Blu-ray Review: La Belle Noiseuse (1991)

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Translated Title: The Beautiful Troublemaker

From Godard to Chabrol to Resnais, Demy, Rohmer and beyond, even though they were famously inspired by American filmmakers, as their varied output illustrates, the directors of the French New Wave were also regularly influenced by one another – not only during the movement's late '50s and '60s heyday but for the rest of their careers as well.

Thus similar to the way that the question posed by François Truffaut of whether art – or rather cinema – is "more important than life" fueled some of the filmmaker's strongest work, that very same query is at the forefront of La Belle Noiseuse, the 1991 Cannes Grand Prix winning feature from Truffaut's friend, fellow Cahiers du Cinema critic turned French New Wave co-founder Jacques Rivette.

A 238 minute exploration of an artist and his muse, the long takes and static shots of La Belle Noiseuse are a far cry from the average 12 second shots of 1961’s Paris Belongs to Us, the film that first put Rivette on the map which had been shot in 1958 and released after the early New Wave successes of Godard and Truffaut.

Teaming up once again with screenwriters Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent (as well as longtime married collaborators – editor Nicole and cinematographer William Lubtchansky) to create what Roger Ebert described in his Great Movies 3 essay as “the best film I have ever seen about the physical creation of art,” Noiseuse is a work that Rivette had been building toward for decades.

Fittingly for a four hour film, La Belle Noiseuse is a very loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s short story, The Unknown Masterpiece along with a trio of Henry James shorts including The Figure in the Carpet, The Liar, and The Aspen Papers.

But perhaps in an attempt to celebrate the interchangeable impact of all the arts, Rivette's opus also culls inspiration from the music of Igor Stravinsky which is used sparingly throughout his otherwise largely silent film – save for the sounds of art in progress which Noiseuse uses to loudly cacophonous, almost violent effect.

Deceptively simplistic, both stylistically as well as in its set-up, although the film consists of roughly six characters from start to finish, it primarily revolves around half that number of individuals.

Traveling the French countryside with her artist boyfriend, Nicolas (David Bursztein), we’re first introduced to the film’s muse Marianne (played by Tom Cruise’s first Mission: Impossible love interest, Emmanuel Béart).

Following a fun, flirtatious scene between the young lovers after Marianne playfully interrupts her boyfriend's art with the sounds of a Polaroid camera clicked from above, an art dealer friend (played by Gilles Arbona) drives down, eager to introduce the couple to Edouard and Liz Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli and Jane Birkin), a famous reclusive painter and his wife.

But upon their arrival at the artist's chateau in rural Languedoc-Roussillon, the trio initially find themselves stood up by the moody painter known as Frenhofer to everyone but his wife. Nearly playing an adult game of hide and seek, they wander through the art and literature filled rooms of the gorgeous household alongside his apologetic, friendly wife until at last Frenhofer simply appears.

Using the Hitchcockian trick of withholding an introduction or revelation until the last possible moment for maximum impact, both the artist's nonchalance as well as the length of time we've waited for his entrance goes a long way in making the viewer as curious about the man we're going to meet as the rest of the characters.

After an evening of not only talking about the masterpiece that’s always eluded him but also finding himself increasingly drawn to Marianne (which is wonderfully and subtly foreshadowed care of intriguing angles and frames by Rivette and the Lubtchanskys), the aging artist suddenly finds himself inspired to paint again after a dry spell of ten years.

Picking up on his cue, once the younger artist impulsively volunteers his girlfriend to pose for his idol, the deal is struck. And although it comes as a complete surprise to Marianne after she's informed of her boyfriend's promise once they return to their hotel, in spite of her anger she decides to keep up her end of the bargain, knowing full well she’ll be expected to pose nude.

Beginning their first session slowly by preparing his tools and the entire barn converted studio to get back into his artistic rhythm, Frenhofer treats his muse politely at first before he eventually stops seeing Marianne as a stranger let alone a woman but a body of textures and shapes – pushing and pulling her into poses that are increasingly impossible to hold.

It's here that Truffaut's question of cinema vs. life begins to reign supreme and even though Rivette is capturing it in a different art form, the relationship between Frenhofer and his muse could easily serve as a metaphor for directors and actresses as well, inspiring plenty of essays in the modern era of Me Too and Time's Up.

Following the evolution of his work from first sketch to final brushstroke (with the artist’s hand played by real abstract French painter Bernard Dufour), despite the fact that Béart is nude for extended periods of time, any expectation that Rivette’s film is going to take a titillating Lolita-like approach is fortunately pushed to the wayside early on.

Moreover as we see the two alternatively cajole, bully, inspire, and challenge each other through role and personality reversal over the course of three arduous days, it's clearer than ever that Noiseuse is aptly named.

Watching the progression from idea to canvas in real time is fascinating at first and even though it gets a little repetitive as the film continues, it’s amazing how well Rivette manages to hold us under his spell – delving into metaphors of artistic and personal sacrifice along with the holiness of “artist as creator” that is sure to lead to terrific post-film discussion.

Filled with layers, the film additionally toys with doubles, doppelgängers, and life do-overs, both in terms of the two male artists as well as the two women who look quite similar and play a much greater role in their lover’s work than that of a stereotypical muse.

Likewise, while Jane Birkin’s character contradicts herself a few times early on and is initially hard to read, she grows richer throughout to the point that although we wish she could've played a greater role in the storyline, in the end it's only fitting that once again Frenhofer's wife and former muse is sidelined by his artistic need.

A fascinating evolution of French New Wave filmmaking that's also reminiscent of Rohmer's '80s and '90s period in its conversational first hour, now more than 25 years later, Jacques Rivette’s Noiseuse masterpiece is made even more Belle thanks to this gorgeous 4k restoration captured on Blu-ray canvas in Cohen Film Collection's dual disc release.

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