The Humanists: Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991)


by Colin Marshall

1. The most immediately notable quality of Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse, and what that quality hints to us that we're missing

A movie under 60 minutes is “a short.” A movie under 90 minutes is just “short.” A movie over 150 minutes is “long.” A movie over about 200 minutes is, often, “epic.” Maybe you have quibbles with my specific points of demarcation, but surely you agree that, popularly speaking, that's how it tends to break down. By this set of labels, La Belle Noiseuse is, at 237 minutes — breathing distance from the four-hour mark, nearly 45 minutes longer than, say, Schindler's List — an epic and then some. Despite giving off a whiff of self-indulgence, its length turns out to be necessary in all sorts of different ways, and ultimately raises a torturous question for any cinephile: what other works of cinematic art require such an unconventional length, and how many have been denied their very existence because of it?

And I'm not just talking about “very long” films, or even the super-“epics” in La Belle Noiseuse's film-feet league. (And those aren't even the upper limit; we probably need another category for movies like Rivette's own Out 1, whose canonical cut clocks in at a staggering 773 minutes.) Just about exactly one hour is a famously awkward film length, since it doesn't meet the common 80-minute festival floor for feature length but breaks most commonly accepted ceilings for shorts. The business of film distribution and exhibition, in perhaps in an ad hoc manner but one now deeply entrenched, has established these categories, and it's easy not to grasp their restrictiveness unless a creator deliberately steps outside them and shows you.

I submit to you that, while some stories are indeed best told in 90- to 120-ish-minutes, most others, by pure logic of probability — are not. I submit that some material is only cinematically realizable in 61 minutes, or in 773 minutes, or, indeed, in 237 minutes. La Belle Noiseuse — also available in a 125-minute cut called La Belle Noiseuse: Divertimento which is by all accounts nothing more than a two-hour trailer for The Real Deal — wouldn't have worked if substantially shorter, nor would it have worked if substantially longer.

2. The story that fills those almost four hours

The word “epic,” as used above, suggests quests, dynasties, monsters — yawning spans of time, geography and imagination that couldn't apply less to this picture. Édouard Frenhofer, a 65-ish painter more or less isolated with his wife in an enormous yet crumbly Languedoc-Roussillon mansion, seems to have hung up his brushes. Visited one day by a familiar art dealer, he finds the fellow has a couple of youngsters in tow: Nicolas, an aspiring painter who allegedly worships Frenhofer's work, though with a hard-to-explain distance, and Marianne, his pouty, pie-eyed girlfriend. During the trio's stay, Frenhofer comes to realize — and, to a degree, seems to rue — that Marianne might well be the model to force him back into his disused basement studio.

Not that Marianne is a model by trade, or even interested in moonlighting as one. Filled with undirected, amorphous resentment, Marianne grudgingly agrees to pose for her swain's hero. Their early sessions go badly enough that she assumes, and Frenhofer appears to admit, that they should pack it in. But to the veteran's mind, it is because of this emergent troubled working relationship that Marianne must remain on the stool. She will breathe life into the long-abandoned canvas that seems to have defeated him, La Belle Noiseuse — The Beautiful Troublemaker.

Some social complication arises here, in that the original Noiseuse was Liz, Frenhofer's wife. She's still in the picture, looking like the back flap photo on a former rock-star wife's tell-all memoir, airily wandering the château, occupied by a whole lot of not much, usually accompanied only by a local adolescent girl. What develops between Liz and Marianne isn't quite rivalry — they never engage directly enough with one another for that — but a certain talking-past. Liz warns Marianne, obliquely, about Frenhofer's nature, apparently demanding to the point of soul consumption. Marianne doesn't quite listen, nor does she quite defend or express allegiance to the man, nor does she let slip the smallest trace of enthusiasm for her position.

“Positions,” plural, is probably more appropriate: as the days wear on, Frenhofer twists Marianne into increasingly baroque, deeply uncomfortable-looking poses smacking of everything from vague religiosity to circus-grade ridiculousness. This seems to suit his painting, though, and the work itself slowly rises to loom larger than the both of them. Sneaking a peek one late night, Liz stares at the image — as yet not really seen in its final form by the audience — and then walks around it to draw a grave marker-esque cross in its wooden frame. Clearly, this new iteration of La Belle Noiseuse is important enough, powerful enough — good enough? — to effectively bury its creator and pat down the earth shoveled onto him.

For these and possibly a bewildering suite of other reasons, Frenhofer is thrown into a internal conflict, none too directly examined by the film, about whether to give the thing over to humanity. This sets the stage for the movie's final power struggle. The original Belle Noiseuse got the better of Frenhofer. As the new one rises to existence, Frenhofer and Marianne valiantly battle to get the better of one another. They're both overpowered by the painting itself. It comes down once again to Frenhofer and the work that will define him, a second threat delivered with a second muse.

3. What percentage of these almost four hours Emmanuelle Béart spends naked

A large one. This isn't really titillating, though, nor does Rivette give it much of a chance to be. Eroticism is so much about context, and Frenhofer's dusty concrete workspace wouldn't qualify as an erotic setting. And while Rivette seems not to make much effort to deliberately de-eroticize Marianne's exposed body, de-eroticized it nevertheless becomes. Some of this may come down to individual taste, in that Béart-as-Marianne is very much the insistently curvaceous Gallic type, a profile that strongly appeals to many but essentially not at all to me. More of it's probably driven by sheer duration of exposure, as it were, and her contortions' steady progress toward pure abstraction.

The end result is an image of the human form as seen by the Platonic ideal of the artist: skin, hair, joints, muscles, bones and the ineffable inner essence you somehow have to express with that unruly mess of organic material. If the director means to make our perspective Frenhofer's, in this one regard, he succeeds. If you're not seeing Marianne primarily as a reluctant yet willful visual art referent when her clothes first drop, you will after an hour or two. Sex just ceases to be an issue; as Roger Ebert put it, so well that I won't even bother rephrasing the line and calling it my own, “this is not a movie that limits its curiosity to the question of where everybody's genitals will turn up.”

4. The thorniest challenge the film takes on, which is related to but is not exactly the one you'd assume

Movies about characters who create art often take pains to avoid depicting that art, or to merely hint at its existence with quick glimpses, overheard snatches, abbreviated passages, other characters' reactions to the work included in the frame but not the work itself, etc. These techniques can be pulled off, and well, but they serve the ancillary function — or, depending on your side of the screen, the primary function — of relieving the real-life artist of the task of creating a whole other work of art, one supposedly produced by the fictional artist they've also created. Attesting to the difficulty of that job are the many of these works-within-works that, revealed in full, are underwhelming to the point of confusion. Think of the heist films revolving around a featureless canvas slathered with approximated abstraction or the tortured-genius-composer stories and their painfully anechoic climactic performances of slavish Romantic pastiche.

La Belle Noiseuse at first appears to attack this problem by coming as close to the bone as any creation-of-art film before or since. The camera, too floaty in the prelude, gets locked down as soon as Marianne sits before Frenhofer. It watches, unblinking, as the artist sketches, refines, revises, scraps, paints, repaints. Rivette not only shows us all these strokes and adjustments, he lets us hear them at a volume which suggests that each of Frenhofer's tools was individually mic'd. Watching the small-physical-scale operations of bringing this piece into reality on such a large audiovisual scale makes the whole process as rich a sensory experience as cinema has offered. To quote Ebert once more, “This may sound boring. It is more thrilling than a car chase.” Less creatively impoverished, too.

You might well find Frenhofer's actual images unresonant, which are in some ways interesting but in other and equal ways reminiscent of what you'd see in an off-kilter Adult Education Annex life drawing class. Any number of explanations can be drawn from the surrounding film — the man is troubled, tired, he's been letting the rust spread — but to harp on the results seems beside the point. This is an artistic world where process, not product, is what matters, or in any case the two matter differently. Rivette shows us everything he can — indeed, an unprecedented amount — about the process. The product, about which the fate of the world eventually seems to hangs in the balance, doesn't get quite the same cinematic treatment.

5. To what extent Jacques Rivette has it both ways

We see and hear, in great detail, the leadup to the painting's final form. We don't see the final form itself. The evidently freaked-out Frenhofer shoves La Belle Noiseuse into a hole in the wall, then diligently entombs it behind a layer of bricks. How much the canvas he then hurriedly paints and presents to his coterie resembles the one he's given the modified Telltale Heart treatment remains an open question.

So we don't view the work after all, but then again, we do. We view a work; it's just not the one the last three and a half film-hours went into. But then, we did see the labor. We might find Frenhofer's ostensible final product disappointing, and the lukewarm yet still somehow reverent reception from his dealer, wife and onetime acolyte may or may not corroborate our judgment. Both the creators of La Belle Noiseuse the film and La Belle Noiseuse the painting ultimately come out looking both both astonishingly bold and, in ways still hard to pin down, terribly sneaky.

All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.