Movie & a Martini Joe Meyers ‘Belle de Jour’ still puzzling at 50

July 16, 2018 GMT

We are in the middle of a wave of 50th anniversary movie celebrations that demonstrate how pivotal 1968 was for filmmakers.

A new 70mm print of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is already playing in theaters around the country; a digital restoration of “Yellow Submarine” was shown in many art houses earlier this month; and it seems likely that the fall 1968 openings of “Funny Girl” and “The Lion in Winter” will be celebrated with theatrical screenings later this year.

The year 1968 was also the year Westport’s own Paul Newman made his movie directing debut with “Rachel, Rachel,” shot entirely in the Danbury/Bethel area. Other well-remembered films from that year include “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Odd Couple,” “The Thomas Crown Affair” (the one with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway) and “The Producers.”

The talk of U.S. art houses in 1968 was the Luis Bunuel film “Belle de Jour” starring Catherine Deneuve. Audiences were puzzled by the mix of reality and fantasy, but titillated by the story of a young, well-to-do woman who decides to work during weekday afternoons at a Paris brothel.

The woman seems to believe that her experiences as a prostitute might improve her sex life with her husband (which is nonexistent at the start of the film).

The Hearst Movie and a Martini group gathered for a special 50th anniversary screening of the Bunuel film at the Avon Theatre in Stamford. The event was part of the monthly French Cinematheque series sponsored by the Alliance Francaise of Greenwich.

Our audience was just as puzzled by a lot of “Belle de Jour” as moviegoers were 50 years ago. My memory of the film had grown dim, but when an Asian customer produced a small box that emitted strange sounds I suddenly remembered having a long discussion with college friends about what might be in that box. (That year was a time when college students often preferred challenging foreign films over Hollywood fare — there were two art houses in State College, Pa., that were packed on weekends).

The audience of 50 or so people at the Avon asked me what I thought was in the box and I replied with the same answer I came up with in 1968 — “I have no idea.”

Bunuel always liked to tease audiences, but he did it with such great visual style that audiences were more tickled than annoyed. “Belle de Jour” drops us into the fantasies and dreams of the Catherine Deneueve character with no warning and no old-fashioned Hollywood indications that we have left the real world behind.

More than one member of the Stamford audience noted that the movie hasn’t dated visually because of the way Deneuve was dressed by Yves-Saint Laurent. She looks so elegant, and timelessly beautiful, that the movie doesn’t feel like a relic from a half-century ago. Like Audrey Hepburn in another 1960s classic, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Deneuve would still look chic if she walked around Paris in her “Belle de Jour” wardrobe in 2018.

Our Hearst group also agreed that the suggestions of sexual behavior in the movie were more erotic and disturbing than some of the blatant bedroom sequences in contemporary films and TV shows. The Bunuel film opened a few weeks before the creation of the movie rating system. The two suggested-for-adults labels, R and X, made it possible for films released in 1969 (”Midnight Cowboy,” among them) to be much more sexually explicit than the pictures that came out just a year earlier.

Everyone in our audience agreed that the casting and costuming of Deneueve was crucial, because her beauty and sophistication worked against the sordid potential in the material.

Our group left with more questions than answers, but they seemed happy with their ambiguous state of mind.

(“Belle de Jour” is available for home viewing on DVD via the Criterion Collection.)

jmeyers@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @joesview