Friday, July 17, 2020

Classic Movie Rivette: La Belle Noiseuse (1991)

La Belle Noiseuse (1991) 
Directed by: Jacques Rivette.
Written by: Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent and Jacques Rivette inspired by the novella by Honoré de Balzac.
Starring: Michel Piccoli (Edouard Frenhofer), Jane Birkin (Liz), Emmanuelle Béart (Marianne), Marianne Denicourt (Julienne), David Bursztein (Nicolas), Gilles Arbona (Porbus), Marie Belluc (Magali), Marie-Claude Roger (Françoise).
Frenhofer was once a great painter – but he hasn’t painted anything in 10 years. It isn’t for a lack of ideas -an idea has haunted him this whole time for a painting called La Belle Noiseuse – the beautiful nuisance – and he started it years ago, with his wife Liz (Jane Birkin) as his model and his muse. But he wasn’t able to bring it to completion – somehow knowing that completing it would destroy his relationship with Liz, and not wanting that to happen. Liz was the last of his muses – and he used the others, and discarded them, but he could not do that this time. Liz tells us that he started painting her because she loved him, then because he loved her. The former is something he experienced before, but perhaps not the latter. Then his dealer shows up at his estate one day with a younger artist – a great admirer of Frenhofer’s – and the artist’s girlfriend. This is Marianne (Emmanuelle Beart), and she awakens in Frenhofer the desire to finish the painting for real this time. It will be an arduous, painful process for all involved.
That is basically the plot of La Belle Noiseuse, Jacques Rivette’s four-hour masterpiece about the creative process, but doesn’t begin to describe what the film is like to watch. There aren’t any more twists and turns in the plot other than what I have described above, because Rivette isn’t interested in that. What he is observing here is the creative process itself – what the artist, and the muse, go through in the creation of art. By the end, we will see the painting the process created. Is it a masterpiece? It doesn’t really matter.
What we watch, in scene after scene, is the artist and his muse engaged in some sort of tug of war. He will pose her, sometimes in painful poses that he’ll ask her to hold for extended periods of time. She’ll complain that it hurts – and he’ll explain it hurts him as well. The soundtrack is largely made up on Frenhofer’s pen on canvas, sketching out various drafts, sketches, ideas on the page, which we see come together, and just as often discarded. It’s one of the secrets of the movie that we don’t really see the painting at the end of the film come together – so much as all the rough drafts – all the things that are not the painting.
Frenhofer is played by the late, great Michel Piccoli, in one of his finest performances. He is stubborn, he is demanding. Somewhere deep down, he knows what he wants – he just has to get there. Beart is his match in every way. She poses, she sulks, she pushes when he pulls, etc. Because she is so much younger than Piccoli, and so stunningly beautiful, we suspect that perhaps we’ll get one of those lame stories about an aging male artist seducing his young muse. But that isn’t this story. Frenhofer doesn’t ever try and seduce Marianne at all. The only time he touches her, is to pose her differently. Jane Birkin is also wonderful as his wife – who knows this won’t turn sexual in any way – but still feels like a kind of betrayal.
Perhaps all of this sounds boring – I know that I certainly worried that I would be bored by the movie when I read Roger Ebert’s Great Movies essay about the film. But it isn’t. It’s entrancing. Most movies about painters are boring – they either don’t understand what drives painters, or probably more accurately, have no way of capturing it on film. They concentrate on the troubled lives of great painters – the sex, the alcohol, the drugs, the mental illness, etc. – all of which is far more cinematic than the process of sitting in front of a blank canvas and creating something.
But that’s the secret to Rivette’s film. We only know a little about Frenhofer’s life – even less about Marianne’s. And yet, somehow, throughout the process of the film we learn all we need to learn about them both. It’s a quietly remarkable film – not quite like anything else. Yes, it needs to be four hours long. Rivette, undoubtedly knowing that most theaters wouldn’t play a four-hour film, did recut a 125-minute version for international release in 1991 – but I can think of no reason to watch it. Yes, you may know what “happens” in the film by watching the shorter version, but you cannot possibly understand what it means. How it feels to create – to feel that irrepressible urge to create, and the process you go through to do that. That’s far more important than the end result – which is precisely why we see about 180-minutes of Frenhofer and Marianne locked in the creative process, and only fleeting moments looking at the end result.

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