Belle Toujours, Manoel de Oliveira’s poised, Parisian mood piece, announces itself as an homage to Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carriére, co-writers of Belle de Jour, the indelible 1967 meditation on sublimations of desire, sadomasochism, and Catherine Deneuve in a push-up. Rather than a sequel proper, de Oliveira offers more of an extended coda to the original, one that happened to be shot in real time. The intent of an homage is intensely personal and its merits therefore rather tricky to parse, but even on those terms de Oliveira’s tribute aspires to shimmering enigma. Belle Toujours‘ deliberative narrative dance eventually reunites matinee hooker Séverine and her tormentor Husson after 38 years, but falls too often into didactic post-game analysis for its delicate mysteries to retain their luster.
Husson (played again by Michel Piccoli) is now an aged man of silky affluence who runs on whiskey and nostalgia. The years have clearly brought him many rewards, though women remain “nature’s greatest enigma,” mythical creatures quizzically observed in the form of mannequin heads, Jeanne d’Arc statuary, paintings of odalisques, wood nymphs, and ultimately the figure of Séverine herself, seated a few rows over at the symphony. Though Paris seems impervious to time, the formerly wanton Séverine insists, when Husson persuades her to join him for dinner, that she is a different woman. Indeed, she now bears an uncanny resemblance to the actress Bulle Ogier. Referring to her sexual history as “unbalanced” and “twisted,” Séverine is not interested in a jaunt down lurid lane, and is focused on finally learning whether Husson shared what he knew of her proclivities with her invalid husband. Husson takes a bemused pleasure in his guest’s brittle discomfort, one that confirms the self-assessment made during a long, expository conversation with a barkeep: “My role is to observe, even to provoke.” One may wish for a little more provocation here, and yet reflection is as apt a tributary choice as any for the 98-year-old director.