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New York Film Festival 2006: Belle Toujours

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New York Film Festival 2006: <em>Belle Toujours</em>

It’s easy to call Manoel de Oliveira’s Belle Toujours—a derelict appendage to Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour—an homage, but look beyond the desiccated parallels to its cause célèbre predecessor (e.g.: Bulle Ogier standing in for Catherine Deneuve as a not-so-obscure object of desire; an out-of-nowhere appearance by a rooster—seemingly matted into frame—strutting along a luxurious hotel hallway) and there’s little of substance beyond a slightly pleasurable twinge of recognition. We can all shudder with delight as Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli) plays retroactive mindgames with Séverine Serizy (Ogier), teasing her during a candlelight dinner with answers to questions that will inevitably fold back on themselves. But it’s all a childish diversion: during a beautifully composed chiaroscuro long-take, Henri pokes and prods Séverine about the contents of the prior film’s famed buzzing box, yet the dialogue doesn’t play with anything approaching Buñuel’s level of cruelty, his profoundly (under)cutting view of the world (this is the man, remember, who not only showed Christ coming out of the 120 Days of Sodom, but then turning right around and going back in).

Buñuel tears the gates of perception asunder; de Oliveira, at least in Belle Toujours, keeps us decidedly earthbound. This might be part of the point: to show, essentially, how the characters’ unhinged fantasy lives have been tempered by age, with all the resultant hemming and hawing about lost youth that, placed within a slightly different framework, might well be entitled Trip to Bountiful. But this thesis presumes, however unintentionally, that Buñuel differentiates between waking and dreaming states, which is the very “bourgeois” concept (one of many) that he works to break down in Belle de jour and one that de Oliveira (whom Ed Gonzalez, in his Slant Magazine review, correctly fingers as an “aesthete”) resurrects for his “sequel.”

If Belle Toujours stood on its own I might have bought into de Oliveira’s playful interloping, but the work is too slight (a brief 68 minutes) and too dependent on our memory of what’s preceded to have its own resonance. The clucking cock homage and the travelogue aerials of Paris (scored to snippets of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony #8 in G Major) are clear demarcators that separate the fantastic from the factual—they’re affectations that intrude rather than infect. And for a good portion of the running time we’re stuck in an underlit bar off the corners of Exposition Street and Analysis Avenue where Henri lays out the schematics of the previous film to a barman (Ricardo Trepa) who fancies himself a sort of priest (how Buñuel might have skewered his pretensions!) while two prostitutes (Leonor Baldaque and Júlia Buisel) offer cutesy sideline commentary about how Henri is so caught up in his confession that he fails to notice them. This in itself might be de Oliveira’s own admission: he’s so enamored of his predecessor that he fails to grasp how Belle Toujours’ diagrammatic annotations and doodlings effectively boil Buñuel down to a belletristic skeleton. Like a forced bloodletting, the film drains all the mystery out of a masterpiece.