Old 04-18-2009, 04:37 PM
Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse

La Belle Noiseuse (1991)

Jacques Rivette's "La Belle Noiseuse" is a rather slow, meticulous meditation on the creation of art and what one hopes to achieve with it. It is four hours long, but manages to never be tedious in the exploration of its subject. All of the characters wait with much anticipation to see what the main character will discover with his new work. The question is, is it what he wants to discover?

Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart), her boyfriend Nicolas (David Bursztein), and their friend Porbus (Gilles Arbona) visit the house of their friends Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) and his wife Liz (Jane Birkin). We learn from Porbus that Edouard is a painter who hasn't done any work for several years. During their visit, Porbus suggests that Edouard take up painting again, this time using Marianne as his model. Nicolas agrees with it as long as it's what Marianne wants to do. After some initial hesitation, Marianne agrees to do it.

The reason why Edouard gave up painting is rather interesting. He tells us that he's been through many models and eventually met his wife Liz that way. When he was with her, he heard of a 17th century courtesan named Catherin Lescault who had the nickname "La Belle Noiseuse" or "The Beautiful Troublemaker." When Edouard heard about this woman's life, he suddenly wanted a painting of her and began using Liz to try and achieve it, but when he wasn't able to, he abandoned the project and stopped painting.

When Marianne comes along, he gets inspired to give the project another try. Most of the film is actually filled up with scenes of him drawing and painting her in his studio. What he hopes to achieve with the painting is never fully clear. He gives several reasons throughout the film such as finding truth, a stroke of a brush, or getting his fingers to see and guide themselves. Whatever his artistic reason for wanting the picture, we begin to sense another reason under the surface.

The last hour of the film is where events start coming together. We have seen Edouard make several drawings of Marianne, but now he paints over an old unfinished portrait of Liz which brings up a lot of symbolism. We watch as he paints over his wife's face with a sense of indifference. He covers the red hands of the painting with a light blue as is he is extinguishing the flames of their relationship.

When his wife sees this, she is obviously upset. He tries to explain to her that he can't have memories of those paintings as he is trying to create this new one. Even Marianne is noticeably bothered by his actions. Edouard seems to be the only one who doesn't notice just how much this act symbolizes the destruction of his current relationship.

The final painting is never seen by the audience, which is kind of annoying, but the little bit of it that we do see means enough to understand its impact. We are told early on by Edouard that, to symbolize that he has gone the whole way with one of his works, there must be blood on the canvas. Near the end of the film, when Edouard decides what to do with the painting, the cover of the canvas momentarily lifts up to display a brilliant flash of red on the bottom of the painting. Had he finally gone all the way with this painting?

Even stranger is the way in which Edouard describes the painting that he shows to everyone at the end as his first posthumous work. When you see what he did with the actual painting, that description begins to make a lot more sense, not only for him, but for his wife as well, who describes she and Edouard being in bed together as "sleeping together for the first time in a grave."

The most extraordinary scenes in this film are the scenes where we are allowed to watch the art as it is being created in real time. These are made even more remarkable as it is very hard to determine what the drawing or painting is going to look like after only the first few minutes. We watch as lines are placed on the paper in seemingly random places, only coming together after several minutes have passed. The "hands of the painter" belong to Bernard Dufour who displays his talent brilliantly when sketching with charcoal and small utensils and eventually when painting. His use of shadows was particularly fascinating to watch.

As I mentioned, most of the film does involve the creation of Edouard's painting, which made it strange why the filmmakers would add in a storyline involving Nicolas and his sister, Julienne (Marianne Denicourt), near the end. This small side story never really went anywhere nor really added anything to the film. It only seemed to be there to give Nicolas somebody else to talk to while Marianne was over at Edouard's studio.

This film was originally shown at Cannes in its full four-hour version, but then later cut down to a 125-minute version called "Divertimento" two years later. I don't see how this film could possibly be cut down by half and still managed to explore the same ideas with as much impact. Perhaps that version cuts out almost all of the beginning and only has most of the studio sessions, but in doing that, most of the human element would be lost from the film, making it almost pointless to watch.

Art students will no doubt love it for its deep exploration of the subject. Fans of "art films" (notice the double play on the term) will also find something to like in it as it also delves into other areas besides the creation of art. It is a fascinating exploration of the needs of one man, which begin to unveil themselves as slowly as his great works of art. 3/4 stars.
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Old 04-18-2009, 07:20 PM
Rivette is on my list of directors to check, but hardly any of his work is readily available.
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Old 04-19-2009, 12:50 AM
How do you watch these movies immediately after they appear on Ebert's Great Movies list?
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