Belle Noiseuse, La
1991, NR, 240 min. Directed by Jacques Rivette. Starring Michel Piccoli, Emmanuelle Beart, Jane Birkin, David Bursztein, Gilles Arbona, Marianne Denicourt.
REVIEWED By Kathleen Maher, Fri., June 5, 1992
Finally, the film that was on everyone's “best of” list for 1991 is here in Austin (and to judge from the condition of the film, each of those people saw the same print we got). La Belle Noiseuse is worth the wait and worth its runnning time of four hours. Piccoli plays a middle-aged painter who has run out of creative gas, he's also lost some of his passion for his muse, his wife (Birkin). But when he is visited by a brash and confident young painter, Bursztein and meets the young man's beautiful lover, Beart, Piccoli feels his passion for his art rekindled. After dinner, their friend and art dealer brokers an unholy deal between Piccoli and his young rival. Beart is traded as the model for the older painter's abandoned masterpiece, “La Belle Noiseuse,” a painting begun originally with Birkin as the model. Exactly what has been traded? Once committed, Piccoli is ruthless in his pursuit of art and Bursztein, eager to have a little reflected glory rub off on him from the great man, realizes too late what he has bartered away. Birkin, too, is slow to realize the totality of her sacrifice when she at first encourages Beart to model. What happens between artist and subject, says Rivette, is something much more brutal, much more intimate than sex. And, as Beart and Piccoli confront each other for three long days in the studio, it's clear this is a war being waged by equal combatants. Oh, this is great stuff. Picolli grabs, bends, contorts Beart, demanding and fearing her complicity; she taunts him, demanding he go to the depths of his talent and not draw back. Don't make any easy assumptions here, for what is going on is a lot more than a struggle for power between a man and a woman, yet it is certainly that as well. For long stretches of film, Rivette focuses on the hand of the artist, as it moves tentatively then more strongly. Watching what seems like scratches and blobs of ink take shape, we feel an incredible tension. Has the old man lost his touch? Is he just scribbling to impress Beart? And then forms of great power emerge from the scratches. Later, we're no longer privileged to view the artist's work but we can hear it. The paint rasps on the canvas, the artist's breath comes shorter and is more labored. Sweat gleams on the skin of the model. Just as the subject of art makes its own demands so, too, does the work of art begin to take on a life of its own, independent of the artist. Don't let him paint your face, warns Birkin, for “you will think it is you.” There is tension here, and when the revelation comes, when the painting is displayed, there is surprise and amazement. It means something different to each person who views it. Wonderfully, with this piece, Rivette declares that a work of art must be what it is, true to its shape and its form and no other art can quite capture the same thing or describe it. Now that's why we go to movies.