The estate of the late producers Robert and Raymond Hakim has only now consented to a rerelease of Luis Buñuel's famous 1967 comedy, previously available only in such odd formats as a French-language videotape with Japanese subtitles. Time proves to have been very good to this heartless tale of a well-off, sexually repressed Parisian housewife (Deneuve). Initially she gets what satisfaction she can by letting her mind drift off into sadomasochistic fantasies, but eventually she passes her afternoons working, under the name "Belle de Jour," as one of three prostitutes in an elite brothel.
Belle de Jour isn't especially erotic. Director Buñuel is more interested in ridiculing the pointless life of a bourgeoise than in making psychological sense of his main character. But Belle de Jour remains thoroughly kinky, thanks to Deneuve. Her classically beautiful features are glacially impassive, suggesting a melancholy fashion mannequin, until she is forced to submit sexually. Then there is the hint of a smile, a perverse flicker of joy. It's impossible to pin down whether this is brilliant acting or the magic of the camera's eye opening wide with delight at the chance to explore such an extraordinary face. Deneuve's Belle ranks with the great movie performances either way. (R)