While sequels play out as standard fare with blockbusters, arthouse followups are an entirely different matter. Especially if you happen to be tampering with an undisputed classic, and you also don’t happen to be the late legendary director of the original work either. And while Manoel de Oliviera’s Belle Toujours is an ambitious attempt to continue narrating cinematic master Luis Bunuel’s 1967 Belle de Jour just where the credits began to roll, the old adage ‘leave well enough alone’ may have been more advisable.
A rather slight dramatic concept when compared to the original, and too minimalist in its vision to stand on its own as a story, Belle Toujours might have been better off dropping its sequelized notions and distracting repeated references to the Bunuel film, settling perhaps on an ‘inspired by’ abstraction instead. Though there is the still artistically vigorous ninety eight year old director’s remarkable reconception of the title. Which may suggest either creative immortality of a work of cinema as it flows through the imaginative process from one director to another, or simply sexual obsession perpetually unresolved. Or perhaps even a little of both.
Picking up the story nearly four decades later, the film finds de Oliviera’s older but hardly wiser Henri (Michael Piccoli) a dapper but decadent alcoholic who still longs for Catherine Deneuve’s now widowed Severine, portrayed here by Bulle Ogier. And despite their weird and mutually destructive adulterous affair years ago. He catches sight of her by chance at a concert and pursues Severine to her hotel, but she refuses his overtures.
Henri continues his pursuit – between double whiskey shots at a hotel bar – and wears her down until she agrees to meet him for a private dinner. Severine’s motives are far different from Henri’s rekindled lust. She is desperate to know exactly what Henri told her late husband about their kinky trysts. Henri sadistically teases the distraught woman over dinner, holding out the promise of revealing everything and then changing his mind. Severine eventually flees in disgust, as a rooster appears out of nowhere.
De Oliviera is a brilliant master when it comes to capturing on screen the detailed interludes and intense pauses surrounding and flowing through the central drama. But the whole of a cinematic construction really needs to be more than the sum of its background moments.
New York Video
DVD Feature: Interview With Director Manoel De Oliveira; Eassay Booklet by Author Randal Johnson; Theatrical Trailer.