Get to know Luis Buñuel in 5 easy steps

On its 50th anniversary, Luis Buñuel’s scandalous erotic classic Belle de jour is returning to cinemas across the UK from 8 September, screening from a new 4K restoration which has been turning heads recently at Cannes Classics and Il Cinema Ritrovato. 

Starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, and Michel Piccoli, Belle de jour is the story of beautiful young housewife Séverine, who cannot reconcile her masochistic fantasies with her bourgeois marriage to husband Pierre, and decides to take up work in a secretive high-class brothel under the name Belle de Jour. But when one of her clients grows possessive, she must try to go back to her normal life.

Director Luis Buñuel (1900-1983)

Director Luis Buñuel (1900-1983)

Belle de jour is only one in a series of masterpieces in Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel's long and prolific career that spanned over fifty years to include revolutionary and incendiary films aimed at satirising the bourgeoisie by tearing up its contradictory social conventions and hypocritical moralism. It is no exaggeration to say that the work of Luis Buñuel - from his avant-garde youth to his award-winning late years - truly changed the course of world cinema. 

Ahead of her special introduction at our upcoming screening at Curzon Bloomsbury, Professor Jo Evans gives us the lowdown on the great auteur, so you can get to know his work in five easy steps. (And if you're already a Buñuel connoisseur, you just might find some new bits of trivia to impress your cinephile friends...)

1. Un Chien andalou (1929) 

The famous eye-slitting scene from  Un chien andalou

The famous eye-slitting scene from Un chien andalou

Buñuel claims his first film, made with his fellow student friend and soon-to-be internationally renowned artist Salvador Dalí, is a collage of dreams he and Dalí discussed while staying at Dalí’s parents’ house in January 1929. Heavily influenced by Freud, it is still famous for the close-up of a woman’s severed eye. Less well-known, perhaps, is that the film was funded by Buñuel’s mother (who thought she was contributing to a project on Goya), and that Buñuel claims the severed eye came from a dream he had about her (his mother). In the film, the psychopath wielding the cut-throat razor is played by Buñuel.

2. Cameos

Buñuel (centre) appears in a cameo as a man at a bar in  Belle de jour

Buñuel (centre) appears in a cameo as a man at a bar in Belle de jour

 Buñuel went on to play a number of on-screen cameos (a man at a bar in Belle de jour (1967), an executioner in Llanto por un bandido (Carlos Saura, 1964), and a priest in En este pueblo no hay ladrones (Alberto Isaac, 1965). But he also has a fictional cameo in Carlos Fuentes’ monumental, Finnegan’s Wake-inspired novel, Terra Nostra (1974). Writing to Buñuel after the novel was published, Fuentes jokes about this cameo (Buñuel in the guise of an Aragonese student), and apologises for making him one of the more appealing characters in this vast tome.

3. The Literary Buñuel

Vintage poster Buñuel's Mexican adaptation fo  Wuthering Heights  (1953)

Vintage poster Buñuel's Mexican adaptation fo Wuthering Heights (1953)

Buñuel is generally remembered as the auteur director of intensely personal and surreal films like Un Chien andalou (1929), Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972), or Le Fantôme de la liberté (1974). But he once claimed that if he hadn’t been a director, he would have loved to be a writer, and eighteen of the thirty-two films he directed are literary adaptations. These include an English-language Robinson Crusoe (1952), a Mexican Wuthering Heights 1954), and Diary of a Chambermaid (1964). Diary of a Chambermaid was based on a salacious novel by Octave Mirabeau published in 1900, which first appeared on screen in 1946, in a Hollywood adaptation directed by Jean Renoir. Buñuel’s blackly satirical version (the first of six collaborations with co-scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière), features an outstanding performance by the late Jeanne Moreau, pandering to a foot fetishist while attempting to expose a child-murdering fascist.

4. Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) and the ‘French’ phase

The French poster for Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

The French poster for Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

The films from Diary of a Chambermaid onwards are often referred to as Buñuel's ‘French phase’. This is slightly misleading, because the later work includes two Spanish-language films (Simón del desierto, 1965) and Tristana, 1970), and because Buñuel directed a number of French co-productions in the 1950s (Cela s’appelle l’aurore, 1955); La Mort en ce jardin, 1956); La Fièvre monte à El Pao, 1959). It might be more accurate to call this the ‘Silberman phase’, because Serge Silberman (a Polish-born French exile) produced all the famous French films except the most commercially successful of them, Belle de jour, which was produced by the Egyptian-born Hakim brothers.

5. Belle de jour (1967) 

Catherine Deneuve in  Belle de jour  (1967)

Catherine Deneuve in Belle de jour (1967)

Buñuel did not benefit financially from the success of Belle de jour, because he had taken his director’s cut up-front, and he always joked that its box office success was entirely down to the prostitutes. He may well be right about the film’s on-going appeal, but Belle de jour is, in fact, far less sexually explicit than contemporary experimental films by the Viennese Actionists, or more mainstream films like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973). Buñuel’s films feature sex and are still regarded as transgressive, but they are more interested in exploring the vagaries of human desire than in exposing human bodies. In fact, Buñuel’s attitude to sex on screen might best be summed up by a shot from one of the melodramas (Cela s’appelle l’aurore, 1955) that screens our view of an adulterous couple finally making it to the bedroom with a gratuitous cut-away to a hand gently placing a tortoise on the ground, upside-down.

And finally...

A sequence in  Belle de jour  that made it past the censors

A sequence in Belle de jour that made it past the censors

On the subject of sex and censorship... a last word about Belle de jour. According to Carrière, Buñuel described the source novel as ‘absurd, but tempting’, and what he found tempting was the fantasy element that he and Carrière would develop into the film’s defining motif. Buñuel declared himself ‘fairly satisfied’ with the end result, although cuts made to the castle sequence annoyed him (especially as he suspected the Hakim brothers had influenced the censors). Whether or not the brothers did manipulate these cuts, in the light of Buñuel’s on-going obsession with Freudian psychoanalysis, religious repression, and the comedy of human sexual desire, it seems entirely appropriate that the censors cut shots of a Crucifixion by the German Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald and a cameo featuring Carrière as a priest, but had no problem with Catherine Deneuve wearing only a transparent, floor-length, black veil playing dead in a coffin for the pleasure of a grieving father/ necrophiliac Count...

Jo Evans is Professor of Spanish at University College London. She is the General Editor of the Bulletin of Spanish Visual Studies and is currently directing a three-year Leverhulme Trust funded research project with Breixo Viejo called Luis Buñuel: A Life in Letters


Belle de jour is released in select UK/Ireland cinemas 8 September 2017.

Book now for our special screening plus introduction by Professor Jo Evans on Friday 8 September at Curzon Bloomsbury.