50 years ago, Spanish auteur Luis Buñuel unleashed one of his greatest masterpieces upon the world in the form of Belle de Jour, a transgressive exploration of female desire as seen through the eyes of a bourgeois Parisian housewife, uncoincidentally named Séverine. Buñuel’s repressed heroine is played with impenetrable cool by a 23-year-old Catherine Deneuve, in what would prove her breakthrough role, and dressed to perfection by Yves Saint Laurent, who had launched his eponymous label six years prior and was busy revolutionising women’s fashion when the director enlisted his talents to help bring Séverine to life.
The film’s plotline is as follows: Séverine has a seemingly perfect marriage to the wealthy and handsome Pierre, whose sexual advances leave her cold. At the movie’s start, we find her playing out her fantasies in masochistic daydreams, but when a friend reveals that members of their elite circle have been frequenting a high-class Paris brothel, as both clients and prostitutes, the prospect of realising her fetishes in the flesh proves irresistible. Under the nickname Belle de Jour, she starts working afternoons at the bordello, undergoing an intense sexual awakening while struggling to reconcile her liberated alter ego with that of the prim and proper Séverine. Inevitably, it is only a matter of time before her two lives collide, with dramatic and intriguing consequences.
Belle de Jour is Buñuel’s most visually refined worked, filled with subtle symbolism that reflects Séverine’s gradual character transformation. Both colour and decor play a key role in this, but it is Saint Laurent’s masterfully realised costumes that have the most impact, seen here in an exclusive series of elegant pencil sketches by the famously prolific illustrator, released to coincide with the film’s 50th anniversary re-edition. These range from the scarlet double-breasted jacket in which we first encounter her – engaged in one of her fantasies, while her tantalising attire invites the viewer to indulge in their own – to the the beige, gold-belted safari dress she wears to the brothel, a nod to Saint Laurent’s signature designs at the time. While Séverine wears pale, innocent hues (think: her pristine all-white tennis gear and peach-coloured, buttoned-up cardigan) as Belle de Jour her wardrobe comprises of browns and blacks in suggestive fabrics like fur, leather and vinyl, albeit rendered in a tailored, military style that ensures a level of outward respectability, with fetishistic undertones.
As the story has it, Catherine Deneuve – who would go on to form a lasting friendship with Saint Laurent, the designer frequently dressing her on- and off-screen thereafter – asked that her hemlines be shortened in line with the 60s miniskirt trend, but Saint Laurent and Buñuel persuaded her that a longer, knee-skimming length was more suited to the film. This, they decreed, would imbue the costumes, and by extension the film, with a timeless quality, while allowing much of the kink to occur in the viewer’s mind. Indeed, while many associate Belle de Jour with scenes of sex and nudity, both are only ever hinted at; Séverine, even at her most scantily clad, wears simple underwear in a girlish white lace. Their instinct proved spot on: to this day, the film is considered one of the most radical and enduring pieces of modern cinema, thanks in no small part to its wardrobe.
Belle De Jour: The 50th Anniversary Edition is available to own on DVD and Blu-Ray now. Buñuel: The Essential Collection will be available to own from October 23, 2017.