Belle Toujours

By James Norton

belle-toujours-manoel-de-oliveira.jpgBelle Toujours, 2006

Announcing itself as a homage to Luis Buñuel and his scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, Belle Toujours is not so much a sequel as a commentary on the former’s classic Belle de Jour made forty years ago, and a tribute from one master of the Iberian cinematic imagination to another by the Portuguese Manoel de Oliveira, who will celebrate his 100th birthday in the second week of December (pleasingly, no two sources agree on the precise date). His films have a fresher wit than those of directors a fraction of his age and there are two more of them and half a dozen shorts since he completed Belle Toujours two years ago.

Opening with a lengthy sequence at an orchestral concert, the film, just over an hour long and an exemplar of the economical late style with which elderly auteurs often conserve their energies, reads as a series of theatrical tableaux, an elegiac boulevard comedy vehicle for a couple of veteran stars played out in the theatre, an elegant bar, a hotel lobby and the private dining room of an opulent restaurant. Michel Piccoli reprises his role from the earlier film as Henri Husson, the libertine friend who enables the original belle to accommodate her desires in an upmarket Parisian brothel.

belle-de-jour-luis-bunuel.jpgBelle de Jour, 1967 

This is a film about absence, not only Buñuel’s, but that of its original female star Catherine Deneuve, who declined to revisit the role of Séverine Serizy. The part is played instead by Bulle Ogier, another blonde star of another Buñuel classic The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, who thus becomes not a replacement but a Buñuelian double like the character played by two different actresses in That Obscure Object of Desire. Henri glimpses Séverine at the opening concert during the film’s overture and pursues her in a farcical chase, another obscure object of desire.

The film fetishises Buñuel’s original and dramatises the loneliness of the fetishist caught between the suggestive perfection of the image and the exhausting pursuit of memory and desire. In the first half of the film, before the protagonists meet, Henri wanders alone through the darkened streets of Paris, Walter Benjamin’s and Baudelaire’s Paris, the city also an actor in the film, swept by the lighthouse beam of the Eiffel Tower, and finds himself transfixed by untouchable icons of fetishised womanhood: mannequins in a shop window, a painted nude in a bar where he is admired by women to whom he declines to speak, and a gilded statue of Joan of Arc.

manoel-de-oliveira.jpgManoel de Olivera 

Henri recounts the story of Belle de Jour to a young barman, and their conversation amounts to a review of the earlier film, a dissection of desire. When he and Severine meet, they dine in silence, and when she talks in the inadequate, banal pieties of psychoanalysis, Oliveira plays on the substitution of the actresses: “I’m not the woman you knew years ago… you’re talking to another person.” Unable to possess this woman even after all these years, Henri remains trapped as a voyeur, a spectator of Belle de Jour: He presents Severine with the mysterious box she is given by a client in a scene from the earlier film in which Henri was never present, and having lured her to this rendezvous with the prospect of revealing what he whispered to her stricken husband years ago, takes pleasure in denying her this satisfaction. The uncertainty principle, title of one of Oliveira’s finest recent films. There is a deep well of sympathy for both characters, but a refusal to favour either. Curiosity subverts the wish for closure, and the end, despite its conventional images of finality, an extinguished candle, a closing door, actually dissolves into ripples of intertextuality: a rooster wanders in from The Phantom of Liberty and Severine announces that she plans to retire to a convent, The Convent another of Oliveira’s films starring… Catherine Deneuve. A devil’s advocate teasing Buñuel’s anticlerical insolence.

As in many of Oliveira’s subversions of generic classical narrative, his heroine has the shadowy wisdom of the nun, complemented by the sclerotic perversions of her masculine interlocutor, his camera set at the bemused distance of the chorus. Like a clandestine prostitute, these beautifully enigmatic films reveal more than they explain. You don’t need to have seen Belle de Jour to appreciate Oliveira’s belated conceit, but you do need to see both films if you value our private contract with cinema. Belle Toujours is a book of disquiet that reminds us that the passing years do not redeem or soothe, but set their traps with untiring patience. The final act is constantly being rewritten. Time does not defeat desire. Desire defeats time.

James Norton is a researcher and producer working in arts television in London.