Film Review: La Belle Noiseuse

Jacques Rivette's magisterial portrait of the creative process lays bare an artist's conflicted responsibilities toward life and art.
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Over the course of his nearly 50-year directorial career, Jacques Rivette maintained an enduring interest in long-form explorations of artistic preparation and dramatic rehearsal, as exemplified by his mammoth 13-hour masterwork Out 1. Freely adapted from a Balzac short story, Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse is a magisterial portrait of the creative process, spending long stretches of its 238-minute running time simply observing a painter at work on a series of sketches and dry runs toward the completion of his long-abandoned masterpiece. Beyond this verité documentary aspect, Rivette’s 1991 film (now restored in 4K) offers a profoundly affective rumination on the sempiternal tug-of-war between an artist’s responsibility toward life and art.

La Belle Noiseuse opens at a village inn near Pic Saint-Loup in the south of France (which would be the location of Rivette’s final film, Around a Small Mountain, also starring Jane Birkin). The film’s first ten minutes are an elaborately choreographed set-piece that perpetrates some playful narrative misdirection, and introduces the notion of role-playing, another theme Rivette returns to time and again. The voiceover narration that abruptly lets us in on the game aspiring artist Nicolas (David Bursztein) and his girlfriend Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart) are playing, as well as some sporadically introduced intertitle cards, contribute a layer of literary and cinematic complexity to a series of essentially static tableaux between characters.

Nicolas and Marianne, accompanied by wealthy collector Balthazar Porbus (Gilles Arbona), have come to visit reclusive artist Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) in the sprawling villa he inhabits with Liz (Birkin), his wife and former model. It has been ten years since Frenhofer left off work on his intended masterpiece La Belle Noiseuse, inspired by the career of a famously capricious 17th-century courtesan, and his artistic fires are now banked into embers. Consequently, Frenhofer is the tetchy sort, always spouting off about truth in painting, and the necessity of artistic cruelty, theories Marianne finds patently ridiculous—until, that is, she agrees to pose for him.

The narrative setup thus far adheres more or less to Balzac’s story. But Rivette takes his time lingering on the details, with renowned postwar painter Bernard Dufour doing the artistic handiwork in close-up shots. Rivette also focuses more on the combative, almost sadomasochistic aspect of the relationship between artist and model: Frenhofer attempts to brutally bend Marianne to his will by forcing her into painfully awkward postures, until she openly rebels, asserting her own will to creative power.

Frenhofer’s long-anticipated access of inspiration occurs in a moment of drunken burlesque that somehow forges a tentative camaraderie between them. The stimulus prompts him to reorient his canvas from portrait to landscape, cheekily defacing the roughed-out portrait by painting Marianne’s buttocks over Liz’s visage. This will be a source of vexation to Liz when she finally steals a glimpse of the finished painting. Which is more than the film’s viewers ever gain: Rivette cannily withholds the image, instead registering characters’ varied reactions to it.

Balzac’s story ends in madness and death, while Rivette’s film concludes on a far more positive, even humanist note: Frenhofer chooses to side with life over art, though perhaps at a rather high personal cost. Rivette orchestrates the aftermath of the portrait’s unveiling as a series of duets between the characters, thereby capturing the seismic shifts in their relationships. Cycles of infidelity and exploitation seem likely to begin all over again, but at least one of the participants have truly changed as result of their artistic ordeal, and La Belle Noiseuse ends with a delightful paradox: refusal as affirmation.

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