Luis Buñuel’s sly comedy-fantasia is nowhere near as explicit as the later, similarly themed 9 1/2 Weeks yet goes so far beyond it that the comparison is humilating. The virginal, dissatisfied heroine Severine (Catherine Deneuve) won’t let her very patient husband (Jean Sorel) touch her, but she has constant, vivid daydreams of her own violation. The premise is an irreverent twist on Repulsion, in which Deneuve, a virgin molested as a girl (or something), had terrifying nightmares and was driven to murder. Here, she’s driven to prostitution. Her friendly but no-nonsense madam (Genevieve Page) insists that Severine learn how to satisfy the desires of the weirder clients. After rejecting a violent gangster (Pierre Clementi) and confronting an acquaintance (Michel Piccoli) at the brothel, Severine decides she has indulged enough and returns to her husband.
The movie will drive literalists mad, and given the PC mood of the ’90s, Martin Scorsese was brave (or perhaps perverse) to dust it off for a 1995 revival. But Buñuel clarifies the difference between fantasy and reality in much the same way that Brian De Palma would do in Dressed to Kill: The fantasy is mildly ridiculous but titillating; the fantasy made reality is tedious, degrading, and possibly dangerous. Prostitution “awakens” nothing except, perhaps, the desire for a manageable, bourgeois sex life. The young Deneuve, her beauty a blank screen for willful directors to project their dark jokes onto, is perfectly cast. Cinematography by the great Sacha Vierny.