La belle noiseuse (Jacques Rivette, 1991)
La belle noiseuse, the final film of the Jacques Rivette mini-season at Melbourne Cinémathèque screened last night at ACMI. Of the several films shown over the last three weeks, this was my clear favourite. The contemplative nature of the narrative - an exploration of an acclaimed artist in decline, his subject and their relationships with their significant others - is nothing short of sublime. Emmanuelle Béart quietly smoulders on screen as Marianne and Michel Piccoli brilliantly portrays artist Edouard Frenhofer who appears to be moulded as a Rivette surrogate (other than being heavier-set, he even looks somewhat similar).
At four hours long, this is the longest film I have ever sat through - and without a toilet break! After an hour or so, I wondered how this could maintain interest in an audience for another three hours, yet with an hour to go, it got more and more engaging. That final hour was truly rewarding. Up until that point, the narrative had been relatively straight-forward (at least for a Rivette film). Then it adopted the elusiveness that I have been describing in my summation of the other films screening at Cinémathèque. Critical pieces of information are glaringly and teasingly kept out of our sight. The ambiguity is absolutely effective in arousing a sense of wonder and mystery.
Bernard Dufour is credited as the artist who painted the artwork, though the film was cleverly edited to make it appear that Piccoli was indeed the artist. At times we saw Piccoli painting or sketching but then the closeups did not reveal the artist's face. There were long takes where we got to see paintings created in real-time before our eyes. That was fascinating, and reminded me of the brilliance of Ed Harris' portrayal of artist Jackson Pollock (in Pollock) in which he replicated the artist's works on camera in similar long takes. In Harris' case, he did the artwork himself without a stand-in.
Béart appears nude for much of her screen time, though the nudity is neither gratuitous nor erotic. There is a whole spectrum of nuanced emotions she depicts as Marianne evolves through the process of modelling for Frenhofer. Her acting was of a quality that reminds me of that other great French actress that I've posted about recently, Isabelle Huppert. Towards the end, she has subtly lost some of her inhibition as she moves around the studio without covering up. I liked the way this was done without being spelt out to the audience. And I also loved that Béart is not a classic beauty in the film - many bodily imperfections are evident, which adds much to the verisimilitude.
The rural residence Frenhofer and his wife Liz (played by Jane Birkin) live in is almost another character in the film. Its antiquity and decay are beautiful, with black and white tiled floors like the Red Room in Twin Peaks. The vastness and labyrinthine nature of the buildings adds to constructing a unique atmosphere that complements the development of friction between various protagonists. Incidentally, the building facade resembles the fantasy house in Céline and Julie Go Boating.
The film has various unexpected moments, including the development of Liz's character. She lived much of her life in deferment to her illustrious husband, but finds a quiet will at the end that challenges the status quo. Rivette is a director who portrays women in truly interesting and non-stereotypical but believable roles. I don't think he has received the recognition he deserves.
The documentary Jacques Rivette - The Night Watchman that screened a few weeks ago was helpful for me to get an insight into this curious and elusive film-maker. La Belle Noiseuse is based on a Balzac novella called Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu. I expect many people who have seen this film watched it on DVD. It was a delight to get the opportunity to see it on the big screen, and was a great way to end the Rivette season.
Previous Rivette posts:
Jacques Rivette - The Night Watchman
Paris Belongs to Us / Duelle
Le coup du berger / Céline and Julie Go Boating
Selected Senses of Cinema articles about Jacques Rivette:
Jacques Rivette - the Night Watchman
Paris Belongs To Us
Céline and Julie Go Boating
La Belle Noiseuse
Other links: Wikipedia / IMDB