There are few friendly spaces left in the white noise of our culture for the act of fantasy. “For fantasy to have depth,” Susan Sontag once wrote about an entirely different kind of fantasy, “it must have detail.” Still, Sontag’s point stands up in any context on the matter, specifically when a small audience waded out into the depths of Luis Buñuel’s 1967 grippingly deviant film, Belle de Jour, this past Wednesday at the Museum of Modern Art. Thanks to a recent restoration by Saint Laurent, the seminal cinematic work of erotic fantasy, starring French national icon Catherine Deneuve decked out in costumes designed by the late Yves Saint Laurent, was screened for a small gathering of celebrities (think Martin Scorsese) who received the rare privilege of experiencing the shock, and the freedom, of unfettered fantasy again on the big screen.
It was during the flat shock of Deneuve’s pure-blond character, Séverine Serizy, being handed over by her husband to brutish carriage drivers to be raped when I was informed that Deneuve, who was attendance for the screening, was free for a brief set of questions before departing the museum. While the shock of Belle de Jour‘s inimitable opening scene faded in front of an audience that also included Susan Sarandon, Debbie Harry, Martha Stewart, and Saint Laurent’s Anthony Vaccarello, I stepped out to find Deneuve sitting underneath a bright red Formula 1 race car, hanging vertically on the museum wall — a fantastic context, certainly. The actress, who recently turned 75 years old, and counts more than 80 film credits to her name, has long been thought of as a tabula rasa for fantasy and beauty, a perfect medium for a director who, when asked what was inside a mysterious black box in the film replied, “Whatever you want there to be.”
Is anyone today prepared to meet Buñuel’s demand? Deneuve, eyeing me somewhat suspiciously, was doubtful. “People have so many images, today. Crude images that don’t leave any room to fantasize. You can see anything today, and I think that’s quite scary.” In a way, Deneuve’s position isn’t an unfamiliar critique, and surprisingly, perhaps, it dovetails with a sentiment Sontag expressed about the spiritual exhaustion generated by our society of images. Mystery and tasteful eroticism, she says, are largely missing from the buffet of visuals we engage with daily. “So what of our ability to fantasize?” I ask the actress, as the bejeweled lapels of her suit jacket glinted in the soft light of the museum. “When you see so much of something you won’t ever do in life, when you’re so far away from it, you find yourself in the middle of the strangest situation. I think the most important thing in life is to have a fantasy.”