BELLE TOUJOURS (Manoel de Oliveira, 2006)

Portuguese writer-director Manoel de Oliveira has dedicated Belle toujours, a sequel to Belle de jour (1967), to Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, who together wrote the script from which Buñuel directed his erotic fusion of character subjectivity, his own dreams, and marital reality. That film was based on Joseph Kessel’s 1928 novel. A theme common to both films is the passage of time (Oliveira was 97 when he made his film and has made eight films since), and how this changes us and doesn’t change us at all.
     Oliveira’s exquisite film finds long-widowed Séverine Serizy avoiding Henri Husson in Paris—by her nimbleness, they keep just missing one another—until he catches her in the street and, promising to tell her what he whispered in her husband Pierre’s ear all those years ago, arranges for their dinner that night in a private room in a posh restaurant. But Husson is still Husson. Obscenely chuckling, he toys with Séverine and won’t answer the question the answer to which, she vulnerably confesses, is all-important to her. (Husson knew that Séverine was terrified that Pierre would discover that she sunlighted as a daytime prostitute in a brothel.) Oliveira: “He is satisfied in his sadism and in his particular revenge from the ways of that woman, who deep down desired him but whose haughty ways never allowed him to possess her.”
     Séverine interrupts her mostly mute meal with Henri to insist she is no longer the same woman she was 38 years earlier. Indeed, Catherine Deneuve played her back then, while Bulle Ogier plays her (wonderfully well) here. But maybe they are both confused, as Ogier played Florence in Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1971), which Buñuel also wrote with Carrière, and Michel Piccoli, while he played Henri in Belle de jour and again plays him here, also played a part in Discreet Charm. Has Florence crossed movies, adopting Séverine’s identity and misidentifying Piccoli’s character? The missed meetings between the two remind me a little of the unconsummated dinner in Discreet Charm!
     Of course, there is another wrinkle to identification operating here. When Séverine now tells Henri that she is not the same woman he remembers, she is also telling him that he did not see her for the person she really was all those years ago. Abetted by Sabine Lancelin’s extraordinary color cinematography, Oliveira’s film is itself dreamy; at times it appears to be sifting ghosts. Faint reflections of Henri and waiters in the window in the dark, candlelit private restaurant room contribute to this effect, as do the shots of Paris streets at night, including long-shots of the Eiffel Tower. In one sequence, Henri emerges from concert hall to street and passes by mannequins in a store window. (The resemblance of one of the mannequins to Isabelle Huppert slyly compounds the Ogier-Deneuve confusion.) Inside a bar, the young bartender might be a dream-projection of Henri’s self-involved psyche hankering for his own youth. I say this because shot after shot finds Henri at the bar sharing his image with the one of himself reflected in the vast mirror behind the bar.
     So much here is elusive: who we are, who we might have been, how we remember ourselves and others. It is the kind of thing someone who is nearing 100, and who is past 100 now and is still making films, might think of.

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