Manoel de Oliveira’s “Belle Toujours” – 2006 New York Film Festival Review

Manoel de Oliveira, the only living director who began his career in the silent era, remains an incredibly prolific filmmaker who still delivers witty and surprising works. The 97-year-old Portuguese auteur returns with “Belle Toujours,” a sequel to Luis Bunuel’s 1967 classic “Belle de Jour,” and this new film is a wry examination of memory and impending mortality.

Michel Piccoli reprises his role as Henri Husson, who goaded Catherine Deneuve’s Severine in the original film, a bourgeois woman who fulfilled her sexual desires by working at a brothel during the day. “Belle Toujours” turns on the question of whether in a final scene in the original film, Henri revealed Severine’s secret to her mute, paraplegic husband. The older Severine is portrayed in this film by Bulle Ogier, another remarkable veteran French actress.

In the opening scene, Henri spots Severine at a concert, 38 years after the events of the first film. He doggedly pursues her, eager to relive the past events that Severine wishes to put behind her. Along the way, he frequents a bar where he saw Severine, and he has odd conversations and interactions with the barman and two stylish prostitutes who hang out there. When Henri finally persuades Severine to meet, an extraordinary sequence begins in which the rather light and whimsical Bunuel homage deepens into something more melancholy as the candles slowly go out on their dinner table.

In the final stages of his career, de Oliveira continues to deliver sharp and sparkling wit, not to mention some of the most beautiful images of Paris committed to film. Despite his advanced age, he remains vital and energetic as ever.