A coach drives down a long country lane. It's an autumn afternoon in the pale sunshine. In the back of the carriage is Severine (Catherine Deneuve), a beautiful, blonde-haired woman, and her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel). They have a disagreement and he orders her to get out of the carriage. When she resists, he instructs the two carriage drivers to drag her out. They gag her, tie her to a tree and whip her. Then, as one of the coachmen begins to kiss her back, the film cuts to Severine and Pierre's bedroom. We suddenly realise that what we have been watching is Severine's fantasy.
The opening sequence of Belle de Jour is startling because it is so deadpan. Severine's masochistic dream is presented without any hint that it is a fantasy. It is shot in precisely the same way as the rest of the film in which Deneuve's upper middle-class wife finds a novel way of spending her afternoons working as a prostitute.
Bunuel considered the Joseph Kessel novel on which the movie was based as "cheap fiction" but was intrigued by the plot. He also saw an opportunity to poke fun at psychoanalytic theories about women's sexuality.
The financiers regarded the movie as a high-class exploitation picture that would titillate audiences. Bunuel's intentions were far more subversive. As his screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrire later testified, "we realised we could insert a phantasmagorical or fantastic dimension that we can't find at all in the novel and it was this dimension that interested us the most, especially Bunuel."
Film has often been about men's fantasies. The woman is the object of the (male) gaze. Academics have written scholarly articles about the voyeurism, morbidity and sadism that often goes hand in hand with making and watching movies. However, in Belle de Jour, the story was being told from Deneuve's point of view. Her erotic fantasies were what drove the narrative.
"We met many psychiatrists and psychoanalysts and a lot of prostitutes in Madrid and in Paris," Carrire recalled of the exhaustive research he and Bunuel undertook before shooting began. All the fantasies shown in the film, Carrire insisted, were based on the experiences of real women and based on their first-hand testimony.
Forty years before, Bunuel and Salvador Dali had scandalised Paris with their surrealist classics, Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or. Black and white and full of surreal imagery, these were films self-consciously in the surrealist tradition. What makes Belle de Jour even more startling is that it is made as if it were rooted in everyday reality. Deneuve young, beautiful and with an icy reserve verging on impassivity was perfectly cast. Audiences who expected Belle de Jour to be a tasteful literary adaptation were all jolted out of their complacency by that very first scene of Deneuve being whipped and ravished in the woods.
Meanwhile, the influence of Belle de Jour was quickly felt on the fashion world. This was the first time that Deneuve had been dressed by Yves Saint Laurent. She was to become his muse. As The New York Times wrote, this wasn't just one of the most scandalous erotic films of its era. It also gave a "double life to luxury clothes so powerful that designers have been fantasising about it ever since".