Reflections on Jacques Rivette’s “La Belle Noiseuse” [1991 France]

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Jacques Rivette is one of the very few nouvelle vague directors who is impossible to pigeon-hole – he has consistently experimented with cinema using different genres, techniques, and narratives, embodying the true spirit of French New Wave itself.

At first glance, his epic four-hour “La Belle Noiseuse” appears to follow an artist’s journey through the course of a painting. Which it nevertheless does, in exquisite detail. It explores artist Frenhofer’s quest for capturing the essence of his subject – ‘La belle noiseuse’ loosely translates as ‘the beautiful troublemaker’, alluding to a late medieval French courtesan who was coined the aforementioned epithet. It’s a quest that cannot be carried out alone – the artist needs to discover it through his model, and hence it’s a journey that they should together undertake. The film also delves into the artist’s frame of mind, his dilemmas, and moral compulsions – he is after all also justifying a purpose, after his agent persuades him to restart a painting that he’d already given up ten years earlier. The last time he pursued the painting with his wife as model, in his own words, “it was either the painting or my marriage – I chose the latter”. He hadn’t painted since.

The chosen model, Marriane, girlfriend of a young artist and admirer of Frenhofer, agrees to pose for the resumed project at first reluctantly, but her indignant and cocooned self will subsequently be forced open through her sittings for Frenhofer. And along with her inhibitions, Marriane also begins to shed her earlier preconceived notions and denials – she begins to feel liberated, which will inevitably also influence decisions in her personal life henceforth. Frenhofer will conceive through Marriane his ‘La belle noiseuse’, and it will turn out to be an image that no one expected, nor even wanted to see…

Frenhofer rigorously working through his drawings – as fascinating as it is to watch, does get a bit tedious after a while, and Marriane’s contortionist poses in the nude also lose its novelty rather quickly. If a film had meandered along for four hours by emphasising repetitively what has already been implied before, just to tell a story, one might be forgiven for considering it pretentious. But thankfully, that is not Rivette’s main goal in the film. Rivette himself is the artist here and like Frenhofer, going through several raw sketches of his own to understand his subject, which is also the same as Frenhofer’s. It is Rivette using film as his sketchbook and canvas. In just the same way that Frenhofer’s final creation is not of great interest to him save the creative journey itself (even the audience don’t get to see the finished painting), what Rivette had captured through acres of film is less important to him than the film making process itself. That doesn’t mean he didn’t really care what he shot – far from it, every shot is thoughtfully chosen, every nuance captured with Rivette’s customary attention to detail, and every actor (including the cat) make a perfectly orchestrated entrance. Rivette might just as well be the film’s Frenhofer squeezing the soul out of his models, forcing them to strike testing poses, and pushing them as much as he’s pushing himself. A clue to his intentions is in the way he keeps reminding us that we are watching something that is being ‘filmed’! Not only do we often watch from a viewpoint that doesn’t belong to any of the protagonists, we even get to see parts of the filming equipment from time to time, and also some visibly apparent improvisations with dialogue – we are watching the film ‘being made’.

This is where the “shorter” version of the film released a year later, “La belle Noiseuse – Divertimento” requires mentioning. When I suggested above that Rivette has used film as his sketchbook and canvas, it wasn’t my being spoilt for choice between two words for completing a sentence as sometimes is the case – if “La Belle Noiseuse” is the sketchbook, Rivette’s “La Belle Noiseuse – Divertimento” is his finished canvas. In the latter, not only do we see the seemingly repetitive elements/strokes removed, it also incorporates the most ideal film compositions for advancing the narrative, the best takes in terms of acting, and the ideal marriage of visuals and dialogues, all coming together to give us a more ‘mainstream’ cinema experience. A typical example is in the passage of play relating to Frenhofer’s usage of the earlier unfinished painting as canvas for the new painting – while the earlier work’s defacement is shown explicitly and also argued over in depth by his wife in the longer version, the shorter version gets the same message across using the argument alone with barely a hint of the unfinished painting’s defacement.

In terms of performance, Michel Piccoli as Frenhofer is the artist himself – to the effect that when I first viewed this film some fifteen years ago, I thought Mr. Piccoli was an accomplished painter himself. An artist’s restlessness and self-centred quest for the unknown is vividly brought to life by one of the finest actors in French cinema. This was also the first of many collaborations between an up-and-coming Emmanuelle Béart and Jacques Rivette – one that will stand the test of time. Ms. Béart fits into her character like a glove, and brings forth the vulnerability and confusion of her character hitherto hidden beneath her tough exterior with aplomb.

Among the films of Jacques Rivette that I’ve had the pleasure to see, this may not be my absolute favourite – that’ll be my next Rivette, but “La belle noiseuse” still has its unique charms and is worthy of mention in his remarkable body of work. Borrowing the analogy of films to artworks and how masterpieces are looked at in general, while the longer version (with transitional sketches) is for the connoisseur, the shorter version (finished and framed canvas) is for the enthusiast. We have a choice – both may be the same film, but are distinctive nevertheless, and Highly Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link (Longer version)
This is a beautiful Artificial Eye 3-Disc release with one whole disc dedicated to interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.

Amazon DVD Link (Abridged version)
Again from Artificial Eye, this excellent 3-Disc box-set titled The French Collection Volume 4 – Emmanuelle Béart features two other brilliant films of Ms. Béart – Les Témoins, and Histoire de Marie et Julien, both already reviewed in the blog. Three classics from two great directors – now that’s value for money.



The Nudity: Emmanuelle Béart and Michel Piccoli
Enhanced to 720p, this special film is certainly worth the effort, me thinks.

Emmanuelle Béart in La belle noiseuse

Beautiful Emmanuelle Béart and Michel Piccoli are captivating as model and artist on a joint quest in Jacques Rivette’s classic, “La Belle Noiseuse”.



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