Belle toujours

New Yorker Films
Manoel de Oliveira/Portugal-France 2006

Even in his old age – perpetually prolific at 99 years old – Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira has managed to make subtle shifts in the trajectory of his work. At barely over an hour long, his latest feature comes up considerably short in comparison to his past work. Extending over a handful of days rather than an entire lifetime – as in his 1993 feature Abraham’s Valley or the excursion into memory in Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997) – and contained within a few closed and quiet Paris sidewalks – rather than cruising over half the globe like in A Talking Picture (2003) – Belle toujours seems more like a sketch than a feature film. Even at the narrative’s late climax, Oliveira eschews his usual stage dialogue, allowing a poignant dinner scene to hinge on a powerfully awkward silence.

Starring French veteran actors Michel Piccoli as Henri Husson and Bulle Ogier as Séverine Serizy, Belle toujours is at once a romantic continuation of Luis Buñuel’s 1967 Belle de jour and a strange exercise in reminiscing. After spotting Séverine during an opera performance, Husson pursues her through a triad of locales finally plying her with revelations of the past in order to commit to a dinner engagement. On the surface, the drama occurs between the aging Husson and Séverine as they play a subdued game of cat and mouse, both seemingly caged by the painterly camerawork of Sabine Lancelin. Below the surface, however, the drama exists in the memory of the past as it is reconstructed through affected dialogue and delicately lit images. Memory becomes a prime subject not necessarily for the characters but more for the audience who reconsiders both the story of Belle de jour and the history these actors automatically carry with them.

Here, Oliveira’s meditative approach takes its cues more from painting and sculpture than his usual studied mix of theater and documentary. Set within a limited number of locations in Paris – and truly Parisian locations at that – we find Husson quietly moving from the symphony to a bar and hotels. However, even as we watch Husson finally and physically grab hold of Séverine, a continual sense of interiority persists. Perhaps this is where the past is inscribed. While Oliveira claims Belle toujours to be an homage to Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (who wrote several screenplays for the Spanish director), one nevertheless gets the sense that the film has an ulterior motive of bringing Oliveira’s style to the surface – and perhaps not much more.

In the 1967 predecessor, Séverine is a perfectly upper-class blonde, played by a young Catherine Deneuve with enduringly long lashes. She is the image of posh virginity – a newlywed who dreams of a little rough play. Only the manipulative and licentious Husson – a friend of Séverine’s sweet and patient husband – knows where this secret desire takes her. In Belle toujours, equally regarded Ogier takes on the role of the classy blonde. Although she remains just as secretive and reluctant towards Husson’s advances as before, the quiet severity of Ogier’s performance reveals her character’s aversion to the past. Perhaps her claim to be an entirely different person is simply a wink to the character’s original embodiment in Deneuve.

However, the positioning of the story against the 1967 Belle de jour marks an obvious drawback to the film. A working synopsis of Buñuel’s film does enhance (and perhaps decode) the dialogue that occurs here, while it also clearly reveals the importance and frustrations pronounced in the final dinner scene. But whether this limits audience draw may be a moot point: Oliveira’s work can be slow – sometimes a chore – and often demands a kind of museum patience. But if you’re in the mood, this latest work is particularly thoughtful on the level of photography. Somehow, by revealing the weathering of time, Belle toujours manages to become a moving evocation of composure and restraint regularly found in the classic still life. Nevertheless, it remains simply a sketch within Oliveira’s oeuvre.

© 2007 Mia Ferm. All rights reserved.

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