Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the earlier film: de Oliveira’s elegant, totally self-contained and magnificent miniature of a movie is careful to allude to a scene at the end of Buñuel’s previous one, where Henri whispers something to his best friend, Séverine’s husband, that makes him cry. Did he perhaps betray her betrayal? And how does she feel now, all these years later when, like a spectral ghost, the old cad starts pursuing her for a meeting having spied her accidently alone at the Paris Opéra?
If you have seen ‘Belle de Jour’, however, it’s true that the enticing blend of tribute and play, evocation and variation in ‘Belle Toujours’ becomes more seductively evident. Beautifully, economically, directed, acted and photographed (by Sabine Lancelin), ‘Belle Toujours’ is essentially an affectionate, witty, often farcical jeu d’esprit, sweetly and knowingly bringing together the old-fashioned and the modern. But beneath the surface, it also offers a deceptive, philosophical and cautionary meditation, not only on age, appetite, pleasure, betrayal, mendacity, revenge and disillusionment but also in idle curiosity, which killed the cat, drives Henri and might have made a fool out of Séverine.
Lastly, 99-year-old de Oliveira throws down one mischievous final card which will appeal to lovers of paradox or one-upmanship. What if, like some Borgesian last laugh at Buñuel’s surreal joking, the whole thing is merely some fond old man’s silly reverie? Would that possibly trump the young woman’s sexual fantasy that was ‘Belle de Jour’?