La Belle Noiseuse (1991)
Director: Jacques Rivette
Cast: Michel Piccoli, Emmanuelle Beart, Jane Birkin, Marianne Denicourt
My Rating: 10/10
In Short: Flooring film about the deadly bond of art
Jacques Rivette is a fascinating filmmaker. Though his recent films have been of shorter, more easily consumable lengths, he is known for his long, winding epics, such as Out 1, which is more than twelve hours long. La Belle Noiseuse, his 1991 film, has a running time of 238 minutes, and is gripping for every single second, despite the fact it has been named one of the most boring movies of all time. Who gave it this title? That person is pathetic and obviously has no patience for what is clearly an important film. I can understand people who don’t think it’s a great one, but I went in expecting to be bored and was not at all.
The story centres on a young artist and his girlfriend who go to visit the famous painter Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli), who hasn’t painted in years. The artist suggests that Frenhofer paint his girlfriend (Emmanuelle Beart), in the hope that her beauty will inspire him to complete his once-abandoned masterpiece, titled ‘La belle noiseuse,’ or ‘The beautiful nuisance.’ Beart’s character Marianne is indeed a beautiful nuisance, as Frenhofer will discover when he sits down with her in his study garage. At first he draws numerous sketches of her in a book with ink, and then finally settles down to paint her on a giant canvas. The film shows him drawing and painting in meticulous detail. It doesn’t unfold in real time, but there are some astonishingly long takes of Frenhofer drawing and Beart sitting naked, often in uncomfortable poses. At first Marianne does not want to pose for him. At the end of their first day of work, she asks “Do I have to come back tomorrow?” and he tells her “You must!” Then things change as she becomes more captivated and inspired by his detail, and at the end of the second day it is her who is convincing him to continue tomorrow.
People consider painting a simple thing. It is not. If there is anything Rivette’s film sets out to prove, it is that art is merciless. Throughout the long passages of painting and drawing, Marianne will have her soul completely sucked out of her. The painting takes its toll; Frenhofer seems to take the liveliness from her and present it in paint on his canvas. This is a remarkable emotional transition, and it does not happen quickly. It is necessary for Rivette to show these sequences in lengthy, uninterrupted shots. As Roger Ebert said in his Great Movies review: “It is more exciting than a car chase.” He is right.
Meanwhile, we occasionally cut back to Frenhofer’s wife, who sometimes visits the painting chamber, worried what the painting is doing to her husband and his muse. In one sequence, we see Frenhofer fetch an old painting of her, and actually paint over it, erasing her almost completely from the canvas and replacing her with Marianne. This devastates his wife, who visits the final version of the painting (which is never seen) and places a small cross on the back of the canvas. She knows the consequences of this brilliant work of art. It has stolen part of her husband, and an even larger part of Marianne, and now they are both, in a way, dead. At least, part of them is. Marianne’s boyfriend also senses that this is happening, but is powerless to stop it. He tells Marianne at the end of one day that they are to leave. She brutally rebuffs him and sternly refuses. She won’t go anywhere until the painting is finished. When it is completed, they stare at it. Marianne, Frenhofer, his wife and a couple of others. They are in awe by it, and Rivette never shows it to us. We capture a brief glimpse of a small part of it when Frenhofer covers it up with a tarp, but we never see the completed work. What Frenhofer chooses to do with his finished masterpiece is brilliant. You will not see it coming.
La Belle Noiseuse is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Jacques Rivette uses long, timely takes to let events unfold in front of us without interruption. He is one of the kindest and most caring filmmakers. His films are long but feel very short. There is so much to look at, so many amazing stories. The fact that so few people have seen his films, or even heard of his name, is astonishing. He is one of the truly great French filmmakers, and as ‘La belle noiseuse’ is Frenhofer’s masterpiece, La Belle Noiseuse is also Rivette’s.