France, 2006, 69 minutes
Writer-director: Manoel de Oliveira
With: Michel Piccoli, Bulle Ogier, Ricardo Trepa, Leonor Baldaque, Julia Buisel
Director-intellectual Manoel de Oliveira made his first film in 1931 and only another 10 over the next 40 years, but since the mid-1970s he has been on, roughly, a film-a-year pace comparable to that of Woody Allen. He is currently in production on a feature in his native Portugal to be released in 2009 -- when he will be 100 years old.
"Belle Toujours," made in 2006 and released in the U.S. last year, is Oliveira's self-described homage to Luis Bunuel's 1967 hit, "Belle de Jour," in which Catherine Deneuve played a young, frigid, bourgeois housewife who unleashed her masochistic self by working in a brothel. The sex job had been playfully suggested to Severine by her husband's snobbish friend Husson (Michel Piccoli), who at the film's suspenseful climax, returns to the brothel after a long absence and discovers the shocked Severine, who fears Husson will tell her husband about her secret life. Husson does visit the husband, who has been blinded and maimed by one of Severine's clients, but Bunuel withholds from us, and from Severine, what Husson tells or doesn't tell the invalid.
That bit of mystery also features in the climax, such as it is, of Oliveira's "Belle Toujours," a visually sumptuous but slight treatise on time and memory. Michel Piccoli returns as Husson, but Severine is now played by Bulle Ogier. (If one can't get La Deneuve, Ogier is a good second choice, since she not only starred in a Bunuel film, "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," but also in a kinky classic, Barbet Schroeder's 1976 "Maitresse," playing a dominatrix who, in one of mainstream cinema's most outré moments, calmly nails a client's foreskin to a board.)
Attending a classical concert, Husson spots Severine in the audience, presumably his first sight of her in 39 years; she spots him too, and eludes him as the theater empties out. With the help of the friendliest bartender in the Western world, the old man tracks her down and after some cat-and-mouse business coaxes her to have dinner with him. Their sitdown in the impossibly chic private room of a Paris restaurant is, depending on your cinematic viewpoint, either a brilliant deconstruction, in real time, of a dinner conversation between people who realize they have nothing to say to each other, or the sort of thing that people have in mind when they say they hate "French movies." (The scene ends with a rooster walking past the dining room; it's Oliveira's one bit of Bunuelian surrealism, but it feels forced.)
Giving Oliveira his due, the movie is masterfully smooth and understated, and while it's short, it does feel full, mainly thanks to Piccoli's performance. The bastard Husson of "Belle de Jour" here seems to have mellowed and softened. He smiles constantly, is friendly to everyone he encounters (his earlier self was a misanthrope) and there's pathos in his lonely wanderings. But he does have one last nasty trick up his sleeve. Ogier, as fine as she is, only reminds us of Deneuve's absence, but it's not entirely her fault. While Severine was the central, most interesting character in Bunuel's film, Oliveira reimagines her as a mere support act to the devious Husson. Their climactic reunion is a letdown, and when Severine repeatedly tells Husson, "I'm not that woman anymore," we can only sadly nod in agreement.
New Yorker's disc presents the 99-year-old Manoel de Oliveira's richly shot film in a nice transfer, letterboxing the original 16:9 image. An amber tone (the color of age?) dominates the movie, offset by deep blacks (death?); Severine's blonde hair stands out dramatically, both as a practical means of letting Husson spot her in a crowd, and as a sign of a beautiful woman beating back the onslaught of age. The stereo sound provides a fully realistic ambience, especially in two bar scenes in which the offscreen murmur of voices had me thinking I had company in the next room. The film is in French, with white English subtitles.
Besides a trailer for the film and a montage of on-the-set photos set to music, the chief extras are interviews with filmmaker Oliveira and stars Piccoli, Ogier and young Ricardo Trepa, who plays the helpful bartender. Oliveira, interviewed in Brooklyn in March of 2008, looks to be a man in his 70s and lucidly discusses Luis Bunuel, how cinema and theater connect, and literature as the purist of all the arts (it's solitary and private, not public, he explains). There's also a downloadable presskit, including filmographies, accessible via your DVD-ROM drive. The booklet includes a valuable essay by Oliveira biographer Randal Johnson.
Cinephiles need no urging to see "Belle Toujours," a catching-up with two of the major characters from the 1967 Luis Bunuel classic "Belle de Jour." Manoel de Oliveira's film is exceptional in its own right but is a different animal from its predecessor -- sober, contemplative and wise rather than shocking, playful and critical of society. Its short running time gives it the feeling of an epilogue to a larger work, but there are other rewards to be discovered by those intrigued enough to look. The DVD extras are substantial.