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be closer to an academic exercise in de Oliveria’s interpretation of the original, which also seems quite outlandishly outdated.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.

     There, with the help of several iceless whiskeys, Husson entrances the bartender with his vague and slightly dishonest narration of the events of the Buñuel film. Chalk it up to the director’s age again for the inability of the young, handsome bartender, living in a period that appears to be contemporaneous with the movie’s making, to comprehend the woman’s behavior, who also queries Husson about the existence in the late 1960s of apartment-complex houses of prostitution. That he is supposedly wise to all sorts of sexual information. given his occupation, where, he as describes it, many patrons feel to the need to confess their sexual peccadilloes to a seemingly disinterested stranger, makes it even harder to imagine that the young man might have any time to devote to the salacious analytical observations of a drooling old codger.
    The kid is anything but dumb, even proffering the observation to the obviously unreflective elder man, that men also do precisely what Séverine has. Perhaps he gets a certain sexual gratification from the numerous confessions over which he officiates.   
     Yet for all the seemingly “slight” Dvorak-scored “travelogue aerials of Paris” that demarcate Buñuel’s fantasy from the “factual” “affectations” of de Oliveria’s work—as Slant magazine described the whole affair—there is something so completely aesthetically fascinating about this film, particularly in the perfection of its images, acting, and sound-editing, that I was hardly able to take my eyes away from the screen.

     If Husson is a doddering old fool dishing out antique theories of Freudian behavior which never existed in real life, he is also still a dandy—at least in his own mind—a self-infatuated old cock who wanders the Paris streets in a Proustian-like fantasy as he stalks the woman from the past, peering in windows at bewigged female mannequins and his own image simultaneously. One imagines that he even posits the possibility that he and Séverine still might sexually come together, particularly when she finally (in a dialogue erased by streets sounds) agrees to meet him for dinner. He arranges a private dining room with candles, in which, once the couple have finished eating, he suggests they talk in only candlelight. 
      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.

     In response, Husson merely reiterates the two possibilities, throwing the alternatives, suggesting that he may be lying in either case, back in her lap. Séverine rushes from the room, breaking a bottle of wine and glasses in her abandonment of the personification of selfishness who has sat across from her at the table. De Oliviera suddenly comments on the action by presenting, almost in surreal-like fashion, the image of a cock strolling down the elite hotel hallway, emblematizing the Husson character in a way that we now know has not at all represented in own personal interpretations. 
      In her escape, Séverine has also left behind her purse, from which the vengeful and now thieving monster takes evidently large denominations of money in order to tip the waiters. After he leaves, they, themselves, describe him as an perverted weirdo as they clear the tables and carry away the would-be romantic candelabras. Although Husson, now in possession of Séverine’s identity and some of her money, may have imagined he was won, Séverine clearly has again escaped his clutches. He may have destroyed her husband’s love and faith, but he has no real power over the opposite sex, especially a woman who has so successfully freed herself from his kind.
      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

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