It’s the Jacques Rivette movie for people who can’t stand Jacques Rivette movies — and yet no one else could’ve made it. La Belle Noiseuse (1991), now restored and rereleased in all its four-solid-hour glory, was the late, great French New Waver’s biggest international hit, an immersive act of captivity that traps us in a room with the unreasonable struggle of art-making, starring a faded artist whose productivity has witnessed severe decline and a posing-in-the-nude Emmanuelle Béart as his person of study. Perhaps Rivette was being cunning in front-loading his epic (which it is, though perfectly typical on a Rivettian scale) with so much explicitly erotic context. But in its own way this sensual, granular experience is just as pure and obsessive as Rivette’s less hospitable masterpieces, and almost as mysterious.
We’re in the south of France, in the 18th-century Chateau d’Assas, where Nicholas (David Burztein), a young painter, and his girlfriend, Marianne (Béart), are visiting aging, semi-retired painter Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli), who hasn’t produced anything significant in years. Nothing is said, but it’s obvious he’s blocked. There’s some chitchat, some sparring, some gameplaying; then Nicholas offhandedly offers up Marianne as a model for the old man. Frenhofer accepts, seeing the opportunity as a chance to resuscitate, or reinvent, an abandoned piece he had originally begun featuring his wife (Jane Birkin).
So it begins, with Marianne — a dizzyingly beautiful woman not interested in being tied down, much less being merchandise-traded between men — embarking on the project in a spirit of irritation. Frenhofer, for his part, couldn’t care less about his subject’s ire — from the outset, he wears a preoccupied five-yard stare nothing can distract. (Piccoli’s weathered, masterfully understated performance nails what it looks and feels like to be in the thrall of a creative zeal, and anyone who knows the vibe will feel their blood race.)
As Marianne haughtily complies with the old-timer’s demands, the maker himself barely seems aware that he’s not alone in a room with just him and his process. The drawings and painting — executed by semi-abstract-nude artist Bernard Dufour, upon whom Frenhofer is roughly based — are an endless series of starts and stops, inspired launches, and petered-out surrenders. Pacing in his cavernous castle-cellar studio, the artist bends the exposed Marianne into complex pretzels (in effect desexualizing her), as he does the hard inner work of finding something that’s both brand-new and truthful about whatever it is he sees in the young woman’s form.
That is, if he actually sees her at all. Eventually, over days, Marianne discards her objectified role and takes over, and you’d think a kind of traditional gender battle-of-wills would arise. (“You’re not free, and neither am I,” he tells her as she’s in mid-contortion.) But it doesn’t, because the real stakes are never out of view — there’s an electric urgency to their project, based entirely on an ideal, on the belief in the importance of the finished painting, whatever it may end up being. In fact, as hours pass, it becomes clear that the completed work is actually secondary to the process itself — like Rivette, Frenhofer hunts for the flow in the act. Making, not having made, is the state of grace.
On the surface, this is a left turn from Rivette’s other films, which often occupy a dream-time parallel reality chockablock with free-associative consciousnesses, unreadable connections, causes without effects, irrational but contagious suspicions, metaphoric ghosts, characters matter-of-factly existing outside the stream of “real” life, social orchestrations centered on illusions, and anxieties about unseen phenomenon. Which is all to say, Rivette’s movies are movies at their moviest — to understand him as an artist is to grasp his notion of movies as an alternate universe that mirrors our own, but which at the same time disconnects experience from our complacent knowledge of life. Usually his films are creepy seductions, in which we are lured, by the very cinematic apparatus we trust to tell us clear and enthralling stories, into ideas of authentic otherness, of experiences cleaved from our neurotic beliefs in autonomy and omniscience.
La Belle Noiseuse is Rivette touching down on a recognizable Earth, coming as close as he ever did to crafting a realistic dramatic story. Still, launching off from narrative bits of Balzac and Henry James, the movie’s concerns are nearly cosmic, even as they are manifested only in ink, paint, and flesh. Béart’s tribulation, over the long haul, is never less than convincing; even when we see nothing but Dufour’s hand and pad, we know she’s there posing off-screen, naked and bent and defiant. Rivette, who almost always focused on independent female figures, made Marianne’s ordeal Béart’s, and you get a sharp sense that she, and everyone concerned, saw the artist’s labor as her own.
Rivette’s film is challenged only by Victor Erice’s The Quince Tree Sun as the greatest film ever made about the work of making, even if, in the end, we are not rewarded with the dazzlement of art. The form of the movie has made us laborers, too, not just spectators.
La Belle Noiseuse
Directed by Jacques Rivette
Cohen Film Collection
Opens November 24, Quad Cinema