BELLE TOUJOURS: Michel Piccoli returns — with the secret of that whisper?
Ah, Eurocinema, the blood and backbone of film culture as it grew from out of the Hollywood shadow in the post-war decades — the Godards, the Bergmans, the Antonionis, the bristling Hungarians, the mordant Poles, the café-dawdling French! Those were the days, my friend. Today, as far as the rather pitiful state of imported-film distribution in this country allows us to see, European film is in something of a swale. The New Waves have aged, the Eastern Bloc countries no longer provide their moviemakers with copious state funds or the thematic grist of totalitarian oppression, the world can no longer be shocked or freshened by intimate sex, political fire, metafilmic rule breaking or handheld spontaneity. From where we stand, it seems the Asian cataracts from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, China, and Iran have been overshadowing the Old World’s output. But of course we see so few films from around the world, we’re hardly in a position to judge.
Which is where arthouse series like the Harvard Film Archive’s annual crop of new and probably-not-US-distributable European films come in, giving the supposedly unmarketable a last-ditch chance to find a stateside audience. Unfortunately, at least this year, the quasi-mini-fest seems a cross-section of the recent festival buffet, not its choicest entrees. I’m not the one who went shopping at Cannes, but I know that there are new films we’ll probably never see by Gianni Amelio, Benoît Jacquot, Raúl Ruiz, Sharunas Bartas, Alain Resnais, Jan Nemec, Chantal Akerman, Bruno Dumont, Alexei German Jr., Jan Jakub Kolski, Lucien Pintilie, Bigas Luna, Otar Iosseliani, Miklós Jancsó, Jean-Marie Straub, and Danièle Huillet, among other august names. They’re not here; for whatever logistical and/or æsthetic reasons, the program largely takes a middlebrow course around Auteurland, settling for earnest indie efforts from low-profile beginners or little-known regional idiosyncrats.
Two heavyweight exceptions, Aki Kaurismäki’s LIGHTS IN THE DUSK (2006; January 24 @ 7 pm + January 25 @ 8:45 pm) and Manoel de Oliveira’s BELLE TOUJOURS (2006; January 19 @ 7 pm), are works in a minor key, but they arrive bearing their makers’ affected and distanced signatures. The Oliveira is a long-range sequel to Buñuel’s 1967 fetish classic Belle de jour — can you imagine a less Buñuelian filmmaker, Iberian roots or no? Michel Piccoli returns, 38 years older, as the sadistic family friend of the masochistic-wife-turned-prostitute. (The Catherine Deneuve role is now played by Bulle Ogier; Deneuve, no stranger to Oliveira’s corpus, must’ve been busy.) In an ironic, warmly Parisian, but also arguably extraneous play on the first film (remember, Oliveira was 98 last year, only eight years the long-gone Buñuel’s junior), Piccoli’s craggy libertine stalks the disinterested woman and tempts her with a tempting mystery — what was whispered into an ear in the first film, an enigma I’m sure Buñuel would’ve been appalled that anyone solve.