“I’m a different woman now. I’m not the same woman who needed to be in love with one man to make love with another.”
Thirty-nine years after Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carriére shocked audiences with Belle de Jour, Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira revitalises the character of Henri Husson as he stumbles across Séverine Serizy, the bourgeois wife-turned-prostitute from the original film, and attempts to rekindle what they once shared.
Weighed down by the earthly realities of old age, Henri finds in Séverine a woman wracked with guilt whose fantasies have been dulled with time and who is still wondering whether or not her secret had been divulged to her disabled husband.
At 98 years of age, Manoel de Oliveira is the oldest film director still actively working.
Deux des personnages étranges du film de Luis Buñuel, Belle de jour retraversent –trente-huit ans après– le mystère d’un secret que seul le personnage masculin détient et dont la révélation est essentielle au personnage féminin.
Ils se croisent à nouveau. Elle essaie à tous prix de l’éviter. Mais lui insiste et tente de la convaincre de le revoir en lui promettant de révéler le secret qu’il est seul à connaître. Ils prévoient un dîner en tête à tête dans un hôtel chic. Durant tout le dîner, elle, aujourd’hui veuve, est dans l’attente qu’il dévoile ce qu’il a réellement dit à son mari alors paralysé à la suite d’une balle tirée par un de ses amants. Elle finit par partir sans connaître la vérité de ce qui s’est dit ce jour-là. Lui assouvit son sadisme et se venge enfin de cette femme qui l’a dédaigné alors qu’elle le désirait sincèrement.
Belle toujours m'est arrivé sans que je m'y attende, même si j'ai toujours voulu rendre hommage à Luis Buñuel et à Jean-Claude Carrière. J'ai été ravi de trouver un moyen d'y parvenir, peut-être le meilleur, et je me suis mis au travail. Il s'agissait de reprendre la trame du film de 1967, Belle de jour — une adaptation du roman de Joseph Kessel —, et de retrouver les mêmes personnages qui se rencontrent trente-huit ans après et continuent de se repousser corps et âmes.
Manoel de Oliveira
C’est avec un grand plaisir que j’ai interprété le rôle de Séverine dans le film de Manoel de Oliveira « Belle toujours ». Ce fut un grand honneur pour moi de participer à cette aventure qui certainement fera date dans l’histoire du cinéma étant donnée la qualité exceptionnelle du scénario réalisé par l’un des plus grands cinéastes de notre temps.
N'est-il pas indiscret de parler de Manoel de Oliveira, cet homme secret ? De son œuvre immense ? Un livre entier n'y suffirait pas. J'imagine toutes les vies de cet homme, multiples et étincelantes. Je devine des secrets que je ne révèlerai pas. Nous pourrions parler… De son autorité toujours malicieuse. De son œil de lynx, de sa démarche d'athlète. Il sait être à la fois ange et démon. Des rires, des blagues, les forces de notre jeunesse éternelle. Un inquisiteur permanent. Austère, avisé, élégant, lumière et ombre à la fois. Le secret et le mystère d'Oliveira, je me contente de les effleurer, je parviens presque à atteindre leur grâce. Comme si nous étions complices. Je n'ouvrirai pas la boîte de Pandore des images passionnées de notre travail en commun. Je suis son collaborateur le plus discipliné ou le moins discipliné. Cela dépend. Merci Manoel.
Belle Toujours / France / Portugal / 2006By the age of 98, most filmmakers have died or otherwise retired, and it is only a paltry few who continue to work with any regularity. Of these few, one can hardly expect any works of great social or cultural currency, much less anything groundbreaking. And so it is a little odd that Manoel de Oliveira, in his ripest years, has chosen to update Buñuel’s Belle de Jour. The prior film, like many of Buñuel’s films, is a work of great social provocation. It makes for an unlikely source-text for Oliveira’s sequel, a film that, taken on its own terms, both benefits and suffers from its director’s mature years.
Now, perhaps it is a little unfair — and perhaps not a little “ageist” — to consider Belle Toujours in terms of its director’s vintage. But then, other than its almost perfunctory relation to Buñuel, the film gives one very little else on which to hang one’s critical hat. Beginning in the plush but rigid confines of a concert hall and ending in the similarly furnished private rooms of an immaculate restaurant some sixty-eight minutes later, the film displays an almost comfortingly blinkered purview, moving with the drowsy, lumbering, and rather drunken gait of Michel Piccoli as he reincarnates Henri Husson from the earlier film.
Forty years after the events of Buñuel’s film, Husson sits relishing the swoons of Dvorak and chances to spy the belle Séverine (played here by Bulle Ogier in a wig, and not Catherine Deneuve) from across the audience. This encounter (or near-encounter — she sees him as well, and manages to avoid him for the better part of the movie) sets up the film’s few events, sending Husson to the hotel at which she is staying and (repeatedly) to a bar she has frequented. Swilling whisky by the fistful and chumming with the young bartender and resident whores, Husson wistfully thinks back to his younger days and to Séverine’s strange desire, of which he was sadly never on the receiving end.
Each minor episode in the story is bracketed by a lengthy shot of present-day Paris (or at least its more polished surfaces), a stylistic quirk that would seem to have marked Belle Toujours as ruminative to the New York Film Festival’s acceptance committee. That these shots are overlong, unmotivated, and aesthetically bland is less egregious than the fact that they present such an atrophied image of Paris, neither the least bit realistic nor knowingly saccharine and romantic (as in a film like Before Sunset), and shamelessly, cozily limited to the most obvious and touristy locations. A three-minute shot of the Eiffel Tower at night or any of a number of Husson’s strolls along Place Vendôme are not the marks of a satire of upper-middle-class sexual mores, or of a portrait of Parisians young or old, but of a scrapbook of holiday snaps by someone too apathetic or tired to leave the Ninth Arrondissement.
But this is not to say that the film is without merit of any kind. Piccoli, a little lumbering and wheezy himself, is pleasant to watch, knocking back Scotch after Scotch with a level of resignation that would seem miserable if he weren’t so comically apathetic. And once we enter the opulent restaurant for Husson’s final showdown with Séverine, the tension mounts ever so slightly, only to be thwarted by a neatly perverse denial of resolution and a single, pointless morsel of surrealism in the form of an all-too-symbolic cockerel. If anything, this lack of resolution reinforces the film’s overall lack of ambition, something that is, in itself, mildly refreshing. But ultimately, Belle Toujours offers little expansion on the original story, little insight into the nature of sadism and masochism in film or in life, and, worst of all, almost no complement to Buñuel’s film. Like Husson observing a statue of Joan of Arc or a romantic oil painting of a lady’s rump, Belle Toujours regards Belle de Jour at arms’ length — as something to be observed, admired, ruminated over, and remembered fondly, but uncritically. One cannot imagine that Buñuel would welcome such a sequel.
For a Cinematic Object of Desire, a Second Act
Released in 1967 to outrage and condemnation, Luis Buñuel’s sublime “Belle de Jour” stars a frosty, breathtakingly young Catherine Deneuve as a proper bourgeois wife who, by becoming a whore, liberates herself, ruins her husband and possibly goes mad. That, at least, is one way to read the film’s perverse and intentionally ambiguous finale, with its frozen teardrop, ringing bells, beatific smiles and the startling image of the paralyzed, catatonic husband rising like Lazarus from his wheelchair, as if suddenly, miraculously healed.
Four decades later, having tapped into reserves of great love or shocking hubris, the Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira revisits Buñuel’s classic with “Belle Toujours,” a sequel of sorts starring Michel Piccoli, one of the stars of the original. Alternately fascinating and frustrating, “Belle Toujours” is interesting insofar as it finds one filmmaker trying to engage with a masterpiece of cinema. Mr. Oliveira frames his film as a homage to Buñuel and to the legendary screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who helped adapted “Belle de Jour” from the Joseph Kessel novel of the same title. (Mr. Carrière also helped Buñuel write his luminously poignant memoir, “My Last Sigh.”) But “Belle Toujours” is, as well, an act of critical violence.
This isn’t the annihilating violence of criticism at its most cruel; rather, this is the act of the lover who, having long adored the object, now feels compelled somehow to possess it. Mr. Oliveira expresses his compulsion by reuniting Ms. Deneuve’s character, Séverine Serizy (the Belle of both films), with the prickly Monsieur Husson (Mr. Piccoli), a sinister acquaintance of her husband, now dead. In “Belle de Jour” Husson furnishes the name of the brothel where Séverine takes up her furtive trade and later seeks to betray her secrets to her husband, whom he dares call friend. Years later, in “Belle Toujours,” Husson, now as smooth and round as a boiled dumpling, spots Séverine (the skittish Bulle Ogier) at a concert and promptly gives chase.
The chase doesn’t last long. Husson finds Séverine and soon wines and dines her under the dead-eyed gaze of Mr. Oliveira’s camera. Their reunion booms with their awkward silences and the gentle clink of silverware. Champagne bubbles fizz; the mood fizzles. And then Husson betrays himself and Séverine, who has insisted that her past is behind her, by giving her a lacquered box like the one presented to her by a brothel client in “Belle de Jour.” In this justly famous exchange in the Buñuel film, a patron arrives at the brothel carrying a box that emits a disconcerting buzzing sound. The box and its secrets frighten one prostitute, who refuses to service the man, but Belle smiles as if possessed, dreamily taking the bait.
Buñuel never reveals the contents of the box, though he later proposed one deliciously witty and smutty (and unprintable) answer. Much like Belle’s sexual masochism, much like the woman herself and Buñuel’s own film, the box remains at once a repository of mystery and a potential treasure chest, though only for those with a taste and talent for a certain kind of erotic plunder. Despite his insinuating manner, Husson shows no such talent in “Belle de Jour,” which is why Mr. Oliveira’s decision to have him present Séverine with a buzzing box in “Belle Toujours” throws this fragile divertissement off course. The only way Husson could know about the box — along with some of Séverine’s other salacious secrets he’s enigmatically privy to — is if he had actually watched Buñuel’s film.
This slip in logic might be more interesting had Mr. Oliveira added a new kink to Buñuel’s kinky classic, but this 70-minute exercise ends before it begins. Buñuel may not have been particularly sympathetic to women, but the ambiguity of “Belle de Jour” allows Séverine to exist outside his self-confessed parochialism. Asked if she returns to the brothel at the end of the film, he answered: “Yes and no. It’s her problem.” This ambiguity doesn’t appear to have suited Mr. Oliveira, who, like Husson, chases after this phantom of lost desire without gain. Ms. Deneuve might have given that phantom some viscera, a glimmer of mystery, but she exists here only in fond memory. The pixyish Ms. Ogier, alas, looks ready to hide under the nearest buttercup. She’ll leave the buzzing to the bees.