French cinema from the 1960’s and 1970’s has a reputation for being erotic and boundary-pushing in terms of its sexuality. When the next film for this list was 1967’s Belle de Jour, a film about a Parisian housewife who won’t have sex with her husband but becomes a prostitute to satisfy her sexual desires, I was mentally preparing myself for my introduction to that type of cinema. Needless to say, this was not the film I thought it was going to be. Instead of a boundary-pushing look at modern sexuality, I got a terribly, terribly slow and fairly prudish film that was saved from utter mediocrity by some creative story-telling touches and the exceptional beauty of its star Catherine Deneuve.
As stated, the film follows the story of Severine (Catherine Deneuve), who is unwilling to sleep in the same bed as her husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel), let alone have sexual relations with him. Yet, at the same time, she regularly indulges in sexual fantasies that always seem to involve her being debased and humiliated in some major and traumatic way. One day, she hears about a friend of hers who has become a prostitute, despite being fairly well off. When she finds out the location of a local bordello, she arrives and offers her services as a prostitute. Because she is so beautiful (and Catherine Deneuve may be one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen) and so classy, she becomes an instant hit with the clientele of the bordello. Things become complicated however, when one of her customers falls in love with her and wants her to be his sole possession.
The story of the film sounds really interesting and like it could go to some really interesting places, and in the hand of a better director and writer (like say David Lynch or Charlie Kaufmann or someone else really capable of handling the blurring of reality and fantasy), it probably would have. Unfortunately, director Luis Bunuel doesn’t inject any life into this movie. It’s slow and tepid from start to finish, and even with its richly ironic ending, nothing in the film ever moved my mind or my heart. All it has going for it really is the clever way that the script constantly makes you question whether what is happening is real or one of Severine’s fantasies. Catherine Deneuve probably isn’t that great of an actress either, but like I said, she’s unbelievably beautiful, in the classic and elegant sense of the word.
Final Score: B-