That indefatigable maestro of cinema, Manoel de Oliveira (he's 98!) , has dedicated his latest treat, "Belle Toujours," to Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carrière 's erotic classic, "Belle de Jour."
Bunuel and Carrière's movie explored the kinky adventures of a bored housewife, whom Catherine Deneuve played with legendarily hot passivity. Oliveira's decidedly chaste follow-up centers on Henri Husson , the man who famously tortured Deneuve's dominatrix by whispering something into her paraplegic husband's ear toward the end of the picture. What did he tell him? Who knows -- Oliveira's not saying. But old Henri , still played by Michel Piccoli but now with extra seasoning, is ready to say more about related matters.
The gist of the picture has the nattily dressed Henri wandering around Paris, stopping into an old-money bar to sluice his memories with scotch. He tells the young bartender (Ricardo Trepa , a recent Oliveira regular) the story of a woman who loved her husband so much she had to live a secret sex life and betray him with his friend. His one-man audience doesn't appear to recognize the story, declaring it fantastic yet unbelievable and sadomasochistic -- a fine summary of Bunuel's film.
Henri happens to rediscover the estranged object of his desire, Séverine , now played by Bulle Ogier . The actress is a wise beauty who has worked with many of the great names, including Barbet Schroeder , Jacques Rivette , Rainer Werner Fassbinder , Raul Ruiz , as well as Bunuel himself. Her light, remorseful air doesn't excuse Deneuve's absence so much as enhance it. (Is it possible Deneuve thought Oliveira's 2001 film, "I'm Going Home ," was her reunion with Piccoli?) But this new Séverine gives Henri's rekindled lust a cosmic touch: Maybe there's a little of this woman in every rich Parisian dame.
Naturally, Henri stalks her into submission. I feel odd making the comparison, but his relentlessness carries the blend of annoyance and magnificent charm that Pepe le Pew brought to the woo he pitched. That's the lowest cultural evocation available in an Oliveira picture. Otherwise, things are happily high-class, with long interludes of ritzy Paris and its iconic statues as well as classical music by Dvorak playing between most scenes. The dialogue itself takes place in that expensive-looking bar, and Henri and Séverine's reunion dinner is staffed by at least three men, two of whom regard Henri, not incorrectly, as strange.
"Belle Toujours" is a wisp of a film. It lasts barely 70 minutes, and a light breeze could send the narrative blowing down the street. But Oliveira is a man of astounding finesse. The movie accumulates the sort of meaning that lifts it far beyond the realm of a director's conceit.
Like Oliveira's "A Talking Picture " (which, incidentally, did feature Deneuve ), "Belle Toujours" ends with a bang, albeit a smaller, less literal one. This is about a man communing with the past only in order to appreciate it and let it go so it can stand once again on its own. Amid all the eloquence and emotional discourse, however, there's a chilling disregard for sentiment, nostalgia, and fetishes. Ultimately, Oliveira requires us to reckon with history -- the cinema's and otherwise -- rather than romanticize it.