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 , or Jean Renoir, The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir  -- 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.