Last year, the Robert Classic French film festival held a cinematic endurance trial of running time with Jacques Rivette’s abridged version of Out 1, subtitled Spectre, running at 4 hours (the uncut Noli me Tangre version runs for nearly 13). Known for his extremely long, character-driven art films, his works, which are commonly included, often stand apart from the others at the festival by simple virtue of the entire audience staying together for so long to watch them. This is partially what drew me in, along with my general interest in delving into Rivette’s filmography. Longer, slower films have a greater power to mesmerize in a dark theater on a large screen. The closer you are to said screen the better. And I have to say, if I’m praising La Belle Noiseuse , which I am, it’s under the condition that it be watched in the theater, or at least on the biggest TV in your house, with a chair pulled up to it, and no lights.
Michel Piccoli plays Édourard Frenhofer, a reclusive but famous painter who has long ago lost his creative spark. A lucrative and cynical art dealer commissions a work from him, and brings a young and hopeful artist, Nicolas (David Bursztein), to his sprawling château in the countryside. In turn, Nicolas brings his stunningly attractive girlfriend, Marianne (Emanuelle Béart). Early on, we see the practically decorative role Marianne plays in Nicolas’s life, leaving her both restless and detached. In the first scene, Marianne engages the reluctant Nicolas in a roleplay of blackmail as a prelude to spur-of-the-moment lovemaking, settling for games simulating control in moments of seduction rather than being a co-driving force in the relationship.
She tags along on his work-inspired trip and fidgets in the background as she, Nicolas, and art dealer Porbus (Gilles Arbona) are brought through the grounds by Frenhofer’s unbearably sweet wife and former model, Liz (Jane Birkin). Once Frenhofer makes his appearance and brings the group into his art studio, we see he is a depressing, acerbic, wearily pretentious man whose renown has both mischaracterized and drained him. After dinner, Porbus suggests Frenhofer return to his unfinished masterpiece, “La Belle Noiseuse”, using Marianne as a model. Liz, who now spends her time symbolically taxidermying birds in mid flight, has long stopped modelling for her husband. Frenhofer, already visibly stricken by Marianne, approves of the idea and becomes compelled to return to painting. In an instant, we see that Nicholas’s introduction to his idol seems suspiciously orchestrated—to provide Frenhofer with a new model, and to produce a work of art for Porbus. Suddenly, the control he had been relishing in his relationship crumbles, and he immediately relinquishes it by volunteering Marianna without her permission.
Furious, Marianne indicts and insults Nicolas, seemingly refusing to fulfill this role. The next morning, however, she sneaks off to the château after all, albeit while Nicolas is asleep. This comes across as an act to defy Nicolas in both expectation and his true wishes. When he awakens and goes to find her, he’s nearly distraught that she is, indeed, modelling for Frenhofer. What ensues for the rest of the film is a slow (sometimes mesmerizing, sometimes tedious) interplay of power dynamics and creative agency.
Frenhofer’s obsession with Marianne makes him aggressive, uncompromising, and demanding of her. But as time goes on, she sees that she holds power over him, her role as a creative muse being vital to everything he’s worked for. In fact, it is only when she starts begins to interfere with his creative process and demand autonomy in her poses that he begins to produce work to his satisfaction. This is both because her participation frees him from the restraints of his own process, and also because the act of revealing herself provides personal touches in her which Frenhofer is able to translate graphically. In a way, this goes back into being a victory for Frenhofer, who repeatedly stresses early on that he intends to break her through implementing punishing physical trials in order to access her most personal and private essence for the sake of his painting.
La Belle Noiseuse is about the position of creative authority constantly being in flux, and deals with the relationship between a creator and his inspiration. From the more generalized ideas of relationship dynamics comes an arduous look at a number of states that complicate the dichotomy of freedom and commitment. I thought about the running time in relation to all this, and what it would be like if La Belle Noiseuse were shortened into a more concise story about a painter and his model. The film would have to be entirely different. Long takes of Frenhofer sketching and Marianne struggling to maintain her pose are not only done out of reverence for the craft and to mesmerize, but also to authentically depict the role of time in creation and in shifting interaction. Time is sometimes the single element which can morph previously solid attitudes, catalyzing frustration and inevitably leading to role reversal. Additionally, the relationship between Frenhofer and Marianne is the anchor point for so many other connections between the other three leads, and the web of those connections merit the film’s sense of importance and widen the themes. You could say the film needs to be long because it needs to earn its themes in the same way that Frenhofer breaks Marianne so that Marianne can break Frenhofer. And in the same spirit as the unruly characters opening each other up, the film itself is unruly in order to open up the audience. | Nic Champion