Saturday, April 25, 2015
Manoel de Oliveira | Belle Toujours
woman of today
by Douglas Messerli
Manoel de Oliveira (writer and director) Belle Toujours / 2006
Manoel de Oliveira’s 2006 film Belle Toujours describes itself as an homage to Luis Buñuel’s intriguing Belle de Jour from 1967. But, actually, it first appears to be closer to an academic exercise in de Oliveria’s interpretation of the original, which also seems quite outlandishly outdated. We can perhaps forgive de Oliveria’s apparently misogynistic attitudes and interpretations of the behavior of the previous film’s central character, Séverine, as representing a combination of masochistic and sadist attitudes, given the fact that the Portuguese director was 100 years of age at the time of its release.
In fact, many of the original viewers in 1967 also felt that it was necessary to explain Séverine’s quite unconventional behavior, in which the loving wife of a handsome young doctor slipped out each afternoon to work as a prostitute. The possibility that a beautiful woman, trapped in a pleasant, even loving, but totally uneventful housebound marriage might simply be interested—given her unconventional sexual and familial attitudes—might be fascinated by other sexual possibilities, particularly in a time when many males, including her husband’s best friend, sought out sexual liaisons apart from their marital relationships, evidently seemed impossible to imagine for most critics of the period. And the idea that Buñuel’s character, played by Catherine Deneuve, might be a proto-feminist figure, as I argue, might not have even been entirely apparent to the authors, Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, themselves.
And to give de Oliveria credit, he does have his elderly Séverine (Bulle Ogier this time around) admit to having no sense of guilt for her behavior precisely because of her unconventional moral values. The character who expresses what might be de Oliveira’s interpretations, moreover—the sexist, now alcoholic, and totally unappealing former blackmailer (in the original he demands sex for withholding the information about her sexual activities from her husband), Henri Husson (played with remarkable precision by the original Husson, Michael Piccoli) would surely be unable to conceive any other scenario; late in the movie he even attempts to cover over his offensive behavior by retreating behind the old saw that women are incomprehensive mysteries. The real mystery, it seems to me, is why even a young prostitute, who with her older friend who have plunked themselves down in a local bar which Husson visits three times during the movie, might even find him attractive. Séverine, for her part, spends the first half of de Oliveira’s homage in trying to escape any contact between the old lecher.
Even de Oliveria seems disinterested in actually getting these two back together, slowing his 68 minute movie down to such a luxuriously relaxed pace that one begins to wonder whether there might ever be even a glimmer of narrative, using the first 7-8 minutes of the work to present us with a nearly complete performance of Anton Dvorak’s Symphony #8 in G Major—a concert whereat Husson first spots Séverine—and following it by two or three languorous postcard views of the Paris landscape. Most of the film’s dialogue takes place in a local bar which, quite inexplicably, Séverine has momentarily stopped in search of a regular patron.
But if we might imagine this carefully organized dinner as a prelude to anything else, de Oliveira presents it as a near-completely unspoken affair, as the couple dine, Husson licking his lips in slightly obscene delight of each bite; all Séverine wants to know is whether or not Husson has really revealed to her husband that she had been a prostitute; it is not that she is ashamed of her activities—as she admits she now, in older age, a changed woman and she continues to feel no guilt—but, it becomes clear, she is still distraught over the fact that her husband might have been, before being inexplicably shot and paralyzed by one of her jealous clients, have suffered with the knowledge; she needs to know whether the frozen tear that formed at the edge of his eye was in sympathy with her or the result of a tortured vision of his wife.
Totally unable to comprehend her dilemma, Husson has instead brought her a gift of a sexual toy-box whose contents, consisting of the sound of a buzzing fly, was never completely revealed in the Buñuel film. She is outraged by his present, and returns it to him, demanding he live up to his promise to tell her whether or not he has told her husband.
Ultimately, de Olivera’s film, we perceive, has been an homage, not to Buñuel, but to his character Séverine, whom de Oliveria truly does portray as a woman of today.
Los Angeles, April 25, 2015