FILM / Paying the price of pleasure

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LUIS BUNUEL began his film career (Un Chien Andalou, L'Age d'Or) as the equivalent of an anarchist with a bomb. But as time went on he seemed to realise that this approach was a bit of a pose. What he relished was not the destruction of bourgeois values but the making of hoax calls. In the long run, he was more of a tease than a revolutionary.

The targets of Bunuel's wit - middle-class normality, the Church - remain relatively constant as his tone mellows, but the status of desire is quietly revised downwards. In his first film, Eros and society are necessary enemies between whom no truce is possible. This view of the world was startling in the short term, but hardly sustainable in the long. You can't go on forever castigating one force (society) for being arbitrary, while celebrating another (desire) for being irrational. In Bunuel's later films, notably Belle de Jour (1967), now reissued in a new print, Eros has its own etiquette, and manufactures its own obstacles to fulfilment.

The film starts with an apparently 18th-century image, a landau complete with coachman and groom driving serenely along a path in a park, before the carriage is shown up, by the appearance of a car in the back of the shot, as a bit of heritage tat. Then the whole sequence is revealed as a dream in the mind of dissatisfied housewife Severine (Catherine Deneuve), but the 18th-century note is not accidental and recurs. Later on, when Severine is successfully launched on a career as a part- time prostitute, she is recruited to impersonate a Duke's daughter dead in her casket, in a scene in which the plastic mac that she takes off in the hall of the chateau is the only contemporary element.

The name Severine alludes to Sacher-Masoch, but the theorist of the flesh who lies behind much of Belle de Jour is clearly De Sade. It is De Sade, though, without the implacability. The adventure of Severine is ambiguous, neither quite a story of innocence destroyed, nor of vice rewarded. In the first half of the film, the figure of Husson (Michel Piccoli) acts as a plausible stand in for the libertine philosopher. Husson is a wealthy rake, a manipulator of women and connoisseur of perversion. It is he who tempts Severine into her secret life by whispering in her ear the address of Madame Anais' brothel, where she becomes in due course an esteemed employee, valued by the clientele for her mixture of chic and availability and by her co-workers for her dress sense and help with crosswords clues.

But if Husson is Mephistopheles, he seems to derive no benefit from the bargain he has driven. The scene where he visits the brothel as a customer, much to Severine's horror, should by rights be the culmination of the film, but is studiously anti-climactic. Far from coming to claim Severine's soul, or her body, he is humanly disappointed. He explains that what he found arousing about her was her purity, her being the wife, as he puts it, of a boy scout. He leaves a sheaf of money, not to pay her, but with instructions to buy chocolates for her husband.

A film in which the heroine spends considerable screen time being tied up or pelted with dirt, even if only in fantasy, is not a comfortable one to claim for feminism, but stronger arguments can be advanced for Belle de Jour than for, say, those films of Jean-Luc Godard which insistently use prostitution as a metaphor. By defining herself sexually, after all, Severine puts herself theoretically in Husson's power, but as it turns out she also makes herself invulnerable to him.

Madame Anais' brothel is not exactly a women's co-operative, but nevertheless makes no profit for men. It's actually cosier than Severine's marital flat with its incongruous suite of rooms - patrician sitting room, huge bathroom, modest bedroom (twin beds), funky study with gas effect fire. In a strange way, it is in the brothel that she is valued and at home that she is fetishised, by her blank, handsome husband Pierre (Jean Sorel).

Catherine Deneuve moves through the film in a succession of Yves St Laurent outfits, from apres ski to tennis whites. On her first furtive visit to Madame Anais' establishment she wears full Princess Grace drag in charcoal grey with a black pillbox hat and wraparound shades. By putting this icy blonde under pressure - though the darkness of her eyes calls into doubt the naturalness of her colouring - Bunuel seems to be getting at least some of the impure thrills that Alfred Hitchcock derived from similar pieces of casting.

It may be that one of the movies Bunuel was mocking in Belle de Jour is Hitchcock's Marnie, that other 1960s story of blonde sexuality and its discontents. At a couple of points in the film, Bunuel inserts a pseudo-explanatory flashback to Severine's early life, showing her as a girl being molested in a desultory way, or stubbornly refusing the Host at Communion. For Bunuel, though, psychology is only another tease. He deliberately makes it unclear whether Severine's sex-life with her husband, if any, improves as a result of her experiences at Madame Anais'. But then Pierre the long suffering doctor, whose desires are entirely monogamous, seems more of a fantasy figure than anyone at the brothel. It is odd that we should never see Pierre on his own, when we are introduced much more fully to Marcel, the gangster with whom Severine becomes obsessed.

Marcel gets her to undress, telling her that she is absolutely his type. Then, disaster, he sees that she has a birthmark on her hip, which utterly turns him off. This is a splendid moment, but the film reneges on it. Marcel and Severine become obsessively involved, in what may be a necessary capitulation to the structure of the book on which the film is based, but certainly makes for a disappointing last half-hour.

By and large, though, Bunuel's view of sex has survived well, genial without being over-indulgent, savouring above all its contradictions. The only time in the film that we see the sea, for instance, the supreme shorthand in the movies for sexual satisfaction, it is as the background for a marital quarrel and we can also see that the couple are standing not on an ordinary beach but on a spit of sand surrounded by water. The sea doesn't look any too welcoming, and the pair of them, quite understandably, stay well wrapped up.

(Photograph omitted)