La Belle Noiseuse
I've wanted to see this film ever since I heard about it when it came out. Let's get the logistics out of the way. First, it's in French. Second, and more importantly it's four hours long. That's longer than the GODFATHERs, even longer than ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. When you have four hours in which to tell your story, there's really no reason to rush anything. You can have long silences and long scenes that may or may not have anything to do with the plot. In fact, you don't really need a plot per se.
There are only five main characters in this movie. They are all artists of one kind or another. Liz used to be the model for, and is now the longtime companion of Edouard, who is apparently some kind of brilliant painter. He hasn't picked up a brush in ten years, since he lost his quest for 'the truth' as he puts it. Nicolas is a young painter and his girlfriend of the past couple of years is Marianne. A mutual friend, Porbus introduces them when they travel to the older painter's castle for dinner. They all speak in artistic terms. Notions of passion and soul and blood and knowing and truth, all as they relate to art. The topic gets around to a painting project that Edouard never got around to finishing called 'La Belle Noiseuse' with the lovely Liz as his model. He tried and tried but could never achieve exactly what he wanted on the canvas. Porbus suggests that by having Marianne model for him, the old passion and therefore skill would come back. Nicolas, who is somewhat in awe of the older, wiser, Edouard agrees. When Marianne finds out that Nicolas has given permission she is quite upset, feeling as if she'd been sold by a pimp. After all, everyone knows that the models are often nude.
She goes back to the castle the next day, out of what appears to be spite at her boyfriend. Marianne and Edouard are awkward around each other as they both watch him get back into the rhythm of sketching. Little by little they become more and more trusting of each other and after awhile, it's hard to remember that Marianne's clothes are never on. They are all heading towards some moment of artistic truth when the final painting will be completed, seen by Nicolas, and purchased by Porbus. Along the way, both Nicolas and Liz are both a bit uncomfortable with the whole process. Nicolas knows that another man is viewing his lover from all angles and at hours at a time. She is seeing firsthand what an incredible artist he is. And Liz, who used to be the muse of Edouard is now forced to come to terms with the fact that she's been replaced by a younger woman. Liz is always supportive, often talking both Marianne and Nicolas out of giving up on the project. She likes to see Edouard back in great form. It is important that he paint. Indeed, it's his life. He is nothing when he's not painting and to deny him would be to end his life. Liz has known for years that everything else comes second to painting, she seems to have accepted this fact.
For those of us who have never been artistic, this film will appear to be magic in an almost special-effect way. Once Marianne has been posed exactly the way that Edouard wants her to be, the camera then stays on a blank piece of paper or canvas. A pen or brush or piece of charcoal then will noisily scrape at the paper as little by little the image of her body comes through on it. It's truly amazing to see a drawing or painting at each step of its birth. How an artist does it is an absolute mystery to me. The camera stays on this paper or canvas for a good five minutes without a cut. After we've seen Emmanuel Beart naked long enough, the sexual thrill of her fabulous body is taken over by a kind of biological interest. As Edouard bends and twists her into the shape he's looking for, we see how her backbone stands out or how her foot is pointed. It's an absolutely unique film experience. There are several major loose ends that aren't explained, but the ride is slow and extremely sensual.
Liz . . . Jane Birkin
Marianne . . . Emmanuelle Beart [goddess, Manon of the Spring, Un Coeur En Hiver, Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud, Mission: Impossible]
Julienne . . . Marianne Denicourt
Magali . . . Marie Belluc
Francoise . . . Marie-Claude Roger
Servant . . . Leila Remili
Tourist . . . Daphne Goodfellow
Tourist . . . Susan Robertson
Edouard . . . Michel Piccoli
Nicolas . . . David Bursztein
Porbus . . . Gilles Arbona
Bernard Dufour [the artists' hands]
Cinematography by William Lubtchansky
Directed by Jacques Rivette
France / Switzerland
This Was Written On April 6, 1997
~~Grand Prix Winner at Cannes
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copyright © 2000 Michael Warner Cummins
Most recent update: 11/1/00
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