Reviews

Belle Toujours

Barbara Herman

Pointless and puerile, malicious and misogynistic, Belle Toujours is the opposite of an homage.


Belle Toujours

Director: Manoel de Oliveira
Cast: Michel Piccoli, Bulle Ogier, Ricardo Trepa, Leonor Baldaque, Julia Buisel
Distributor: New Yorker
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2008-06-24

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?”

2

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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