The Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, 98 years old as of this writing, is a walking bit of cinema history. Born in Oporto (where they make port wine) he reportedly worked on a film as early as 1928 and made his official directorial debut in 1931 with a short documentary, Working on the Douro River. Even though Hollywood had implemented sound by then, many other countries had not. And so Oliveira carries the distinction of being not only the oldest movie director still active, but also the only movie director to have begun in the silent era. In Europe, he's considered a master, with several films already in the canon. Despite all this, only two of Oliveira's films have received any kind of regular distribution in the United States, I'm Going Home (2002), which I consider a masterpiece, and the slightly more problematic, but still excellent A Talking Picture (2004). A third, Belle Toujours, opened briefly this summer in New York but has already gone.
Oliveira has made the majority of his films -- more than thirty of them -- since 1979, when he was already past seventy. Because of this, his films tend to be patient and contemplative, or to Western audiences, just plain "slow." He's like an old man driving a car in front of you; perhaps he's keeping us from getting to our destination faster, but if we could only see things from his point of view, maybe we could enjoy the drive a little more. He's learned how to really stop and appreciate things and he has pretty much earned the right to make any movie he feels like making. So he sets his sights on a sort of sequel to Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour (1967), which, in other hands, would have been a travesty. And though it reunites two of the main characters from that masterpiece, it actually turns out to be more of a tribute or an epilogue than a sequel.
In Bunuel's Belle de Jour, Severine (Catherine Deneuve) has secret, subversive passions that she can't explore with her husband (Jean Sorel). When the distasteful family friend Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli) suggests the address of a brothel, Severine decides to go to work there, but only during the day (hence her nickname, "Belle de Jour"). Later, Husson shows up at the brothel, placing Severine into a very uncomfortable position. Belle Toujours opens decades later at a concert, where Husson is enjoying the music when he spots an older, but still beautiful Severine (now played by Bulle Ogier). He tries to follow her but loses her in a crowd. He discovers her whereabouts from a bartender and repeatedly tries to meet her at her hotel. When they finally converge, Oliveira shows the entire confrontation from a long shot, so as to keep their words private. The film concludes on a candlelit dinner, during which the past and the present collide mercilessly.
Running only 65 minutes, Belle Toujours is an often delicious but sometimes baffling experience. Oliveira spends a good deal of time in the bar, where Husson and a young barman (Ricardo Trepa) talk about the story of Belle de Jour. Husson explains the story as if it had happened to a friend, and the bartender appears genuinely fascinated and shocked. Their dialogue repeats several ideas, about secrets, anonymity and confidence, even though it's not exactly clear why these are repeated or how it all ties in. Two prostitutes, a young one (Leonor Baldaque) and an old one (Julia Buisel) hang out at the bar, listening in on the conversation, as if to provide some kind of visual echo. As for the candlelight dinner, Oliveira takes the time to show the two protagonists eating an entire meal in silence (though it's a fairly quick meal) and then talking as the candles grow dimmer, leaving the room in shadow. Husson even brings, as a gift, a special box featured in the original film. During the final moments, Oliveira also pays tribute to the Surrealistic Bunuel with the sudden and dreamlike image of a rooster (also a symbol of Portugal).
As for the performances, Piccoli -- who previously worked with Oliveira in I'm Going Home -- recaptures the essence of his randy scoundrel from Bunuel's film, ordering several glasses of whisky and enjoying the pleasures of life with a secret smile, but Ogier -- who worked with Bunuel in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie -- comes across as rather sharp and unpleasant as Severine, not like the willowy Deneuve would have been (Deneuve has worked with Oliveira several times before, so it's not clear why she doesn't appear here). Fortunately, it's Piccoli who appears onscreen for most of the running time, and his curiosity and vibrancy carry the film a long way; it's possible that he's even channeling Oliveira himself. Overall, Belle Toujours allows Oliveira to reminisce, to be slightly playful and naughty, but still thoughtful.