La Belle Noiseuse

(The Beautiful Troublemaker, France/CH - 1991)

by Vanes Naldi

Cast: Michel Piccoli, Emmanuelle Béart, Jane Birkin, Marianne Denicourt, David Burzstein, Gilles Arbona 
Genre: Drama
Director: Jacques Rivette
Screenplay: Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, Jacques Rivette, based on Honoré De Balzac's novel
Cinematography: William Lubtchansky
Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Runtime: 240 minutes

What really defines a pictorial masterpiece is that it explores things others can't. It not only portrays one's body, but their soul, their heart.

Frenhofer is one of the most well know painters in France, but now in his '60's, he's been on hiatus for several years. Fear caused his hiatus; he was scared to complete one of his works called "La Belle Noiseuse" or the tormented beauty. The model was Liz, his wife, and they came to a point where Frenhofer had to make an important decision: his wife or the painting. As the film starts, we don't fully understand why, but it will become clear as time passes.

The beautiful Marianne and her fiancé pay a visit to Frenho because he's interested in Frenho's works. He wants to learn about, to understand how Frenho works. In the middle of a discussion, they find out about "La Belle Noiseuse," a project that Frenhofer abruptly stopped 10 years before. To this day it pains him to remember the details, but he shows the incomplete painting to his guests and says it lacks "blood." His wife Liz seems particularly interested in the painting, even claiming it was a masterpiece
before it was completed.

Something happens with Frenho and Marianne, so much that he asks her fiancé to ask Marianne to pose for him to complete the painting, to explore again his masterpiece. At first Marianne is disgusted by her fiancé's actions. She feels like her body has been sold, that she was treated like a whore. She's reluctant and afraid of what could happen. During their first meeting, Marianne becomes really nervous when he starts with the first sketches. Frenho takes quite some time to find the right position, put everything in the right place, and find the right "ingredients." He decides to begin with Marianne sitting still and dressed because "it doesn't matter how we start." Nothing of note comes out of those sketches. He feels like something is blinding him from the real Marianne, so he asks her to put on a robe, and we understand what he means. This moment was loaded with nervousness for many reasons, including Marianne's fear that she had to pose nude and Frenho's frustration in searching for a good starting point and trying to find out if he's still able to paint effectively.

Marianne finally poses nude and Frenhofer begins the paint, asking her to pose in every kind of position from the simplest to the most elaborate (and painful for Marianne). "La Belle Noiseuse" starts emerging from Frenho's hands, and something changes in the relationship between the artist and the model. At first Marianne is reluctant, scared, embarrassed by her own nudity, but as the days go by she starts to get accustomed to the environment. The poses aren't a problem anymore, and she starts to get emotionally involved in the process of making the painting. The relationship between Frenho and Marianne develops to a point where they start discussing things. They debate his reasons for stopping the painting 10 years before, what he's searching for, and why he thinks she's the right model.

During this period where the painter and model are growing closer, their wife and fiancé respectively are kept completely out of the picture (no pun intended). In different ways, the excluded begin to suffer from their exclusion. Marianne's fiancé is scared of what his relationship with her could become. Not only is he afraid of what Frenho could do with her, but what the painting could do TO her. As the painting progresses, they grow apart because Frenhofer and Marianne move away from everything but the painting. Marianne sleeps at Frenho's instead of going back to the hotel, and Frenho even works during the night to the point where he falls asleep on top of a mattress on the floor of the ateliér.

A bond between the two develops, but in spite of the fact that the lead is nude 3/4 of the time, there's little to no sexual tension between the two. It's all about trying to recreate the emotions that go through the mind of the artist and the model. Frenho continues to put pressure on Marianne to reach that level when stripped of all emotion, stripped of any fear, courage, love, or rage, the person goes "beyond" and truly showcases herself.

The last moments before the end of the painting are painful for both because Frenho goes back to the feelings that led him to abandon the project 10 years before. When his wife discovers that he painted over his last "project" of "La Belle Noiseuse," she feels robbed of the time they spent together working on it, of the emotions they felt. Marianne is also afraid because she's starting to see some truth in what Liz told her about Frenho, that he was all about completing his masterpiece so everything else was secondary, even his model. She begins to feel afraid that the painting could exploit her, not due to the physical nudity, but because she's mentally naked.

There's a nice discussion between Marianne's fiancé and Liz about what a masterpiece can do: portray the life of the within the limits of a painting. It shows everything about the model, unveiling the body, soul, and heart. In some sense, this film could be compared to "Tous le Matins Du Monde" as far as the relationship between art and its artist develops: Frenhofer comes to a point where the only important thing for him is achieving the end of his voyage, achieving the perfection, the masterpiece. Whether he showed it to people or not was an entirely different matter.

So many things could have gone wrong with this film if it was done in Hollywood. To begin with, a soap opera-like story between Frenho and Marianne would have developed. They would have exploited the fact she's naked for 3/4 of the time and cut the film to pieces, probably in half (note: there's actually a version that's roughly half as long). The reason why the film works so well is that we follow the process of creating the painting, and we feel the same frustration, impatience, and nervousness that the model and artist feel. There are plenty of sequences, sometimes even lasting 5-6 minutes, where the camera completely focuses on the hand of the painter at work. Nothing else matters, the only thing we hear are the environmental sounds (beautifully captured, I must say), the noise the various brushes make, and Frenho breathing. It's a different experience, and the director has taken a huge risk in doing this. So many people will be turned off by the fact that at least 2 hours of the near 4-hour film are spent in the painter's studio because he's simply painting, drawing sketches, making the model change positions, and arguing with her about what he wants and what he's looking for in this painting. Time doesn't matter while watching these "actions."  I remember channel surfing a few days ago and stumbling upon one of the Discovery Channels (I think Home & Leisure) showing a painting show. Those 30 minutes passed without my even noticing because I was totally absorbed, like something hypnotic, by the painter and how he was progressing with his work. The same thing happens with "La Belle Noiseuse." At first, like Marianne, we might feel a bit frustrated, maybe even bored by what we see, but as time goes by, we come to understand the real nature of the film.

Technically speaking, the film is excellently done. It's a joy of images and sounds, greatly enhanced by the beautiful French interiors. There isn't really a "musical" soundtrack because most of the focus is spent on noises, breath, and environmental sound. This helps us immerge ourselves in the film that much more.

The acting is tremendous, starting from Michel Piccoli, who conveys perfectly the mannerisms and character of an artist. At times, he's the friendliest person you'll meet then suddenly he explodes in his rage. He always has a melancholic look like most of the artists have in French films. He's a perfectionist, but the role is acted so naturally that we feel like we're just watching something real happen. Emmanuelle Beart is just mesmerizing, and I don't say that because she's naked for 3/4 of the film. She bares everything, physically and mentally. This is such a difficult role because there's almost no dialogue or movement; it's all about facial expression. As the film starts, she looks bored, frustrated, uninterested. As the film progresses, she gradually changes, becomes attached to the painting. Jane Birkin also gives a very strong performance as Frenhofer's wife Liz. She's always understanding with her husband, but also becomes increasingly worried when he reaches the end of his work.

This is certainly not a film for everybody. I guess some people will only watch it to see Beart completely naked, but even if you do that, after 30 minutes you'll probably be completely captured by the film, by the painting. The fact that one of the most beautiful actresses of the modern era is naked, without any manipulation, won't matter because the painting takes the lead. It also speaks volumes about Beart as an actress. Working naked for so long is not an easy task to begin with, but doing so and being as natural as she is requires great attention and great ability. So many people would feel embarrassed, but she doesn't. After 30 minutes of seeing her naked, you're so captured by the film that she could be dressed as well, you wouldn't notice the difference. It seems that most of the French actress have no problem if the role and the film require nudity, unlike some people in Hollywood who, even in 2001, try to make money out of it like it's some sort of taboo.

"La Belle Noiseuse" is a tremendous reflection on the feelings and life of artists; about what art means for them and for those involved. It examines the suffering the artists and their relatives go through, and eventually shows art like few films have done before.




* Copyright 2001 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *