Belle Toujours

[8 September 2008]

By Barbara Herman

Any film that touts itself as an homage to Belle de Jour better have a good justification for it existence. A meditation on desire and perversity, Luis Buñuel’s complex masterpiece about a beautiful doctor’s wife who has masochistic sexual fantasies that lead her to prostitution still seems radical today.

Drifting between straightforward narrative and the reveries of Severine (the great Catherine Deneuve), Belle de Jour managed to be playful rather than prurient. Although every character in the film was vividly rendered, Buñuel posited Severine’s struggles with her sexuality at the film’s center, while respecting and protecting the mystery at the heart of her desires.

What mysteries Belle de Jour created and preserved, the ill conceived and bafflingly bad Belle Toujours works hard to unravel. Directed by much-lauded Portuguese director Manoel Oliveira, Belle Toujours is sophomoric, eventless, and badly acted and paced. Clocking in at only 70 minutes, the film manages to seem to go on for, well, toujours.

In Belle de Jour, Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli) is the best friend of Severine’s husband. Sensing some reserves of perversity in the young and beautiful woman, he tells her about a brothel near her house, knowing somehow she will not be able to resist its lure. Sure enough, like a bee to honey, Severine’s curiosity takes her there, and she eventually becomes a prostitute during the day with the nom de hook, “Belle de Jour”.

Feeling triumphant, Husson visits her there and taunts her with the threat that he will tell her husband. A scene at the end of the film shows Husson whispering in his ear, while a tear runs down her husband’s face. Did he or didn’t he?

From this meager and ancillary moment, Belle Toujours picks up 40 years later. Husson (Piccoli again), now an old man, is at the symphony and spots an older Severine, dourly played by Bulle Ogier. (Catherine Deneuve, I like to think, had the good sense to recognize a stinker when she saw one.) He follows her around Paris in possibly the most undynamic chase scene to ever be filmed.

An IMDB summary of the film suggests that once he catches her, “he makes her face her past and with sadism takes a slow and painful revenge on her.” (This is also an apt description for his treatment of the viewer.) Eventually, she agrees to have dinner with him in exchange for the truth: Did he or didn’t he tell her husband?

It’s really hard to discuss this film, because there are really only two “significant” scenes and both involve characters talking about the events of Belle de Jour. There’s the conversation Husson has with a bartender to whom he confesses and the excruciatingly boring dinner Husson and Severine have. The former has the quality of stalling, as if Oliver knows there’s no “there” there to Belle Toujours so he’s going to pad it with commentary. The latter bears this out:  Husson’s answer to the million-dollar question is, “Either I told him everything or nothing—which is truthful and which is a lie?”

Pointless and puerile, malicious and misogynistic, Belle Toujours is the opposite of an homage. It takes the character in the original film most hostile to Severine and her poetic perversity and gives him center stage. On this stage, he gets to deny her agency, humiliate her, and reduce her desires to his lame interpretations. (In his conversation with the bartender, Husson says that he was “so sure she’d enjoy giving herself to strangers” and that he represented the conscience she never had.)

An adherent to the “Me Freud, You Jane” school of female sexuality, Oliveira even has Severine say during the dinner that she’ll probably join a convent now that she is no longer sway to her “unbalanced sexuality”/ The cardinal sin of this “homage”, though, is that, compared to the original, it is deadly dull.

I’d like to think that Belle de Jour has a rejoinder to any future attempts, including Belle Toujours’s, to explain Severine’s desire. In an amazing scene that suggests she’s fully embraced her choice, Severine lies majestically disheveled on a bed at the brothel after a tryst with a customer, with a hint of a smile on her face. “It must be so hard,” says a pitying cleaning woman to Severine to which she replies, while looking at the viewer, “What would you know about it?”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/belle-toujours/