May 2, 2018

LA BELLE NOISEUSE and the Definition of Bravery
Starring Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin, Emmanuelle Beart, Marianne Denicourt, David Bursztein, Gilles Arbona & Bernard Dufour's Hands (!). Directed by Jacques Rivette. (1991/238 min).


Review by Fluffy the Fearless😺

Have you ever shopped around on Amazon for something specific and taken a look at the list of "similar products" they recommend? When doing some preliminary info-gathering for La Belle Noiseuse, Amazon's crack market-research team also suggested the following titles: The Commuter, Laserblast, Jason Bourne, The Carol Burnett Show and Evil Bong 666.

Unless I somehow missed that sketch where Ms. Burnett strips nude and contorts like a pretzel while Harvey Korman captures her essence on canvas, The Carol Burnett Show has as much in common with La Belle Noiseuse as my cat does with the national deficit. Then again, off the top of my head, I can't think of a "similar product" either, so maybe I should cut Amazon some slack.

One thing is certain...I've never seen anything quite like this film. Granted, I'm unfamiliar with director Jacques Rivette's other work - though I'm pretty sure he had nothing to do with Evil Bong 666 - so maybe the film's epic length, extremely-deliberate pace and a near-absence of a traditional music score are indicative of the guy's style. But three days after dedicating two entire evenings to the film, I'm still not entirely sure what to think of it. I guess the fact I'm still thinking about it is a big positive. I couldn't say that about Jason Bourne, for which I didn't expend a second thought once it ended.

"For my next masterpiece, I shall paint dogs playing poker."
Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) is an eccentric artist who hasn't painted in a decade, ever since attempting what was to be his singular masterpiece, La Belle Noiseusse, using his wife, Liz (Jane Birkin), as his model. It's suggested that his failure not only dissuaded him from picking up a brush again, but irrevocably changed his relationship with Liz. Then an aspiring artist, Nicolas (David Bersztein), and his girlfriend, Marianne (Emmanuelle Beart), arrive. Nicholas is initially enamored with the reclusive artist and suggests using Marianne as his model to take another shot at painting La Belle Noiseuse.

That's the nutshell summary of a narrative that is sometimes ambiguous, perplexing and - let's just go out and say it - arty and pretentious. But that's not to say the film isn't interesting. In fact, it's often quite fascinating, which is remarkable for a movie with a running time longer than The Ten Commandments, much of it consisting of long stretches of Frenhofer sketching Marianne in various nude poses (many of which look painful). Their interaction - which is silent a majority of the time - provides the crux of the film. Being that Marianne initially doesn't want to do this, their relationship is quietly adversarial at first, then congenial, then personally revealing. But even their evolving relationship (and its emotional impact on both Nicolas & Liz) takes a backseat to the creative process. These scenes are shot in very long takes, in real time, with sparse dialogue and no accompanying music...just the scratching of pen to paper, charcoal & brush to canvas.

"Hey, lady...I eat at that table."
It sounds boring as hell on paper, but even though there are admittedly some occasions where one is tempted to hit the chapter skip button, the artistic process is mostly pretty compelling. And if nothing else, one has to admire Emmanuelle Beart's bravery. Hell, I get self-conscious catching my own reflection in the mirror after hopping from the shower, but in this four-hour film, Beart is fully nude for at-least half of it. While she's strikingly beautiful and Rivette's camera lingers on her body in equally long stretches, there is nothing sexual or erotic about these scenes. In fact, once the shock of her full-frontal form wears off, the nudity becomes as normalized for the viewer as it does for Marianne. I found myself wondering if it did for Emmanuelle, as well. If it didn't, then her performance is all-the-more impressive. To act as though being continuously nude is the most normal thing in the, that's Harvey Keitel-brave, if you ask me.

Its visual frankness and challenging narrative obviously means La Belle Noiseuse is not for everybody. Almost defiantly methodical in its depiction of the creative process, the film is nevertheless intriguing. That it manages to (mostly) maintain the viewer's interest for four hours is quite a feat, especially when you consider the decidedly uncinematic subject matter. I'll admit I didn't always understand the motivations of these characters, but in the end, I don't think we need to.

INTERVIEW - Director/Co-Writer Jacques Rivette
INTERVIEW - Co-Writers Pascal Bonitzer & Christine Laurent
AUDIO COMMENTARY - By Film Historian Richard Suchenski

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