In my review of B.A. Shapiro’s novel The Art Forger, I suggested that anyone who hasn’t seen it should watch La Belle Noiseuse, the 1991 film by the French New Wave director Jacques Rivette. You never see this film on lists of the best motion pictures in cinema history. Yet La Belle Noiseuse is not just one of the best pictures ever made about artists and their struggle to create art. It’s also one of the finest movies I’ve ever seen.
Loosely based on Balzac’s short story “The Unknown Masterpiece,” La Belle Noiseuse (rough translation: The Beautiful Nuisance) is the tale of Frenhofer, a celebrated, elderly painter who for ten years has been unable to complete the painting for which the film is named. Liz, Frenhofer’s wife, was the original model for the work, but a combination of artist’s block and friction in their relationship has kept Frenhofer from returning to the piece. As the film begins, the unfinished painting is where it has been for the past decade: hidden under a sheet at the back of Frenhofer’s studio in the enormous former castle where he and Liz reside.
One summer afternoon, Frenhofer and Liz receive two guests: Nicolas, a young painter, and Nicolas’s girlfriend, Marianne. Nicolas, an admirer of Frenhofer’s work, has long wanted to meet the older master and arranged to visit when he and Marianne were on holiday in the French countryside. Frenhofer shows Nicolas and Marianne some of his paintings and mentions the abandoned portrait of Liz. Late that night, after a long dinner and several glasses of wine, Frenhofer talks with Nicolas and Porbus, his art dealer, about the possibility of resuming work on his masterpiece. Nicolas suggests that Marianne could become his new model. But when Nicolas proposes the idea to her back at their inn, Marianne is outraged, even when her boyfriend tells her that this is her chance to achieve immortality as a muse for a great painter.
Despite her reluctance, Marianne shows up at Frenhofer’s studio the next morning. The session begins with Frenhofer stalling for time: lining up his brushes, pouring out paints and jars of water, sitting in chair after chair until he finds one that’s the correct height. He then draws a series of portraits of the clothed Marianne. He works in silence, speaking to the nervous Marianne only when he wants her to pin up her hair or step to one side. After he finishes his second portrait, he studies the work and then, indicating the studio’s loft, says to Marianne, “You’ll find a robe up there.” She hesitates but then ascends the stairs. When she returns, she is wearing only the robe. Without a word, she takes her spot in the center of the studio and lets the robe fall to the floor.
What follows in this long and intense film—the running time is just under four hours—is a battle of temperaments between Frenhofer and Marianne. Frenhofer struggles to get a handle on Marianne’s personality. There’s something vexing about her, some quality he wants to capture on his canvas, but can’t quite figure out what it is. Marianne struggles, too, but for different reasons. After she summons the courage to bare her body to Frenhofer, she then fights with an even more daunting prospect: revealing to Frenhofer her inner conflicts, from her childhood to her uncertain feelings about Nicolas. These inner torments deepen after Liz, catching Marianne on the latter’s way to another session, tells her to be careful around Frenhofer. He lives for his art, she tells her. All else is secondary. You will never be as important to him as the work he is creating.
Unlike any other film I’ve seen about the artistic process, La Belle Noiseuse shows the viewer the sacrifices and commitment needed to paint great works of art. There are many five- and ten-minute uninterrupted shots that focus on the artist’s hand (the hand is not that of the great actor Michel Piccoli, who plays Frenhofer, but of the painter Bernard Dufour) as he fills a blank canvas or the page of a drawing pad with Marianne’s likeness. We see Frenhofer begin a sketch, make a mistake, tear the sheet out of his drawing pad, and start over. He litters the studio floor with dozens of sketches he deems unsatisfying. He becomes puppet master to Marianne’s marionette, twisting her body into hundreds of poses, some of them painful, and lets her talk about herself while she poses until he begins to see the person she really is. Only then is Frenhofer ready to remove the cloth from “La Belle Noiseuse”, confront his long-buried demons, and finish the work, the result of which leads to an emotionally shattering conclusion for everyone involved.
The acting in La Belle Noiseuse is superb. Piccoli and Emmanuelle Béart, who plays Marianne, convey complex emotions with simple gestures. The script is witty and literate, so good that you feel the tension among the characters even during the long silences. Like the finest paintings, Rivette’s film is a great work of art. The film may be hard to find these days, but if you can secure a copy, or live near a revival house that’s showing it (don’t watch the edited version someone has put on YouTube), you’ll be treated to one of the unsung masterpieces of French cinema.
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