Belle Toujours

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive

The Death of Desire

Séverine and Husson recall transgressions of yesteryear.

“He’s an odd bird,” a waiter says of the main character at the end of this film, and the same might be said of Belle Toujours, a famous Portuguese director’s homage to a film made 40 years ago by a famous Spanish director, starring one of the original actors. Both films, set in Paris, were made in French.

The Portuguese director is the 98-year-old Manoel de Oliveira, who has made this “sequel” to Luis Buñuel’s brilliant Belle de Jour (1967), the story of a beautiful, wealthy, repressed young housewife who spends her afternoons turning tricks in a maison de rendez-vous, an extracurricular activity that enables her to fulfill her sexual fantasies and love her husband fully but leads to tragedy in the end.

Oliveira takes up the story in real time, with Michel Piccoli once again playing Husson, the lecherous playboy friend of Séverine’s husband who gave her the address of the brothel in Belle de Jour. Husson glimpses the now-widowed Séverine, here played by Bulle Ogier (Catherine Deneuve, the original Séverine, turned down the role) at a concert. He pursues his unwilling victim until she agrees to have dinner with him and discuss her murky past. In the meantime, the now-alcoholic Husson tells her story to a bartender in a plush bar (frequented by two prostitutes who act as a Greek chorus) of the sort you’d have a hard time finding in today’s Paris.

Oliveira has a strong literary bent and, like some of his other films, this one is talky, slow-moving (it seems much longer than its one hour and 10 minutes) and atmospheric. Interspersed with the music of Dvorak and long aerial shots of Paris at night, it has an old-fashioned, almost musty feel appropriate to the age and wealth of the protagonists.

It is full of references to Belle de Jour: the painting in the bar of a reclining naked woman seen from the back is similar to one in the brothel in Belle de Jour, for example, and Husson buys Séverine an evocative gift she has a great deal of trouble appreciating: a wooden box that produces the sound of a buzzing insect when opened. The latter is an in joke, since in Belle de Jour, we never find out what was in the mysterious box brought to the brothel by a Japanese client.

“Quel poète!” one spectactor said on leaving the cinema, but this film is more of a poignant essay on aging, the death of desire (Séverine says she is “a different woman” and talks about joining a convent, while Husson seems to have drowned all traces of lechery in alcohol) and, in the end, the meaningless of it all. We do not even get an answer to the question it poses – did Husson really tell Séverine’s husband the truth about her hobby – which is moot anyway, since the answer seems clear in the original film.

Belle Toujours does, however, have the felicitous effect of inspiring a strong desire to see Belle de Jour once again, a desire worth acting on.

Heidi Ellison

© 2007 Paris Update

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