The Enigma of What Endures in Manoel de Oliveira's Belle toujours
by Nathaniel Drake Carlson
Manoel de Oliveira's 2006 film Belle toujours can be said to be many things, from a sequel to Luis Buñuel's classic Belle de jour, to an homage from one artist to another, to a self contained consideration of Oliveira's own signature ideas. But perhaps this film's most salient point of distinction is its emphasis on the ultimate inadequacy of adherence to only one particular point of view or vision of truth no matter how thoroughly determined; this is what establishes Belle toujours as its own separate entity and gives weight to its overriding theme of an encompassing sense of loss. This sustained state of loss is contrasted with the prospect of an equally enduring and potentially eternal principle of ever renewing self-conceptualization represented by the character of Séverine (Bulle Ogier).
Belle toujours picks up the events of Belle de jour almost four decades later. The new work is all about those events as they continue to be obsessively processed by Husson (Michel Piccoli), one of the primary characters of Buñuel's film, also played there by Piccoli. Husson is, in fact, the principal character of Oliveira's film, and Séverine, who was the dominant figure in the original, is subordinated to his relentless scrutiny. Husson, who had knowledge of Séverine's indiscretions in Buñuel's film, catches sight of her at a concert recital. His interest in her is rekindled, and he stalks her, eventually inducing her to agree to meet with him. He taunts her with his secret knowledge, specifically with the possibility that he will at last disclose what he told her husband. She is intimidated by this form of manipulation; and, as a result, Husson enjoys a brief, ephemeral power over a woman he could never have had in the natural course of events.
What stands out most on a first pass is the film's brevity, its succinct and purposeful character. As viewers familiar with Oliveira's oeuvre know, though his films are technically precise, they are by no means uniform in length. The duration of his narratives vary widely and appropriately, determined by their individual internal logics. In Belle toujours, stylistically, Oliveira has made what is arguably his most approachable feature since I'm Going Home. Similarly, this film is haunted by an acute awareness of mortality and an insulated retrospective vision. Knowledge of the Buñuel forerunner clearly helps one grasp Oliveira's project, but it isn't essential. The precision of Belle toujours can't be overstated; Oliveira goes in, gets the job done, and gets out. The work is very complete and cohesive, yet demanding of further engagement and closer scrutiny.
As an "homage" to Buñuel, Belle toujours functions in an interesting fashion. It certainly does not read as any kind of attempt at a sequel per se. Rather, it acts as an opportunity for one artist, with his own unique sensibility, to reflect on another who has been a formative influence. Still, and despite plenty of Buñuelian allusions, there is no effort made to adapt the style of the one to fit the other and no concern that the Oliveira's film may feel like only an appendage to the earlier, self-contained great work. In this regard, the infamous rooster scene in Belle toujours comes across as almost perfunctory, a nod of recognition to the origins of an attitude. Oliveira's own attitude (and his films are always about the imposition of attitude) is never absent even if it remains often, and typically, hard to pin down. However, the fact that his relationship to the earlier film is in a certain sense paralleled by the clearly incomplete perspective of the new film's central character cannot help but act as an acknowledgment of ironic limitation. For Oliveira is conceding that his own reflection on the contents and thematics of the first film are but one possible reflection of many. If his view is seen as a settled statement it would be no less systematically prescribed and delimited than Husson's; the significant difference is in the ability to recognize it as such. This recognition prevents it from any absolutist pretension.
The occasions for a kind of perversity to surface in Belle toujours are abundant in terms of both form and content. We observe Husson as he finds Séverine in a crowd and loses her. It's evident that she is trying to avoid Husson's numerous unsuccessful attempts at confrontation. There is a willful perversity to be sure in Oliveira's staging of the first actual conversation between the two, composed in long shot, the dialog inaudible. Later, and in another explicit moment of deference to Buñuel, Husson presents Séverine with a replica of the buzzing box from the original film. She turns it away claiming to have no interest anymore in such cryptic provocations and we, of course, are not even afforded a glimpse of its contents.
Nevertheless, Oliveira's most perverse and characteristic stylistic decision is his presentation of the climactic dinner sequence, which is designed in a very forthright way to accommodate the confrontation we've been waiting to see. It is depicted in minute detail; we watch Husson and Séverine go through drinks and several courses before saying more than a few words to one another. This particular staging has precedent in Oliveira's familiar and rhythmic use of static framed imagery as transitional or bridging material, a device which is often mistakenly singled out for ridicule—as with, for instance, the shots of the ship's prow cutting through the water in A Talking Picture. Many took these images to be evidence of a desiccated imagination instead of perceiving in their perpetual return a comment on the inexorable forward motion of an aggressively insidious and unreflective progress. In other words, Oliveira's compositions imply a function or purpose beyond what is depicted and yet the depiction itself can be seen as a perverse act, an inexcusable secession to the supposedly mundane.
But the dinner sequence in all its detail is crucial to an understanding of what Oliveira is up to in Belle toujours. It establishes the confines of the room and the enactment of this very civilized dining ritual as the ultimate context for these characters' attitudes. It has been referred to as almost equivalent to a religious rite and this is not far off. Certainly, the whole sequence depends for much of its effect on Oliveira's understanding of the inherent theatrical dimension of lived space, the way it can and almost always does align itself with the specifics of an imposed consciousness or imaginative vision inherent in the human condition. The final, literal dismantling of this space is, of course, apt.
The dismantling of space has its esthetic parallels to the opening scenes of the film. Oliveira begins Belle toujours with a long take of a Dvorak symphony performance, another signifier of high culture. It is here that Husson catches his first glimpse of Séverine. Afterwards, we observe the patrons filing out and the methodical closing procedures in which the music hall, once vibrant with energy, is slowly shuttered and darkened. Husson is thrust into isolation, cut loose from socially specific orientation, and as he drifts down the city streets the electric lights above him also begin to dim and go out. In the later, final sequence, Husson and Séverine's ritualistic dinner also eventually dissolves into darkness as the candles flicker and die, appropriately complementing the tone of their retrospective conversation. Husson and Séverine are finally reduced to almost indiscernible silhouettes against the light from the expansive background window. In close-up they are isolated in virtual darkness, a haunting separation from the room's many emblems of high culture and refined taste, which had served to sustain and ground what communication they could have.
Structurally, Belle toujours is almost evenly divided between the "search" and the "resolution." The first thirty-five minutes of its sixty-five minute running time details Husson's attempts to track down and confront Séverine. His efforts are rhythmically broken up by a series of extended visits he makes to a bar from which he saw Séverine emerge. Static, though panoramic, vista shots of Paris are also intercut throughout and act almost as chapter breaks; these shots are scored by snippets of Dvorak, the only time other than the opening performance when we hear any music. The music enhances the artifice of the seemingly naturalistic dramatic sequences and emphasizes their presentational qualities. We recognize with clarity how actors are positioned and move within the frame to create highly precise images. Husson, for instance, is seen consistently in a mirror behind the bar, a compositional decision which highlights the enforced division of his conscious self during his confessions to the bartender.
Perversity is a continuous theme within the artificial context of the film. The very word is used by both Husson and Séverine but with radically different emphases. Once again, attitude is at the heart of Oliveira's film. Husson uses the word to describe Séverine's proclivities as he knew them; he uses it to describe a kind of licentiousness by which he is secretly enthralled. Its appeal is the forbidden. Ultimately he wants to justify that appeal to himself by using the term freely, rendering his desire normative. This is why the final confrontation with Séverine is surely so unsatisfying for him. She regrets her "ill-spent past" and even speaks of retiring to a convent. But when she speaks of her "perverse" desires she uses the term to denote a deviation from a recognized or established norm, even if she is not necessarily voicing a moral judgment. Séverine's use of the term "wicked" seems to be more of an acknowledgment of social designation than evidence of any moral condemnation. Her denial of feeling guilty for her past actions (significantly she simply says they "no longer interest" her) is significant as it indicates a distinct misunderstanding between the two characters. Husson misses this point when he declares that they are similar as he is now an alcoholic, an addictive behavior that functions as his "convent."
Husson's crucial lack of insight is also highlighted during his several dialogs with the barman (Ricardo Trêpa), whose variations on the same point time and again seem not to register upon Husson at all. The barman mentions that, "[a] lot of customers feel the need to confess. And they only do it with a stranger. With somebody who seems disinterested in what he's hearing." Later he adds that "they feel a need to unburden themselves. But never to someone they know, and even less to a friend. They confess... to someone neutral like me who doesn't know them or won't see them again. That way, they're sure their confessions will die there." This anonymity parallels Severine's brothel experience of long ago, which shielded her from the threat of authentic or emotive intimacy, which she now acknowledges. But Husson strenuously denies his position as a participant in perversity and insists on defining himself as an impartial third person observer, while all the time he is seeking, under this cover, to manipulate the known limits of his described universe. He fails to recognize that this kind of behavior is partially responsible for much of his present alienation. Beyond that, his aggressive and self-imposed ignorance, perhaps, also is meant to indicate why his "confessional" must take the form it does. It is precisely because Husson's dismay is not a genuinely moral one that it cannot by rights be construed as religious guilt. His disillusionment is too obscured by denial and truncated vision to ever be subject to such codified moral instruction; it lacks the necessary self-awareness for that.
The symbolic female is a consistent presence throughout this film, appearing in forms as diverse as mannequin heads in a store window, prostitutes at the bar, an image in a tapestry or within a painting, and even the figure of a bronze Joan of Arc (a personality who also turns up to significant effect in Oliveira's The Uncertainty Principle). These appearances illustrate Husson's method of seeing and understanding women. Though there is a seemingly broad spectrum represented, what is important is that these representatives are all so rigorously positioned. They exist either behind glass or within the frame of the painting. The prostitutes, for their part, are pressed into unyielding, conceptually recognizable social roles, and even Joan of Arc is presented as though on display, set solidly within a space of admiration and earned respect. Husson states, "(t)o me, women were always Nature's greatest enigma," and yet, by responding to these specific variations in female presence, safely rendered and contained as they are, Husson can maintain a position of implicit authority, of unchallengeable interpretive accuracy.
The prostitutes are paired to highlight an age difference, which reads superficially as a comment on the enduring nature of their profession, as well as yet another link to the milieu of the previous film. At one point, the younger prostitute (Leonor Baldaque) says to her companion (Júlia Buisel), "They say you're something special in bed. The problem is getting them there," to which the older woman responds, "But you've always helped me to get them interested." These remarks not only acknowledge the reality of an economic relationship between the two women but also suggest a way in which this reflects on the central narrative. The barman speaks of them as "poor souls" but also "angels" who "don't delude anybody" and "do business with their bodies." The implication is that feminine sexuality is a potentially wild and chaotic thing that can risk escaping the enforcement of designation. The prostitutes are, in a sense then, congratulated for their candid and forthright lifestyle, but this is partially because the persistence of this lifestyle maintains orientation within a balanced social order. As Agustina Bessa-Luis says during her cameo in Oliveira's Porto da Minha Infância, "The geisha is a misdemeanor within democracy, but without misdemeanors there can be no culture." It's no slight detail that Séverine later refers to her own youthful attitude as "imbalanced." Her comment does not resonate as a moral judgment, but simply a recognition of what is; and, furthermore, an indicator that she will not fit easily within the rigors of such a social order, especially one motivated by the superficial transgressions provided by a shallow set of moral assumptions.
The prostitutes also represent the flux of definable beauty that has long held a fascination for Oliveira. The pragmatics they ground their friendship in is a valuable part of a system in which the primary quality of beauty is its function as an inducement. The beauty that diminishes then is that which is only an inducement.
The final sequence itself functions as a metacommentary on this established theme. The space Husson has prepared is so ornate and richly luxurious as to be almost oppressive or claustrophobic, so full of paintings, tapestries, carpeting, cabinets, and screens that its ornamentation is virtually inescapable. The only release is the window between Husson and Séverine, heavy red curtains framing it on either side. The window allows the two characters to gaze out over Paris and to regard it as belle toujours, a cultural inheritance which will endure beyond the transience of their particular relationship to it. In this way, the city itself serves as Oliveira's ultimate model exemplar; the embodiment or definition of an eternal principle.
Husson makes a practice of imposing his own story upon all the narrative elements of Séverine's. He relentlessly reads her history as an adjunct to his own, as some perfectly realized embodiment of all his prejudices. Even when he finally engages in a prolonged dialog with her, a gulf of separation remains between them, perpetuated by Husson's inability to imagine an alternative vision that could be just as legitimate as his own. The title itself is Oliveira's ironic acknowledgement of this nuanced distinction; the idea that the notion of beauty is infinitely malleable and applicable as perspective warrants. The casting of Bulle Ogier in the role made famous by Catherine Deneuve provides another example of how beauty affects us. That Ogier is not the original Severine is emphasized by the glaringly artificial blonde wig she wears. Surface signifiers, then, will fade or alter unavoidably while the internal aspects of character and its refinements can endure and develop or be neglected and remain unrecognized. Yet it is very much in the notion of a fixed, static series of reference points that Husson finds his comfort and reassurance.
Michel Piccoli is superb throughout and so much relies on his performance. He projects a consistent imbalance of his own, a self-effacing quality marbled with a very real desperation. He seeks a justification for his own perceptions, a way to convince himself of the inevitability of where he has ended up in life. He raises himself in his own estimation by intruding himself in Severine's story, telling the young bartender that he "represented the conscience she didn't have" and happily agrees with the bartender when he suggests that Husson was "just an instrument to her." The continuity of civilization as embodied by Husson appears to rely upon well-deployed hypocrisies.
Hypocrisy is also evident as Husson details Séverine's "wicked" past, referring in passing to the brothel of the first film. The bartender then remarks that "some customers tell me that in their youth there were a lot of these houses. They say things have changed a lot since then. They even complain about the mentality of people these days. That the values of their day have been overthrown." This irony is casually stated, but the implication is immense; for Husson's imagined power over Séverine comes from an assumed moral context, the assumed authority of a particular circumscribed moral order which he is only interested in insofar as it can bestow him with that power of authority. That she can transcend it, positioning her own renunciation in a broader context, is the key to her freedom. Husson's inability to understand this is the definition of his damnation.
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Nathaniel Drake Carlson is a writer of fiction, film criticism and screenplays. He was feature film critic for Fever Pitch magazine and recently contributed a number of pieces to the new collection 501 Movie Directors, which includes essays on Manoel de Oliveira, Alexander Sokurov and Lucrecia Martel. His first produced feature, Acts of Contrition, is forthcoming.
Cineaste, Vol. 33 No.3 (Summer 2008).