A young, wealthy housewife goes for a horse-drawn carriage ride in the idyllic French countryside with her dashing husband. So far so good, but when the carriage stops, the two drivers follow the direction of the husband to bind and whip her before having their way with her while he coolly looks on. What in the world? As the scene dissolves, we find the housewife safely at home and conversing with her polite and refined husband, slyly telling him she was just thinking of him.
We quickly learn that Severine the housewife (a luminous young Catherine Deneuve) is bored, trapped, and longing for a change in her picture-perfect marriage. Although she’s married to a sweet, affectionate, and handsome young surgeon and lives in the lap of luxury, she’s emotionally detached and generally unhappy, leading to her wild and destructive sexual fantasies. When she learns of a thriving high-class brothel subculture, it’s inevitable that she’ll be drawn into it as an escape from her refined and controlled life.
At first hesitant, as brilliantly illustrated by her indecisive footsteps as she circles the brothel, she eventually embraces and thrives in her kinky new job and also finds herself finally enjoying being a housewife, experiencing a new level of intimacy with her husband. Unfortunately, the lines between her two lives inevitably blur, principally due to a dangerous relationship with a sketchy young criminal who attempts to claim her all to himself outside the brothel as well. There’s little doubt about which life she’ll ultimately choose, but the repercussions of her actions permanently affect the two main men in her life.
In spite of its subject matter, the film isn’t particularly salacious, with its raunch more implied than displayed. The plot is at times silly and meandering, and yet Deneuve somehow crafts a fascinating character study that makes for a rewarding journey, delivering a mesmerizing performance that rises above the Skinemax nature of the story. Although the film is at times surreal and unfocused due to iconoclastic director Luis Bunuel, Deneuve makes it worthwhile.
On Blu-ray, the film’s warm colors shine in this new digital restoration, although a few scratches are still evident. Audio is a straightforward uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The bonus features include an entertaining but brief interview segment from a French TV show with Deneuve and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere broadcast around the original theatrical release of the film, as well as an insightful new interview with Carriere filmed exclusively for the Criterion release, and a new piece with a sexual politics activist and a film scholar discussing the feminism of the film, something I had absolutely zero interest in exploring.