The Reeler


June 6, 2007

Belle Toujours

Oliveira's slender sequel a model of efficiency and barbed wit

At 98 years of age, the Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira would be hard pressed to appeal to the target demographic of Hollywood marketers. And yet, due to the vagaries of distribution, his latest film, Belle Toujours -- a sequel to Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) -- is being released alongside the largest summer sequel roster in recorded history (his weekend competition: Ocean‘s Thirteen and Hostel II). All comparisons end there, for as the studio offerings aim more for spectacle than coherence, Oliveria’s slender redo (a mere 68 minutes!) is a model of efficiency and barbed wit.

It’s 38 years after the main action of Belle de Jour, which left Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine desperately hoping that Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli) would not reveal her work as a prostitute to her paralyzed husband. Buñuel’s film focused on the oneiric power of sexual fantasies and the tragicomic repercussions of their seepage into reality. Oliveira plucks the two characters from their dream state and adapts them to his own, gentler humor. Piccoli reprises the Husson role, while Deneuve turned down the opportunity to reprise her part (Bulle Ogier takes those reins). In an interview with The Independent, Piccoli opined that Deneuve declined because her looks had not changed drastically in the last 40 years, and that “(i)t was best to leave the Buñuel film intact and use doubles. I am a double myself, because I do look 40 years older.”

Piccoli’s hawkish, predatory face has filled out with flesh, so what came off as aggressive lechery in the original plays like impish charm here; his age removes the threat, but his sadism hasn’t flagged. Husson espies Séverine at a Dvorák recital in Paris. Glancing at her as he applauds, both characters are welcomed back to center stage, although Husson takes the lead here. He spends most of the film chasing after her, ending up at a bar (where he unburdens himself to a bartender played by Ricardo Trepa, Oliveira’s grandson). When he finally convinces Séverine to have dinner, she pops the question of what he told her husband all those years ago. Enmeshed in the past and hyperaware of the protagonists’ own mortality, Belle Toujours becomes a bittersweet elegy for the Paris of their (and Oliveira’s) youth.

Husson’s search is broken up by lingering shots of cityscapes, and he becomes hypnotized by images of the female form in bygone eras, including a golden statue of Joan of Arc outside Séverine’s hotel and a nude portrait that hangs on the wall of the bar. During his chats with Trepa, he’s often framed in a mirror, with the portrait visible to his right, comparing his aging flesh to the permanent youthful glow of the model. Husson merely knocks back a whiskey and smirks off his sexual obsolescence. Oliveira uses mirrors to similar effect in 2005’s Magic Mirror (now finishing up a run at Anthology Film Archives), an expansive (and major) work where reflections trigger remembrances, the past always contained within the present, etched on the visible flesh.

When the two finally sit down to chat, it’s against flickering candlelight and faded murals -- a memorial to their civilization. To cope with their losses, Séverine claims she’s joining a convent while Husson jokes about his alcoholism. Séverine says she’s “alone with my soul,” while Husson is left alone with his sarcasm. While the film is elegiac, it’s far from fatalist, as it ends with a bitingly funny anticlimax which proves that perversity may only get stronger with age.

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