It has a scene that people always remember: A burly, well- dressed Asian man visits an upscale bordello and opens a small lacquered box with something -- a fly? a beetle? some sort of electronic gizmo? -- buzzing inside.
Two of the women are frightened off, but Catherine Deneuve’s Severine, who goes by the name Belle de Jour, is intrigued. After the client and his box have departed the bedroom, Severine sprawls across the coverlets in a messy state of post-orgasmic bliss.
Generations of audiences have obsessed over the contents of that box. In interviews, the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere has usually taken the “it’s-whatever-you-want-it-to-be” approach.
Bunuel was cagier.
“I know the little box is upsetting, especially because of the buzzing noise it makes,” he said in an interview from the 1970s reprinted in the booklet accompanying the Criterion DVD reissue of “Belle de Jour.”
“I myself don’t know what is in the little box,” he added. “It must be something extraordinary, something used for an unheard-of perversion. It produced more curiosity than I expected. It’s not a bad little depravity.”
Depravity was Bunuel’s stock in trade. Collaborating with Salvador Dali on the scandalous 1929 “Un Chien Andalou,” he showed a close-up of a woman’s eye (actually a calf’s eye, Bunuel later said, though the audience doesn’t know it) being sliced in two by a razor. It remains one of the ghastliest of all movie images.
By the time he made “Belle de Jour,” Bunuel, at 67, had become the grand old man -- or grand dirty old man -- of international cinema. A Spaniard who worked primarily in Mexico and France, he was especially fond of scandalizing the Catholic Church.
He somehow managed to make “Viridiana” (1961), which features a sequence blaspheming the Last Supper, during the Franco regime. Upon its release it was immediately banned. Bunuel was fond of saying “Thank God I’m still an atheist.”
Deneuve was just 24 when she made “Belle de Jour,” having made her name four years earlier in Jacques Demy’s meltingly gorgeous musical “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” With her rich mane of (dyed) blonde hair, alabaster skin and crystalline beauty, Deneuve was practically an objet d’art.
Severine is a haut-bourgeois Parisian housewife whose daydreams of erotic masochism spill into her real life -- except it’s never clear in “Belle de Jour” where reality ends and fantasy begins. For Bunuel, Deneuve was the bright butterfly caught in his surrealist web.
Roman Polanski had already paved the way for Bunuel by starring Deneuve as a sexually repressed psycho in “Repulsion” (1965). For connoisseurs of the depraved like Polanski and Bunuel, Deneuve’s hyperprettiness and hauteur were catnip.
Although she publicly complained about her rocky experience working with Bunuel on “Belle de Jour,” Deneuve teamed with him again three years later on “Tristana,” another high point in both of their careers. Virginal, preyed-upon, her character ends up losing her leg along with her virginity.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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