Belle Toujours

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 July, 2008, 12:00am

Belle Toujours

Starring: Michel Piccoli, Bulle Ogier, Ricardo Trepa

Director: Manoel de Oliveira

The film: Described by veteran filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira as an homage to Luis Bu?uel - or, to be more specific, the late Spanish master's Catherine Deneuve-starring Belle de Jour, to which this film serves as a sequel - Belle Toujours comes across as more like a cinematic dessert.

But a helping of delightful confectionery this 70-minute film certainly is: what it lacks in dramatic power it makes up for with delicate imagery, contemplative characters and dialogue, and a subtle examination about emotional scars and their remembrance.

Set in contemporary Paris, Belle Toujours is meant to take up the story of Belle de Jour - in which young and sexually repressed housewife Severine worked afternoons as a prostitute in a brothel, a move made possible by the information (and implicit backing) from her husband's idle, rich friend, Henri.

Four decades onwards from that episode, Henri (Michel Piccoli reprising his role from the 1967 original) and Severine (with Bulle Ogier taking over Deneuve's part) meet again, with the former in hot pursuit of the latter, finally coaxing her to a dinner date in which he promises he will reveal whether he told her comatose husband of her sexual adventures (a thread which Bu?uel left ambivalent in his film).

It's hardly a surprise (or a spoiler) to reveal that, by the end of the film, Severine (and the audience) will be left no wiser about that. And de Oliveira has clearly never meant to tie up loose ends for Bu?uel anyway, as both films share a premise but hardly the same motive or aesthetics.

Belle Toujours, as its name suggests, is more a beautiful exercise looking at how Henri deals with his memories, and how Severine attempts to avoid or reshape hers.

Taking the shape of a theatre piece, the film comprises individual scenes of the pair's cat-and-mouse pursuit, Henri's conversations with a barman (played by Ricardo Trepa, de Oliveira's grandson, above with Piccoli) about the story 40 years ago, and the tense dinner he shares with Severine. All this is punctuated by aerial views of Paris set against classical music that harks back to the beginning of the film, when Henri first spots Severine several rows in front of him at a concert.

The one thing this film shares with Belle de Jour is its dreamlike quality. There are no fantasy scenes a la Bu?uel here for sure but the slowness and introspection that permeate Belle Toujours gives the whole film a gentle glow. Maybe this film is a closure of the 40-year-old controversy of Bu?uel's film after all.

The extras: Interviews dominate the disc's special features. The ones with the cast are comparatively short and uneventful, probably with the exception of the sight of Piccoli backpedaling on comments he made earlier about de Oliveira being more intellectual than Bu?uel.

However, the 20-minute interview with the director himself is very revealing about his work and also his views on subjects such as theatre, filmmaking and the symbols within this film.

A gallery of production stills - again backed by classical music - is elegiac, and there's also a downloadable press kit which may help the uninitiated to fill in the gaps.

The verdict: A thoroughly beautiful, cerebral and humorous outing from the near-centenarian filmmaker.