Director: Manoel de Oliveira
Paris, the present day. At a concert hall, Henri watches an orchestra performance. As his eye wanders, he notices a blonde woman of similar age, Severine, whom he recognises. She recognises him too. When the performance is over, she hastily departs to avoid him. He attempts to pursue her, but manages to lose her in the crowd. By chance, he sees her again getting into a car outside a bar, but it’s too late. Henri then enquires with the barman about Severine, who apparently now lives in Paris after many years away and discovers that she’s staying at the Hotel Regina.
Henri visits her at the hotel, yet she leaves just before he arrives. She knows he has been looking for her. Returning to the bar, he explains why he must find Severine and the history they both share. He tells the barman of Severine’s perversion; and he, used to the confessions of customers, is intrigued. Henri confronts Severine in the street, a scene shot in silence. They meet at dinner. She’s uncomfortable; there’s many awkward silences. Henri speaks of the past, but Severine has moved on. She’s a different woman now and only wants to know whether he told her husband about her secret life as a prostitute. Henri’s evasive, refusing to disclose whether he revealed this secret. Severine leaves, forever.
With no background knowledge, the prospect of watching a sequel to a much-admired French art house classic would be very daunting indeed. Bunuel’s surreal, blackly comic account of a Parisian housewife-cum-prostitute is not only one of the most significant he’s ever made but also one of the most important films of the 1960s. However, one shouldn’t dismiss the idea of ‘Belle Toujours’ so hastily. It’s not exactly the work of a talentless film maker trying to make a quick buck or generate cheap publicity. The titles reveal the intentions behind the film; to pay homage to Bunuel and Carriere, the director/writer of ‘Belle de Jour’. ‘Belle Toujours’ is directed by Manoel de Oliveira, known as the eldest active film maker currently still working, who began working in the silent era and despite what his age might suggest, he remains one of the most prolific.
Sensibly, de Oliveira realises that what made ‘Belle de Jour’ so impressive was Bunuel’s own idiosyncratic approach to film making. Like many of his films during the 1960s/1970s, Bunuel was interested in skewering the moral values of the bourgeoisie, including sex, politics and religion. Attempting to replicate Bunuel’s unique style would be a mistake for a director who himself is so different in how he works. de Oliveira sticks to his own methods, those that have made his previous work so successful in the past. He’s much more classical and formal a film maker than Bunuel. ‘Belle Toujours’ is a much more solemn, wistful film, almost unrecognisable from Bunuel’s, but given that the central characters are older, although perhaps not any wiser, it’s a smart decision.
This is a film about memories of the past and regret. Henri, the schemer in Severine’s original deception all those years ago; the man who knew her secret and was always in a position to reveal it, now appears to us as a rather pathetic, lonely old man who has nothing to live for but the past. He tells the barman with some relish the details of the entire business, as if this is all he’s had to cling into for forty years. Severine has attempted to move on since her husband’s death, yet meeting Henri again has opened old wounds. Although we only understand her through her interaction with Henri, she reveals that she’s troubled by everything; an ill-spent past, old age as a future and the impossibility to putting things right they wish they’d done differently. Both, however, need a sense of closure to really put the past behind them. Henri’s looking for revenge after Severine’s original rejection of him, whilst Severine needs to know what he told her husband (which had been left vague by Bunuel, with the frozen tear on her husband’s cheek teasing the audience). Crucial to the relationship between them both is the fact that de Oliveira makes no effort to sketch out either character; to inform us of what’s happened to them both since Severine’s husband was paralysed. The intervening forty years is a mystery, but that’s not important for either the director or the audience. The film demands that Henri and Severine continue exactly as Bunuel had left off. Any attempts to fill in the past would be a distraction, but the passing of many decades is a nice touch designed to show the impact of their circumstances as they were left.
This theme continues in several shots that punctuate more active scenes. de Oliveira frequently cuts to overhead shots of the Paris morning skyline, shots of the lit Eiffel Tower at night and shots of traffic lights frequently changing, for instance, which almost feels under the influence of Antonioni, whose final scenes in ‘The Eclipse’ used fixed, static shots of skylines and inanimate settings to reflect time passing. de Oliveira also makes on important decision with sound design as well; the scene when Henri finally catches up with Severine and confronts her. Although it’s shot from distance, it’s still a conscious decision to make the conversation between them both inaudible, so that we’re unaware of the approaching pivotal dinner scene. The dinner scene itself is shot impeccably well. Henri and Severine are never in the frame together, always shot individually, as if to reiterate the distance between them and that they can’t successfully overcome their differences.
It’s interesting that whilst Michel Piccoli reprised his role as Henri, Catherine Deneuve didn’t return as Severine. Bulle Ogier, a fellow French actress, performs admirably enough in her absence. Deneuve has worked with de Oliveira on several recent films but the rumour was that she didn’t agree with the premise of revisiting ‘Belle de Jour’ forty years later, but just because she thought so, it doesn’t suggest that audiences ought to give ‘Belle Toujours’ a miss. The fact that it deliberately avoids to be anything similar to Bunuel’s film is its greatest strength, and ensures it doesn’t pale in comparison so easily. Instead, de Oliveira takes two characters with unfinished business and creates a narrative about ageing and regret, and whilst it’s rather slender and light, it’s rather impressive nonetheless.