Friday, October 06, 2006

New Film: Belle Toujours

As with his recent Oporto of My Childhood (2001), Manoel de Oliveira's Belle Toujours begins with a lengthy orchestral performance that the director films at a perpendicular angle. Interspersed with these long takes are shots of a crowd that features the aging Michel Piccoli and Bulle Ogier, whom we quickly discover are old acquaintances, though it similarly becomes clear that the latter wants to have nothing to do with the gentleman. Then again, to most audiences of this film (with a perfunctory knowledge of the picture's subject) we are already well aware that these two characters are Henri Husson and Séverine Serizy of Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967) -- Catherine Deneuve played Séverine in the original -- encountering each other after a lifetime apart. After establishing this off-stage space to relate to the proscenium, through a series of glances, Oliveira then concludes this sequence with the musicians bowing to the camera.

Following this opener, we soon get an arial view of Paris that is accompanied by a similar soundtrack, following M. Husson's attempt to track down Séverine in the city's nocturnal streets. As such, Oliveira encourages a reading of his film, at least in part, as a 'city symphony,' the Paris of his youth and the consistent stage upon which/in which the two films have been orchestrated. However, as it has been noted, Belle Toujours differs from its source in its casting of the female lead. To this point, it should be noted that as Deneuve has worked with the director on multiple occasions in the past, it would seem less that he failed to get the actress he wanted than that his casting of Ogier was intentional -- and perhaps represents a second debt to Buñuel, and particularly to the director's ultimate That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) with its two Conchita's. Here, this discordinant casting seems to signal the director's advocacy of cinema as theatrical, and particular the fact that these are not two people over a 40-year span but rather two characters. To this end, Ogier more than once reminds us that she is not the same person she once was, speaking for her character of course.

Indeed, what is most striking about Belle Toujours is not how it resembles Buñuel's work -- unlike the earlier film, Oliveira's features Henri as its guiding perspective; hence the pictures' very different attitudes toward Séverine -- but rather how fully Oliveira's sensibility permeates this work. This is to say that Belle Toujours is very much the work of an old man (Oliveira is currently ninety-seven and is at work yet again) given not only its preoccupations, but also the freedom with which he depicts: again, we watch a large portion of an orchestral movement, the bulk of a meal featuring the two principles -- both by the way demonstrate the director's old world refinement -- and in the picture's lone surreal moment, minus its basic conceit, a rooster appears momentarily in a hall. (For works that are similarly free, one might think of the great final films of John Ford, 7 Women [1966], or Jean Renoir, The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir [1970] -- Oliveira has earned both comparisons -- where unmediated artistic expression seems to trump all issues of structure or taste.)

Speaking of the aforementioned preoccupations, Oliveira returns to a contested spirituality that defined his work in the middle of the previous decade. In fact, Séverine at one point late in the film says that she's alone with her soul, wherein Oliveira eliminates virtually all of the scene's light, illuminating only this spiritually tortured woman and her alcoholic foil Henri. In this respect one might argue that Belle Toujours is closest in subject -- and also quality -- to the director's underrated 1996 feature, Party, though there is actually a good deal of the director in aging man-of-the-world Henri, who is importantly played by previous stand-in Piccoli (I'm Going Home, 2001) . Then again, with the consistency of the auteur's preoccupations over the previous decade and a half, it is hard not to see him in all his (lead) characters, as could be said of his absolute masterpiece Abraham's Valley (1993).

Regardless, the portrait of the director that emerges in Belle Toujours is of a man of the old world again, of infinite culture, whose inevitable passing may just represent the end of this civilization on screeen forever. In the meantime, Oliveira continues to work at a level unmatched on his continent, both in the frequency with which he completes films, and also for their unwavering high quality. Here he has made his best picture since I'm Going Home and one of the year's most purely enjoyable art films.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hm, "his absolute masterpiece" is Abraham's Valley? What about Acto da Primavera, or Le Soulier de Satin?

Michael J. Anderson said...

Anonymous,

I haven't seen "Le Soulier de Satin"... so I will defer to you on that one. I would remain firm, however, in claiming that "Abraham's Valley" is not only superior to "Acto da Primavera," but vastly so. Also, if I really meant it to mean that "A's V" is his best film, which I think you take me to mean, I would have said so. I plan to see "Francisca" very soon, which many regard as his best. Until then, I like "A's V," which I still say is an "absolute masterpiece," whether or not he has made anything better.

nathaniel drake carlson said...

Hi Michael, thanks for posting about this. I've appreciated your comments on Oliveira before as I am a big fan as well. Having said that, it's hard to believe that "Belle toujours" is his best work since "I'm Going Home" as virtually everything in between was also a masterpiece, and I don't say that lightly (I won't presume to speak of 2004's "Fifth Empire" as I haven't seen it yet, and still...). "Magic Mirror", for instance, blew me away--even after almost a year I still can barely believe how great that movie is (and let's hope that Oliveira gets to complete his proclaimed loose trilogy of which this was the second part--I can't wait to see where this loosely interconnected work goes from here).

I do agree with you wholeheartedly about "Abraham's Valley". As great as Oliveira's other films are this one stands above them all--at least, obviously, above all the ones I've seen. There is little in film history that compares to the scope and density of that work, not just on a thematic level but also just in terms of sheer composition and grand formalist design; the superb use of deep focus in many shots is just one example. Personally, I hold "Abraham's Valley" dear because it is profound and inexhaustible; the connections and associations it makes are so quietly applied and so persuasive in opening up the text to a multitude of readings. On one level it is an assessment of modern Europe and the passing away of a certain kind of dignity and austerity but it's just as much a confrontation with metaphysical mystery. The gender politics and discourse on civilization are a way in, a means of consideration, an all too evident (even in its richness) surface reality. It's also the exemplar of Oliveira's high modernist style. Irony suffuses all his work and contributes to its wisdom, but here more than ever we are in a realm of supreme mystery in which many different elaborate philosophical positions are put forth and put in opposition. They are thorughly considered and just as thoroughly dismantled before the process begins again. The excessive verbiage covers a lack of absolute certainty, a fear of metaphysical vastness and the inability to ever have definitive control or understanding. All of it circles around the ultimate theme of what beauty is and it reveals the ancient, even primitive archetypal realities lying buried under these surfaces and driving discourse (as seen in "Party" as well).

Have you seen the full cut of "Abraham's Valley", Michael? It doesn't seem essential but it is all welcome. Nonetheless, I can tell you that I have never been more mentally exhausted after a screening than after watching that full cut for the first time. The glorious Madragoa transfer also puts to shame the horrendous job Vanguard did with the DVD here in the States. Really, there is no comparison. The Portuguese DVD is in the proper aspect ratio, includes the full length cut and is in Portuguese rather than French; it also includes two great interviews amongst the extras.

A couple final points about Oliveira. I haven't seen either "Acto da Primavera" or "Le Soulier de satin" but I would absolutely LOVE to. In terms of the availability of his late work on DVD in the US, I can't understand why "Inquietude" has not shown up yet. That is masterful and a real loss in its absence from ready availability.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Nathaniel,

Very nice put. I agree both with your fine assessments of the film and also with the feeling that Vanguard butchered the film for its US DVD release. And I do stick by my view that this is his best since "I'm Going Home," though I like you have not seen everything in the interim, so perhaps I should be a bit more cautious. The point is that this is a fit addition to his corpus, hyperbole aside.

Anonymous said...

Michael,

Where can I get a copy or view "Acto da Primavera"?

Regards,
Sofia

Michael J. Anderson said...

I'm afraid that in the instance of Oliveira's pre-1990s work (and even some since) the films can only be seen realistically in traveling retrospectives - which don't come by so often and only then in certain urban centers. I saw "Acto da Primavera" about four years ago and though interesting, it is one of my least favorite films by the director.

I feel terrible for recently missing "Doomed Love" which everyone assures me is the director's best. I half think it's only because I missed the film, but it still makes me feel rotten. Oliveira can be a very frustrating passion.