CINEMA / Brilliant Bunuel and the boudoir Bovary

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The Independent Culture
IT IS 25 years since Belle de Jour first appeared, and time has done little to defrost its chill. Nothing about it looks dated, apart from a dull thug who looks like Terence Stamp, and the clothes, which are a joke and a joy. Catherine Deneuve is dressed throughout by Yves St Laurent, who appears to believe that smart Parisian ladies should be prepared at all times for desert warfare. But Luis Bunuel's film is more about the timeless, unquenchable desire to take clothes off; as they fall away, so do the years.

There is a plot, in many ways a strict one, but Bunuel keeps fiddling with the rules you would expect it to obey. Deneuve plays Severine, a wealthy wife with a Paris flat and a husband who looks like Robert Wagner. Given that he also has as much personality as Robert Wagner, the surprise is not that she should seek adventure elsewhere, but that she didn't go looking for it long ago. Anyway, she is given the address of a good brothel, and soon finds herself in part-time employment. Between two and five every afternoon, she gets ravished by a selection of beery industrialists and Sumo hopefuls, then clips her clothes back on and returns to normality.

This being Bunuel, however, nothing is normal - or rather everything conforms to a new average, a higher standard of weirdness. Domestic life glistens with particular perversity; a woman can drop a vase of flowers, or a phial of perfume, and barely flinch at the smash. There is no disorder in the wet shards, which can lie there as rather outre decoration until swept up by the maid. Yet more glass is broken, as Severine's friend Husson - dapper and cynical, and therefore played by Michel Piccoli - knocks a bottle in half and, thus armed, invites her to vanish under the table with him.

Is this really social satire? If they were just mocking, would the images hang around to haunt you? Bunuel's reputation - as the chastiser of polite society - is too fixed for his own good, almost a bourgeois institution in itself, and needs a hefty shove. He lived off his wits and his eyes, not the shaking of his fists. The sly surrealist in him never took a back seat, but was always there grinning in the front row. Think of the mystery box in Belle de Jour, held open by a vast gabbling client for all the whores to see. We never get a look inside, or discover the source of its hideous buzz, but one thing is for sure: it belongs less to Pandora than to Bunuel himself. He is a collector of rare unnerving fancies, and that box is his miniature museum. It dates back to the 1920s, the seething insects and endangered flesh of Un Chien Andalou.

Deneuve is the still hub around which this strangeness turns. As the one-legged ice-queen of Tristana, made three years later, she repelled all boarders from the male libido; in Belle de Jour they are welcomed with open arms, and yet if anything she seems more in control. After one session, the brothel maid comes in and potters round the bed, clucking with concern; but when Deneuve lifts her face from the sheets, we see the shocking, liquid smile of erotic triumph. She cannot be embarrassed by riches. As the film moves on, what happens to Severine, and what she would like to happen, melt into each other: pure orgasm, or the terrifying luck of the loveless?

Deneuve is the last word in sophistication, which gives her first choice from the array of lusts that will crack it apart. She is crucial to Bunuel's work, exciting his fascination far more than his disapproval, a mannequin who will suddenly stir with feeling beneath his camera's gaze. Watch the heavenly tracking shot, head and shoulders only, following her down the street; or her unblinking reverie in the back of a cab. Bunuel wants her, dead or alive. People think of Deneuve as cinema's answer to bone china, and indeed the romantic efforts of Truffaut, say, left her looking stiff and staid. But she made the brilliant Bunuel think again, and gave his heart a jump.

It must be said, many will still find this insolent, if not downright menacing: a man's fantasy about a woman's fantasy about men and their maniere forte, their rough stuff. Someone described Bunuel to me as 'a complete wanker', which is understandable, but unfair. A complete wanker would leave nothing to the imagination, whereas Bunuel bequeaths it everything he owns. The ageing Duke who puts her in a long black veil and nothing else, then slips shaking out of her sight, is a model of the movie's discretion. The camera never ogles: the kinkiest shot of all simply follows her patent shoes up a flight of stairs. If Severine is a boudoir Bovary, then Bunuel cleaves to the hard Flaubertian line: her dreams deserve the same merciless inspection as the life which they try to flee. Belle de Jour is an adult movie all right, which is bad news for teenage viewers: a work too honest to be sexy.

Anyone looking for a harsh new honesty in American cinema may have problems with My Cousin Vinny. The director is Jonathan Lynn, who said he wanted to avoid cultural stereotyping, so why the squat Italian in black leather laying into the hay-brained Southern redneck? The gags have to be bright and blaring to rise above this, but a few fight their way through, not least during a great exchange on the unlikely subject of prison rape. The plot tells of two young New Yorkers who get into trouble driving through Alabama, and find themselves on a murder rap. All of this is squeezed into the first quarter of an hour, and then Joe Pesci turns up. The director greets him with indulgent joy and gives him the run of the film.

After Raging Bull and GoodFellas, this is Pesci's first outing as a leading man, which suits his character just fine. Vinny is a Brooklyn lawyer, fresh out of law school on the sixth attempt, and a virgin of the courtroom. But just how virgin can you be? It's one thing to have him dress like a gangster and trip up on the local laws, but this guy doesn't even know what to say when asked how his clients plead. That suggests a black-out of common sense, yet the script also parades him as a canny tactician. Not surprisingly, Pesci looks uncertain where Vinny's limits lie, and settles for those corny spasms of exasperation that saw him through the robber's role in Home Alone.

Endearing enough, and the patent Pesci vowels still sound like a car alarm, but it's not enough to command the film. Ironically, he gets outflanked by his own supporting players. Fred Gwynne was oak-sized in the days of The Munsters; now he's gone grey and put on another three feet or so, with the kind of long jaw you find buried in rock strata. In short, the perfect judge. Then there's Marisa Tomei - Vinny's wide-eyed fiancee, and by far the best reason to see this movie. Her lines aren't that funny, but she's enough of a gas to make you laugh anyway. She goes through a wild change of clothes for every scene, as if to flatter plain old Alabama that it's constantly changing, and that she ought to be dressed for the occasion. Hence the floral catsuit in which she purrs through the boggy backwoods. My Cousin Vinny slumps badly as the courtroom scenes drag on; but when Tomei is on screen, even the jury wakes up.

'Belle de Jour' (18): MGM Swiss Centre (439 4470); 'My Cousin Vinny' (15): Odeon West End (930 7615), Marble Arch (723 2011) & Kensington (371 3166), MGM Chelsea (352 5096) & Tottenham Ct Rd (636 6148), Camden Parkway (267 7034), Whiteleys (792 3303). All numbers are 071.

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