Director Jacques Rivette has always been the victim of the length of his films. His La Belle Noiseuse, from 1991, runs four hours and I suspect that this hurt its chance to win the Palme d’Or at
that year. Festival viewers and voters try to see as many films as possible in the short span of a few days, and thus long-running pictures often suffer smaller audiences. In 1991, a deserved, but much shorter Barton Fink (1991; 116 min.) walked away with the coveted prize. Cannes
In the early days of French New Wave, when Truffaut was making The 400 Blows (1959) and Goddard was working on Breathless (1960), Rivette was completing his Paris Belongs to Us (1961). His contemporary’s features, both clocking in at less than 100 minutes, went on to be the seminal films of an important movement. Paris Belongs to Us, at almost two and a half hours, had some moderate success but is to my knowledge held in no such high regard as the films of Truffaut and Goddard. Of course there are factors involved in audience reception of a film other than its length, but its runtime certainly didn’t help its cause.
Films cannot be bad because they are too long. They can only be bad because they are too long for their subject matter. If a director, actor, and an editor find a way to make a subject engaging for four hours, then the film is just the right length. La Belle Noiseuse is just such a film. I’ve been told that a version cut by Rivette to just over two hours exists, but you should seek out the film as the director originally intended it. The subject Rivette chooses to display to his audience over his four hours is the art world, and if you think watching someone paint for that length of time would be boring, you obviously haven’t seen this film.
In the hands of another director, this subject matter could of course become boring, but here it is riveting throughout. There is an allure to this picture that goes far beyond the beautiful naked woman who poses at its center for much of its duration. She is Marianne (Emmanuelle Beart), the girlfriend of a young ingénue artist who has just had his first big opening. He and Marianne travel to the French countryside with his agent/dealer to visit the home of the great Eduard Frenhofer, who hasn’t painted in years. The boyfriend suggests that Frenhofer use Marianne as a model for an unfinished masterpiece, the work that caused him to put away his brushes.
The original model for the painting was Frenhofer’s now wife, Liz (Jane Birkin), with whom he has an odd relationship. They are congenial but cold, and one wonders how first love, and then resentment grew out of a simple painting. This is a film about questions, not answers. Did he love her before he painted her? Did he fall out of love because he could not complete the work? Did she? Did he stop because he loved her too much? Do they both wish that it had been finished even if it had destroyed their love? We suspect that any of these things are possible, especially after Liz warns Marianne never to let Frenhofer paint her face.
The modeling sessions are rocky at first. Marianne only agrees to do them resentfully. Frenhofer begins drawings and then destroys them. He arranges Marianne in torturously uncomfortable poses. His pen scratches on the pages of his notebook. He denies her cigarettes and pushes and pulls her naked body. “Stretch. It should hurt,” he says. Slowly we watch the pen scratches and charcoal streaks take shape. He’s dismissive and demanding all at once. Does he want to posses her? Does he take comfort in her pain?
As they work their relationship changes. First she wants to quit, then he does. She makes him fight through his discouragement. They are both cruel to Liz when she visits the studio and at night at the large chateau. Marianne’s relationship is strained as well. Day after day it’s more excruciating poses and cold exchanges, but the preliminary sketches and paintings that we see come to life are beautiful. When Marianne breaks down, unsure she can continue, Frenhofer finally sees what he’s been looking for. “Don’t’ move,” he shouts.
When the painting is finally finished it is hidden from the audience. Frenhofer, Liz, Marianne, and the daughter of the maid are the only characters who see it. Marianne recoils at the sight of her image, struck by how true and cold it is on the canvas. Has Frenhofer somehow stolen her soul? What happens to the painting is brilliant and shouldn’t be described. Frenhofer knows it is his masterpiece, but he isn’t sure it was worth the pain he’s gone through to paint it.
La Belle Noiseuse translates roughly to “the beautiful troublemaker”. It was the nickname of the royalty who inspired the painting according to Frenhofer, but it is also the attitude of Marianne. She was the model necessary to complete the painting because she was so resentful and impertinent. The screenplay for the film was based on a short story from Balzac, and as many have speculated it is in a way Rivette’s commentary on all art, literary, classical, filmic or otherwise. Many have also suggested that it is his contemplation as an older artist of what it is to see your own relevance fade. Frenhofer refers to the painting that he shows to the dealer (not the one he believes is the masterpiece) as “my first posthumous work.” Rivette may have been getting older, but the film he made has an eternal feel to it, one worth investing four hours in.
Runtime: 236 Minutes
Grade: 3.5 Hats Off