns it into a cheap gimmick. In Severine, the lead character is a complex woman attracted by sexual secrecy and lives within her daydreams; in "Fifty Shades" the female lead is nothing but a prop who is turned into the contract (literally) property of a creepy guy in a suit. And it is telling that "Belle de Jour" pokes fun at the upper classes, while "Fifty Shades" glorifies the concept of capitalist ownership over another's body; it paints a fairy tale where the cold, focused CEO is an angel deep inside, just let him spank you for a while.

There is a great scene in "Belle de Jour" where the brothel's head mistress invites Severine to look through a peep hole into a room where one client, a rich, scrawny doctor, dresses as a servant and pays to be abused, heckled and bossed around by a prostitute pretending to be his employer. In 2015, the rich doctor would be a hunk who offers Severine paradise if she becomes his property.

In these hypersexualized times, the idea of the body and sexuality have quickly been turned into commodities. Films like "Belle de Jour" remind us that eroticism can be explored through the understanding of how we think, because how we think can determine who we are. It is a film that wonders what your friend was thinking during that conversation where their eyes wandered away to stare at the attractive person walking by.