July 15, 2008

Belle Toujours


Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ****

Any review of a new movie by the Portuguese master filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira must mention his age -- 99 years old as of this writing -- as well as this factoid: he's the only living filmmaker to have begun working during the silent era. That much, let alone his output of austere and literal, yet poignant films, has pretty much earned him the right to make any movie he feels like making. And so he set his sights on a sort of sequel to Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour (1967), and although it reunites two of the main characters from that masterpiece, it actually becomes more of a mysterious, moving epilogue. In that, Belle Toujours is probably closer to Oliveira's Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997) and I'm Going Home (2002) than to Bunuel's original.

In Belle de Jour, Severine (Catherine Deneuve) has secret, subversive passions that she can't explore with her husband (Jean Sorel). When the distasteful family friend Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli) suggests the address of a brothel, Severine decides to go to work there, but only during the day (hence her nickname, "Belle de Jour"), so as not to tip off her husband. Later, Husson shows up at the brothel, placing Severine in a very uncomfortable position. Oleveira's Belle Toujours opens decades later at a classical music concert, where Husson is enjoying the music when he spots an older, but still beautiful Severine (now played by Bulle Ogier). He tries to follow her but loses her in a crowd. When they finally converge, Oliveira shows the entire confrontation from a long shot, so as to keep their words private. The film concludes on a candlelit dinner, during which the past and the present collide mercilessly. One of the great secrets of the ending of Bunuel's film is discussed, but Oliveira treats it with respect rather than trying to pry out definitive answers.

Piccoli recaptures the essence of his randy scoundrel from Bunuel's film, ordering several glasses of whisky and enjoying the pleasures of life with a secret smile, but Ogier -- who worked with Bunuel in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie -- comes across as rather sharp and unpleasant as Severine, not like the willowy Deneuve would have been (Deneuve has worked with Oliveira several times before, but apparently wasn't available this time). Running only 68 minutes, Belle Toujours sometimes works, too, as a piece of film criticism. Oliveira spends a good deal of time in the bar, where Husson and a young barman (Ricardo Trepa) talk about the story of Belle de Jour. The dialogue repeats several ideas, about secrets, anonymity and confidence. Two prostitutes, a young one (Leonor Baldaque) and an old one (Julia Buisel) hang out at the bar, listening in on the conversation, as if to provide a visual echo. Oliveira also pays tribute to the Surrealistic Bunuel with the sudden and dreamlike image of a rooster (also a symbol of Portugal). What was Bunuel's film really all about, Oliveira seems to be asking? On the surface, it advertised sex, but Oliveira no doubt sees something more.

DVD Details: New Yorker Video released the essential 2008 DVD, and it comes with a most welcome, 20-minute Manoel de Oliveira interview (in French). The disc also includes interviews with actors Piccoli, Ogier and Trepa, as well as a trailer, a downloadable press kit, a liner notes essay and some great on-set stills featuring a still lively Oliveira at work.

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Posted by cphillips at July 15, 2008 12:48 PM
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