Issue 13 : Fall 2007








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Notes on Belle Toujours: Return to the Maison de Rendezvous

by Gregory Avery

25 Sep 2007

“I’ve heard about those houses,” says one character, a young barman, in Manoel de Oliviera’s film Belle Toujours, speaking about them as if they were relics of a by-gone era. Forty years earlier, in Belle de Jour, they were also being spoken of as something whose time had passed—Macha Meril’s character says that she “heard” they had all been shut down, in a France being led under the moral imperative of President Charles de Gaulle. In both films, the houses are mere pretexts to what the films are really about. In Belle de Jour, they are mentioned in relation to a rumor that a friend was working, “several times a week,” as a prostitute—“Imagine ... A woman like you and me. Going with anybody.”—whereupon the face of the heroine, Séverine, goes into a trance, a dreamy expression of total enrapturement....

Ah, Séverine. How long ago was it? Well, first there was the fact that you couldn’t be seen here for such a long time. After its initial release, Belle de Jour—to which Belle Toujours has been made as a follow-up—became frustratingly unavailable in the U.S. for a couple of decades, a matter having to do more with entanglements involving the film’s producers than with its subject matter. After winning the Leone d’Oro at the Venice Film Festival, Luis Buñuel’s film became known as the picture where the young and lovely Catherine Deneuve played a woman who was, gasp! a sado-masochist, or an insatiable nymphomaniac, depending on which film review you read, and they beat her in one of the very first scenes. Later, they tied her up and flung mud on her. The film became a hit.

There was some confusion (which probably added to the film’s allure—see it, then discuss it with your friends over cocktails) at the time over how Buñuel incorporated the heroine’s fantasies into the film’s action without really defining them as such. If Buñuel didn’t want to use Vaseline on the lens and “ooh, ooh” music to signal to the audience that what they were about to see was imaginary, he could very well do it. Buñuel made films the way he wanted to, and he was no stranger to controversial reaction—the public outcry over “Un Chien Andalou”, co-directed with the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí; the angry responses from both the Spanish government and the Catholic Church over “Viridiana”.

What became obvious when the film was re-released in 1995 was that what Séverine was after was feeling, not just sex or punishment. The film suggests that events in her past have caused her to become emotionally distant from the world, and frustrated her in attaining an intimate relationship with her husband, an ever-patient physician named Pierre (Jean Sorel). In her fantasies, we never see her body become broken or bruised, and her hair and makeup are always in place. This is perhaps what Madame Anaïs (Geneviève Page, in an excellent performance), the brothel proprietor whom Séverine approaches, suspects—she can tell instantly that Séverine has the potential to be a real money-maker. As a maid tidies up after a client visit, Séverine rises from the bedclothes, and her face looks more radiant and alive than it has ever been during the course of the picture.

Husson (Michel Piccoli), who is friends with Pierre and Séverine, is by comparison the type of man who tries to prove his worth by seeing every woman as a potential score—exactly the type who would avail himself of Mme. Anaïs’ services. When he discovers, accidentally, that Séverine has been working as a prostitute, she immediately threatens to throw herself out a window rather than submit to his demands or allow Pierre to learn of what she’s been doing. Yet she allows Husson to show up at their apartment afterward and speak to Pierre alone. Does she actually want Pierre to find out after all? The film does not show us what is said between Pierre and Husson, but there is the “small, hard tear” on Pierre’s face that is referred to in Belle Toujours, followed by the image of Pierre’s hands, laying upwards and looking like those of a supplicating saint in a religious painting. Séverine has said that her dreams—the fantasies—had stopped, but then at this moment in the film, the carriage bells—heard in the first fantasy that opened the film—start up again.

The first thing about Belle Toujours is that it is visually as exquisite-looking as Belle de Jour. Manoel de Oliviera’s reason for making the film seems simple: what would happen if two of the characters from the earlier story bumped into each other 40 years later? During a concert in Paris, Husson (again played by Michel Piccoli) looks over and sees Séverine (Bulle Ogier) sitting in the audience. He tries to meet up with her in the foyer. No luck. He makes several attempts to track her down. She resists when he finally does, then relents. During a private dinner, they talk, and then he does something provocative and outrageous. She flees, and he, it seems, is very satisfied with himself at the outcome. Very satisfied indeed.

Belle Toujours is made in a manner which could be called (and has been) “didactic,” but that would confuse the economy with which it has been made with something else. De Oliviera is a filmmaker who has reached a point in his career where he knows exactly what he wants to do to achieve something, and how to do it, no more and no less.

The Husson in Belle Toujours has turned into a venerable, respectable man, one who appreciates the finer qualities of a glass of good whiskey, straight up, the pleasantries of talk, and of having a fine meal. (There’s a beautifully choreographed quality to the way the waiters serve the formal, multi-course dinner that Husson and Séverine have in the closing sequence.) Most significantly, Belle Toujours is told from Husson’s point-of-view, so there are some notable differences—he recalls events with a slight discrepancy, usually something that puts him in a more favorable, or flattering, light. He says that Séverine’s greatest desire was to have sex with her husband’s best friend while remaining devoted to her husband—and that his role in all this was to simply “observe”, and, perhaps, “provoke.” (“But isn’t that a kind of sadism, too?” replies the barman to whom Husson relates this to.)

But what does Husson hope to get out of meeting up with Séverine again, now? Not to make a conquest or, worse, rehash good old times in some soddenly nostalgic way. I think Husson wants to punish Séverine, for not conforming to the conventional picture of a domesticated, docile woman. Séverine, then and now, is seeking some sort of normalcy, of stasis—something which comes out more in the Joseph Kessel novel on which Belle de Jour is based, and which can be interpreted in that rapturous look Séverine’s face has in the 1967 film—the look of someone who sees something that could set them free. But Séverine is not a push-over, then or now, so Husson ends up responding to that by doing one thing which is outrageous and shocking to her—and which, also, puts him one-up on Séverine.

Do not be mistaken: Belle Toujours is quite enjoyable, even quite funny in parts, and it is extremely well-acted by all in the cast. (I don’t know if Catherine Deneuve—who’s since revealed that she made Belle de Jour during a time of personal crisis in her life—was approached, as she’s worked with Manoel de Oliviera before. But I suspect she might not have quite gotten certain aspects of the role right that Bulle Ogier does.) Manoel de Oliviera was 97 when he made this film in Paris in the spring of 2006, but while Belle de Jour was a story about a woman’s liberation of sorts, de Oliviera uses this film to ultimately whisper in our ear a dirty little secret that I’m not too sure even Buñuel could have quite been able to tell us: that, after ages of enlightenment and wisdom, men still seek to obtain the greatest satisfaction out of punishing and subjugating women, and they will go to the greatest and most ingenious lengths and means to do so.

And there is also one supremely Buñuelian moment in de Oliviera’s film: look for the scene where Husson takes a closer look at the statue of the flag-bearer rising atop a horse. Just when you think you know what one thing is, it turns out to be something else quite entirely.

(Written and directed by Manoel de Oliviera, based on the film Belle de Jour adapted by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière from the novel by Joseph Kessel. Photographed by Sabine Lancelin. Music: Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony no. 8 in G major, Opus 88. With: Michel Piccoli (Husson), Bulle Ogier (Séverine), Ricardo Trepa (barman), and Julia Buisel & Leonor Baldaque (two working girls).)