Luis Bunuel may well be my favorite director. Among his many masterpieces is Belle du Jour – an enigmatic, surreal (no surprise there) drama featuring famous French staples Michel Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve. She is the innocent woman who lives out her fetishes clandestinely in a brothel. He is the friend of her husband who learns of her plight and threatens to reveal her unless she sleeps with him.
Nearly 40 years later famous Portugueses director Manoel de Oliveira takes Belle du Jour and makes a sequel of sorts. Blasphemy in some sense of the word, the film is an interesting look at sexuality stretched out over years.
Replacing Deneuve is Bulle Ogier in the role of Severine, while Piccoli returns as Henri. He runs into her years later. She avoids him. He pursues. She is without her husband. At the end of Bunuel’s film Henri whispers something into Severine’s husband’s ear. Does he reveal her secret? Tell him something else entirely? It’s this information that Henri uses to blackmail Severine into coming to dinner with him.
Oliveira does well to avoid ruining Bunuel’s film, which would be the case were he to invent Henri’s words. Instead, what we get is an odd game of cat and mouse, filled with small absurdist flairs, and a penchant for the long shot.
The opening of the film is interesting. It takes place in an opera. We find Henri alone and gazing around. His gaze lands, surprised on Severine, who is sitting some distance from him. Were this shot in a traditional manner we might find a series of shot reverse shots, bringing us “into” Henri’s head and accurately and completely conveying the object of his gaze. Instead, Oliveira chooses to remain in wide-shot. It’s curious. We have to scan the frame to find Severine. She is lost among the crowd. There’s no costuming or lighting that sets her apart. The camera doesn’t track with her to isolate her presence for the viewer. No sound cues mark her walk. Rather, it is our job to find her. Perhaps in the same way that Henri constantly loses and seeks her, we too, from the very beginning of the film, have to search amidst the crowd for our protagonist.
Later there’s another example of a patient, wide, and ambiguous camera. Once Henri finds her hotel, he constantly returns to it in the hopes of crossing paths with Severine. Outside is a statue of a lion, which acts as reference to the Bunuel picture. Oliveira repeats a tracking shot on the lion, with the hotel in the background. It remains unclear whether Henri is looking at the statue or a hotel room. Does it matter? Kind of: one is narrative (hotel = Henri actively stalking) where the other is more symbolic (lion = thing of the past). Oliveira doesn’t help us along by cutting into a closeup after establishing the shot sequence. As with the opera scene, we’re left to decide what is important to look at and why.
The end of Belle tuojours is a long dinner scene between Severine and Henri. It’s a long take and wide shot, where Oiveira shoots both characters in profile across from one-another. I didn’t time it out, but the shot must be at least 7 minutes. Much of it is without dialogue. In fact, much of it is eating. How frequently do we watch someone eat in a film? Unless it’s an integral part of the story, it’s exceedingly rare. Why? It’s a bit uncomfortable, and it’s an easy way to trim the fat.
Oliveira’s strategy is, of course, to make us as uncomfortable as Severine likely is, but also to test our patience. How long can we take the silence? It’s a formalist play, and one that pays homage to Bunuel indirectly, going as far back as his notorious Un Chien Andalou, which asks us to “see” the film in a new way (got me a movie, ahahaha, slicing up eyeballs, ahahaha). Oliveira asks us to see his film, which is an old film, in a new way. It furthers his intersection with Bunuel and pays homage without, as mentioned before, reworking critical plot and redefining characters.