Belle Toujours, 2006

Ostensibly an homage to the principal creators of Belle de Jour, filmmaker Luis Buñuel and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, Belle Toujours is, nevertheless, a quintessential Manoel de Oliveira film: formalist, dramaturgic, contemplative, and discursive. Continuing where Buñuel’s film left off 38 years earlier, after the sadistic scoundrel Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli) would whisper an undisclosed secret to Séverine’s invalid, devoted husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel) that would move him to tears, the tables seem to have turned in the opening sequence of Belle Toujours as it is now Husson who, riveted to his seat, is found openly weeping at a symphony. This evocative juxtaposition between Pierre’s involuntary betrayal of erupted emotion in Belle de Jour and Husson’s reflexive reaction to an artfully orchestrated performance integrally illustrates the point of departure between Buñuel and Oliveira, even as the two episodes converge on the same elusive image of Séverine Serizy: one, more in tune with the visceral representations of human behavior in all its absurdity, the other, with the intellectual characterizations behind them. Indeed, inasmuch as the idea of Séverine’s elusiveness dominates both films, Oliveira’s Séverine, now played by the equally iconic actress Bulle Ogier instead of Catherine Deneuve (in a transparent role switch that recalls Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire) is essentially an adaptation rather than a re-casting of the original – a more cerebral (re)incarnation of the bourgeois housewife turned prostitute of Belle de jour – a widow whose erotic fantasies have been diffused by age and faithful devotion to her late husband, even as her temperament remains fearless, uncompromising, and defiant. Moreover, the lonely hearts cocktail bar frequented by a pair of underworked prostitutes can also be seen as a reconfiguration of Madame Anais’s clandestine brothel – a thematic association that is visually reinforced by a nude oil painting that is displayed in both establishments – transforming the theme of sexual surrogacy that pervades Buñuel’s film to the figurative psychotheraphy (enabled in part by a sympathetic, probing bartender) and introspection of Oliveira’s film, where the local bar has become the contemporary venue for unburdening the problems of failed intimacy and connection in the modern world (most notably, in Husson’s recurring trips to the bar after a series of missed – or more appropriately, thwarted – encounters with Séverine). It is within this framework of passage and transformation that the climactic confrontation between Husson and Séverine can be seen, not as a nostalgic elegy, but as an affirmation of a life-long passion, curiosity, iconoclasm, and irreverence, where the insightful, tongue-in-cheek mind games of Buñuel have been transformed into an altogether different kind of psychological deconstruction, one that faithfully – and exquisitely – resonates within Oliveira’s own recurring expositions on aging, vitality, self-reflexivity, and memory.

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