Currency | Belle tojours

Belle toujours
(Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France)

By Jay Kuehner

When considering the case of indefatigable Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, a likely and illuminating association can be drawn with compatriot writer Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935), whose prose masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet, consists of a listless Lisbon bookkeeper’s rueful, digressive meditations on a life not fully lived. In Pessoa’s novel, ordinariness is so keenly observed that it takes on a nearly metaphysical dimension. While Pessoa is more the somnambulist, the temperament of wistful irony and astringent melancholy is familiar to Oliveira’s late works—each  of which is readily speculated to be the last from this soon-to-be centenarian. The gesture that I find so exemplary in Pessoa, however, and one that kept returning to my mind while watching Belle toujours, is actually a notebook sketch in which Pessoa drew up a plan to accompany his lover Ophelia from the office where they worked to where she lived, by the longest possible route.

It’s not clear if the geometric diagram is intended to be figuratively funny or quite literal, but its charm lies in its cunningly sweet conception. Oliveira’s homage to Buñuel and screenwriter Jean Claude Carrière, Belle toujours is scarcely so diverted in its lean, practically austere arc, but it shares something of Pessoa’s circumambulatory spirit, a desire to linger longer in a given moment. The film is premised on the chance encounter, nearly 40 years later, between Belle de Jour’s erotically complicit pair of Severine (famously played by Catherine Deneuve in the original, here by Bulle Ogier) and Henri Husson (reprised, in a still-mischievous though more affable turn, by Michel Piccoli). In Buñuel’s film, she’s a beautiful, well-to-do housewife of a devoted doctor, given to masochistic fantasies, who takes up an afternoon job in a brothel; he’s a taunting friend of her husband who becomes participant to her secret. Less a sequel than a deceptively slight rumination, Belle toujours opens rather innocently on a symphony performance in which Husson, barely visible in the dark theatre, is moved to tears by strains of Dvorák, an emotive display that seems like a far cry from his earlier acts of “cute compulsion.” A glimpse of Séverine in the audience awakens Husson’s obvious affection, and prompts his hasty exit in search of his obscure object of desire. She, meanwhile, attempts to elude him.

Where Belle de Jour derived much of its daylight surrealism from a striking visual scheme—a pop-colour pallette of the material world set against the more leached hues of nature—Belle toujours is limpid and generally inexpressive, though darker shades gradually dawn on the proceedings. The bar haunted by Husson on his trail of Séverine is devoid of ambience to the point of staged abstraction, typical of Oliveira’s bare, often theatrical aesthetic. When Husson settles in for his habitual double whisky, in what will essentially become the film’s centrepiece, what you see is what you get. Aside from Husson’s thwarted attempts to track down Séverine at her hotel, what constitutes action is Husson’s reminiscence to the young, charming barman (Oliveira regular Ricardo Trepa, the director’s grandson) of his former dalliance—thus transposing Belle de Jour’s sinuous plot to a relatively static two-hander. A bemused Husson, softened by age, still holds a torch for Séverine, as if the memory of her indescretions might still beget vicarious pleasure. In the passage from du Jour to Toujours, it seems that it is Husson who is beholden to Séverine for the realization of his own unconscious wishes, evident in his insistent pursuit of her and his bar testimonials in her honour.

Continuity, however, does not appear to be central to Belle toujours’ agenda. Certain common details endure, albeit without specific context. A nude portrait hanging in the bar seems plucked from Madame Anaïs’ brothel wall; the bar is populated by a pair of prostitutes who whisper theories about old Husson, their presence suggesting little more than the world’s oldest profession still going strong; the buzzing wooden box once belonging to Séverine’s client now turns up in a shop, where Husson gladly recovers it as an inappropriate gift. Otherwise, one might wonder if it’s been four decades since Oliveira last saw the very object of his own homage. The distinction may be critical to those looking for an elaboration of Bunuel’s pet themes—which Oliveira rather teasingly refuses to indulge—and who might fare better by considering Oliveira’s previous film Magic Mirror (2005), which sustains a decidely Buñuelian conceit in the story of a pious, wealthy woman who can’t understand why the Virgin Mary won’t appear to her. As for just what Oliveira’s agenda might be with Belle toujours is open to interpretation, which is both the source of its frustrating inscrutability and its strange enchantment.

If Magic Mirror is Oliveira’s truer homage to Buñuel, Belle Toujours feels more in tune with the director’s own sweet riff on loss and grief, Je rentre à la maison (2001), featuring a similarly sympathetic Piccoli in the lead. Indeed, as Husson leaves the theatre and lingers on an empty Parisian street, one half expects him to settle in at the former film’s fabled café table. Belle toujours, though, is hinged on the slightest, and more sordid, of provocations, in which Oliveira orchestrates a meeting of Séverine and Husson over an elaborately served candlelight dinner, where it’s expected that Husson will disclose just what it was that he whispered to Séverine’s crippled husband Pierre that so moved him to tears (or death?) some 40 years ago. Oliveira stages the dinner scene in near silence as Husson, an admitted alcoholic, drains the whisky bottle while savouring the creme brulée, and attempts to cherish “the memory of our wickedness.” Séverine, staving off his advances, disavows her “ill-spent past,” insisting she’s no longer the same woman. It’s a cryptic sequence, less exposito Kuehner Jay
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