For Criterion Consideration: Manoel de Oliveira’s Belle Toujours


While it may seem odd, no single film is free of possibly becoming fodder for a remake, a “re-imagining” or, in the case of the film being discussed here, a spiritual sequel. Hell, later this very September Scream Factory will be giving the first two sequels to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho the Blu-ray treatment, once again telling the world that even that iconic horror film once garnered a handful of sequels and even a remake.

However, with the case of Luis Bunuel’s masterful Belle de Jour and its Manoel de Oliveira-helmed sequel (of sorts), Belle Toujours, things are just slightly different.

Portugal’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film when it was released all the way back in 2006, Manoel de Oliveira’s film spins Bunuel’s masterpiece on its head, finding the pair of Severine and Henri from Bunuel’s film once again in each other’s presence. While their last meeting was rife blackmail and other much heightened emotional drama, this film is a distinctly smaller picture, more muted aesthetically and a definitive piece of work from de Oliveira all its very own.

Beginning his filmmaking career as the 1920’s neared a conclusion, Oliveira is still releasing films to this very day (a short from Oliveira was just released as part of the omnibus collection Invisible World this year), Oliveira finds this film to be one of his most brazenly distilled. Clocking in at just around 70 minutes in length, Belle Toujours is perfectly distilled Oliveira in every formalist way. Muted aesthetically and plaintive both pacing wise as well as intellectually, Belle Toujours carries within its DNA much of Bunuel’s surrealism (such as the glimpse of a rooster as Severine makes one of her many evacuations from a situation involving Henri, yet finds the camera beautifully static and unwilling to flinch during any situation, ranging from the pair meeting once again in an awkward street-set moment or their even more off putting but intellectually exciting dinner sequence.

That is the real beauty of Oliveira’s film. While it shares much of its lineage with the film that arrived from Luis Bunuel some 40 years prior this is itself a standalone masterpiece of the form. Tautly wound, brilliantly paced and featuring some absolutely stunning photography (particularly during the aforementioned dinner sequence) from cinematographer Sabine Lancelin, we find within this picture an oddly vital film that is as interested in continuing on this story as it is becoming its own meditation on everything from age to, and this is easily the film’s most apparent theme, appetite (primarily carnally, but with a few winking nods to it in a much more physical, palpable type way).  Argued by your’s truly in my review of the relatively recent (18 months old or so) Criterion Collection release of Bunuel’s classic, it’s easy to see Belle de Jour as the cinematic manifestation of the surrealist ideology in its portrayal of themes like human desire and pleasure. While Toujours follows a lot of those ideals, it does so in a far less fantastical way.

Described recently by Mubi, promoting it as part of their streaming service, as a warm film, that’s very much the case here, finding Oliveira’s frame gloriously decorated and wondrously photographed, and one that shoots two breathtaking performances. With Bulle Ogier taking over for Catherine Deneuve, one of the legendary actress’ most iconic performances, the cards were seemingly stacked against her, but she more than holds her own here. From the first frames where we see Henri glance Severine out of the corner of his eye, we become privy to a film that is quaintly paced and shot, more plaintive and pensive than Bunuel’s film, something that fits the type of performance that Ogier is giving within this picture. Icy cold and distant, as one would expect from a woman once blackmailed by the man who has just re-entered her life, the lack of chemistry between both Severine and Henri is palpable and oddly enough, makes this film all the more compelling. Michel Piccoli returns here as Henri, and oddly oozes a sense of charm that, particularly during a handful of scenes set in a beautifully decorated bar, makes the character oddly likable, despite his history as an absolute rake.

Now, where as Belle plays as a deeply erotic and sexually charged drama, Oliveira’s film is far more dialogue driven, with breathtaking plays on words and with the aforementioned great performances, every single line is given the right amount of weight both emotionally and intellectually. You feel as though there is a real interest on Henri’s side of this equation to air things out and get a real relationship built with this still very beautiful woman who is so clearly the apple of his eye. And perfectly in opposition to this is Ogier’s performance, which is written as the dry opposite to our lead, often spurning his advances as seen in the very opening, perfectly toned opening sequence.

And what better film to enter into the ranks of The Criterion Collection than the spiritual sequel to one of the best and most interesting films in all of the Criterion Collection ranks? There is a DVD of the film currently available, but with only an interview with the filmmaker, an essay and a handful of other small “features,” but a new transfer and some new features looking at this film and the career of the 100+ year old auteur behind its camera. It’s a career filled with some of the greatest films of their day, and this would be a pitch perfect introduction point for those new to this director’s canon. Oh, and it stands on its own, Bunuel’s film be damned, as a truly great drama/comedy both beautifully shot and evocative intellectually.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.