Nevertheless, Buñuel’s film is a chef-d’oeuvre. It is unflinching in its treatment of truth and also merciless in erasing the lines between reality and imagination. Séverine’s fantasies are as disturbing as some of her real escapades, and also indistinguishable from them. The film ends with no clear moral message, no punishment for a woman’s adultery, but no vindication of it either – in fact, Buñuel himself admitted that he doesn’t understand the ending. The movie deals with a topic that has, no doubt, been addressed to death by our day and age – female sexuality – but it also deals with a grander human question, that ever-elusive nature of both love and sex; the masterful ambiguity with which Buñuel unravels his story in what now feels like the Paris of by-gone days is precisely why Belle de Jourremains a masterpiece even today.
Criterion’s new release makes this vividly clear: it treats the film as a serious artistic work, wrapped in a plethora of commentaries, interviews and essays. Particularly interesting is an elucidating interview with Buñuel himself: it’s surprising to what extent he’s as confused as his audience about what exactly is going on in the movie. There’s also a segment with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who speaks about the drastic differences between the novel and the story; most significantly, however, there’s a video piece with commentary by sexual politics activist Susie Bright and film scholar Linda Williams. Though their observations provide few profound insights, they do point to some fresh ways interpreting certain scenes, and, what is more important, they treat the film as a serious work on sexuality – a refreshing view. They make it clear that this film still retains its capacity to both entertain and provoke even half a century after its release.