Judge Dan Mancini might actually be able to talk you into watching a four-hour movie about a guy painting a picture. See, it's a nude picture.
"If I go the whole way, there's blood on the canvas…on La Belle Noiseuse you see blood."—Edouard Frenhofer
The idea for La Belle Noiseuse (The Beautiful Troublemaker) came to director Jacques Rivette while editing a scene in his 1988 film La Bande des Quatre in which two characters discuss Honoré de Balzac's short story The Unknown Masterpiece. In the story, a 17th-century painter named Frenhofer intrigues his colleague and a young acolyte with tales of a painting he's been struggling with for a decade. The acolyte convinces his beautiful lover to pose for the master provided Frenhofer shows them the painting—called La Belle Noiseuse—when he's completed it. Billed by Frenhofer as a perfect realization of mimetic representation, the finished painting is incomprehensible to the colleague and acolyte, either a work of madness or of genius so complete it's beyond their ability to perceive.
Rivette and his long-time writing partners Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent joked that if they adapted Balzac's story and no one went to see the movie, it would truly be The Unknown Masterpiece in every sense. It may have begun as a joke, but the idea took hold of Rivette, and grew into his next film. La Belle Noiseuse isn't an adaptation of Balzac but uses the short story as inspiration, a point of departure. Moving his story from 17th-century Paris to modern-day provincial France, about the only elements Rivette keeps are characters' names, the name of the painting, and a philosophical fascination with the production of art. La Belle Noiseuse is less concerned with its masterpiece, though, than with the symbiotic relationship between artist and model, and how that symbiosis becomes the source of a work of art.
Facts of the Case
Edouard Frenhofer (Michele Piccoli, Contempt) is an enormously talented painter who's fallen into decline and obscurity since abandoning a potential masterpiece called La Belle Noiseuse a decade ago. The rigors of Frenhofer's search for truth proved too much for the project's model, his wife Liz (Jane Birkin, Blowup), and the aging artist chose life and marriage over art.
Frenhofer finds new inspiration in a young woman named Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart, Mission: Impossible) when she and her lover Nicolas—an aspiring artist and admirer of Frenhofer's—visit his chateau. Marianne agrees to pose for Frenhofer, but they end up in a battle of wills as he tries to peer past her disguises and capture her true nature on canvas.
Balzac's Frenhofer is a spiritual disciple of the Flemish mannerist painter Jan Gossaert, renowned for his portraiture and detailed, full-sized nudes (Frenhofer makes references throughout the story to his mentor Mabuse, Gossaert's nom de plume, though he died nearly a century before the story's setting and had no connection to the French tradition). In the story, the painter is obsessed with capturing the essence of life through an eerily mimetic reproduction of his subject, and his madness/genius takes the form of a rejection of the artifice of line in favor of minutely-studied color, shading, and contour. By contrast, Rivette's Frenhofer is a post-impressionist whose struggle at the boundaries of expression involves seeing beyond the physical to the deeper existential or transcendental "truth" of his model.
While Balzac's piece is focused on representation of the material in art, he treats the actual modeling session only briefly and elliptically. Relayed in a single paragraph, we remain with Frenhofer's colleague and acolyte outside the studio, wondering what's going on inside. But long stretches of Rivette's four-hour film are consumed with the sessions, which play out over the course of at least three days. They are the staging ground for the filmmaker's simultaneous exploration of character and the nature of art. The initial session is awkward as Frenhofer and Marianne rarely speak, and he gives her little direction, allowing her to strike natural poses. There's a timidity to the proceedings. She poses slumped and fidgety as nearly any woman standing naked in front of a stranger would; he assesses her clinically, avoiding eye contact, as he scratches out pen and ink drawings. In the next marathon session, his demeanor changes. He begins to pose her, selecting the furniture on which she sits or reclines, and directing the placement of arms and turn of head—sometimes moving them into position himself. The poses are less natural, but more formally, compositionally beautiful. Frenhofer's casually dictatorial behavior and the physical rigors of maintaining the unnatural poses anger and exhaust Marianne. It's as though the painter is trying to break her down mentally and physically in order to get at the real Marianne beneath. By the third session, they're mildly antagonistic compatriots, looking for La Belle Noiseuse together. When he loses hope of successfully executing his grand design, she pushes him onward because she now has a stake in the painting, too.
Throughout these sessions, Rivette's camera is trained on Frenhofer and his hands (played by artist Bernard Dufour) more than on Marianne. Just as, paradoxically, Frenhofer must push past the physical presence of his model in order to render that unique humanity that makes her her, he must also find a way to express those intangibles via the rigidly mechanical processes of drawing and painting. La Belle Noiseuse is a singular film because it allows us to watch those processes nearly uninterrupted. Rivette uses cut-aways to compress Dufour's studies slightly, and the first session contains a few jump cuts, but the distended scenes still feel as though they're unfurling in real-time. Rivette nearly fetishizes the physical details of the artist's studio environment: the texture of the paper and canvas on which Frenhofer works; his slapdash use of water and ink, charcoal, paint; the sounds of pen, chalk, and brushes; and the slow revelation of form from the hasty dashing of lines. And by favoring Dufour's studies over Emmanuelle Béart's nude form, Rivette highlights the intermediary function of the artist—the energy in Frenhofer's work alters our perceptions of Marianne. We begin to see her in light of the artist's interpretation of her, just as we see the film's characters through Rivette's careful interpretation. While La Belle Noiseuse is a work of the 1990s and doesn't necessarily feel of a kind with the director's earliest films as a New Wave innovator, this radical approach to the use of time is a twist on the sort of self-consciously uncinematic and naturalistic approaches that defined that movement. It makes for a unique cinematic experience, hypnotic or excruciating depending on the degree to which the viewer is invested in the hard-fought evolution of Frenhofer's work.
The model in Balzac's story (named Gillette) is little more than a romantic abstraction who, passive and subservient, submits herself to Frenhofer's project out of love for Nicolas and the belief that her lover's proximity to a great master in the act of creation will prove invaluable in his quest for greatness. She knowingly sacrifices their relationship out of deference to his ambition, the humiliation of her naked body being given to the wizened Frenhofer irrevocably severing the bond between lovers. In Rivette's film, Frenhofer, who lives a comfortably bourgeois life with his wife Liz, isn't the fevered genius of the short story. The modeling sessions still have a corrosive effect on Marianne's and Nicolas's relationship but the director steers clear of the obvious sexual subtext. It works in Balzac's story because of the subtlety with which the writer handles it, as well as the fact he's working in a non-visual medium. Playing it up in the film, where we see Marianne nude and are privy to her sessions with Frenhofer and the psychological struggle between the two, would yield cliché. Instead, the catalyst for the erosion of Marianne's relationship with Nicolas is her growing involvement and passion in La Belle Noiseuse itself. At first agreeing to model as a favor to Nicolas, she's soon an active participant, and the vitality of Frenhofer's work reveals aspects of her own character of which she was unaware, as well as revealing Nicolas as a smaller artist than she'd previously understood. Frenhofer's relationship with Liz is equally fascinating. Her replacement as his model creates a psychological tension refreshingly free of sexual jealousy—Liz isn't worried her husband will sleep with his beautiful young model, but melancholy over the forced recollection their marriage couldn't have survived the sort of piercing dissection of her person required when she was his model. The tension between the characters is palpable but understated. It never strays into melodrama, and the actors reward us with careful and natural performances, surprisingly void of pretension considering the subject matter.
Rivette cut two different versions of La Belle Noiseuse: the full four-hour cut and a 130-minute edit called Divertimento. New Yorker's DVD offers the longer cut (which actually runs about 230 minutes, but is intended to be exactly four hours in length with a 10-minute intermission), spread across two discs. In order to best capture the paintings in Frenhofer's studio, Rivette and cinematographer William Lubtchansky (Va Savoir) opened up the vertical space of their compositions by shooting the picture at the full 1.37:1 aspect ratio (though they carefully framed shots so they would work matted to 1.66:1). The DVD maintains the full screen aspect ratio, and the transfer is sharp and detailed, though edge enhancement is excessive, producing some haloing as well as an overall quality that often looks rooted in a video source rather than film. The source materials were incredibly well preserved, exhibiting few flaws and accurate colors. Shot on location at a rustic French provincial estate, the simple clarity of the film's cinematography immerses us in a gorgeous, textured, lived-in world.
The original French audio is presented in a stereo mix that is more than adequate. Excerpts from Igor Stravinsky's Agon and Petrushka appear at the beginning and end of the movie, but it is otherwise absent a score. Dialogue, ambient noise like crickets, and the carefully recorded sounds of Frenhofer's pens and brushes working on paper and canvas, are all reproduced with perfect clarity. It's difficult to imagine any of it would benefit from a more elaborate mix.
Disc One of the set also contains a handful of supplements. Jacques Rivette offers a jovial 13-minute interview in which he discusses the genesis of project, details the different editorial approaches taken with the two cuts of the picture, and touches on the inspiration he drew from Stravinsky's modernist music. Screenwriters Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent are featured in a 21-minute interview in which they rehash some of the background information, but then discuss the influence on the film of art-focused literature like Henry James's The Liar and Edgar Allen Poe's The Oval Portrait. Unfortunately, Bonitzer annoyingly dominates the conversation, often contradicting and talking over Laurent. Finally, there's a theatrical trailer, and selected filmographies for Rivette, Béart, Piccoli, and Birkin. The extras may not sound like much, but I found them sufficient. La Belle Noiseuse is a deliberate, resonant film that's best absorbed and pondered rather than dissected and explained.
La Belle Noiseuse is probably the most subtle, detailed, and complex examination of the artistic impulse and the psychological and emotional demands of art production ever committed to film. Its pacing, length, and the simplicity of its plot versus its complexity of theme will make difficult viewing for some—their loss. It is an utterly unique piece of cinema. That alone makes it worth at least four hours of your time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Interview with Director Jacques Rivette
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