Thirty-nine years after director Luis Bunuel and scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carriere shocked the pants off the bourgeoisie with “Belle de Jour” (turned down by Cannes for “artistic insufficiency” but awarded the Golden Lion in Venice in 1967), Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira presents an eccentric “sequel” in “Belle Toujours.” Die-hard fans of the original will find no easy continuity in his very different style of wit and pacing, and may be disappointed to find a blonde-wigged Bulle Ogier in the Catherine Deneuve role.
More quirky than kinky, this little parable about how people change over a lifetime — or unwisely refuse to do so — lacks the perverse sex and sadomasochistic fantasies that made “Belle de Jour” the highest grossing film of Bunuel’s illustrious career. On the other hand, Oliveira’s short but sweet rumination on growing old and the fading of sexual desire is not only high-concept, but one of his most watchable, foretelling business comparable to his well-liked “I’m Going Home” (2001.)
The appearance of Michel Piccoli reprising his role as incorrigible roue Henri Husson cross-references both “Belle de Jour” and the somber thoughts of death in “I’m Going Home,” neatly linking eros and thanatos.
In an elegant concert hall in Paris, Henri (Piccoli) suddenly spies Severine (Ogier), whom he hasn’t seen since he walked out the door in the previous film without telling her whether he had divulged her secret life as an afternoon prostitute to her wheelchair-ridden husband. Before the narrative can progress, however, fidgety viewers are required to politely sit out the entire Dvorak symphony with Henri, while his desire to capture Severine goes into overdrive.
Though she does her best to avoid him, he chases her around Paris until he finally succeeds in enticing her to an intimate candlelight dinner, where she (and we) wait on tenterhooks for him to relieve her of the terrible doubt that has plagued her all her life. But while Henri seems caught in a time-warp, wanting to “recall our wickedness” and to punish her for not having wanted him as a lover, Severine has become a sad-eyed widow bowed by guilt –no longer the perverse young woman he lusted after. To Henri’s consternation, she announces she wants to retire to a convent.
At 98, Oliveira is in magnificent command of his medium. His screenplay is peppered with delightful little jokes, like the mysterious buzzing box from the original film, or a chicken that appears out of nowhere in a tip of the hat to the surrealists Bunuel and Carriere. Few serious directors would dare measure themselves against such predecessors, but it must be said that Oliveira has extended their outrageous story in a satisfyingly weird, though less generally accessible, direction.
A lively Piccoli takes malicious delight in this recap. He is in his element swilling scotch and chatting up young bartender Ricardo Trepa as two jaded ladies of the night (Leonor Baldaque and Julia Buisel) look on. Despite her smaller role, the melancholy Ogier wins sympathy in a way Deneuve’s Severine did not, distancing her from the original role.
An array of top technical work captures the beauty of Paris, especially in the way d.p. Sabine Lancelin captures light moving over the Eiffel Tower and the city’s long boulevards and gardens. The cozy luxury of production designer Christian Magis’ interiors recall decades of French cinema past.