By now, there are more than enough movies about megalomaniacal artistic geniuses — usually painters — undergoing the ecstatic agony of creation. Director Jacques Rivette seems well aware of this, and his new La Belle Noiseuse, at the very least, stands apart from any tortured-artist epic you could name. For openers, the movie is four hours long. More than that, it’s a painstakingly slow and deliberate four hours. Rivette, the veteran French maverick, isn’t simply inviting us to observe the creative process. He literally wants to take us through it.
For most of La Belle Noiseuse, we’re inside the magnificent chateau of Eduoard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli), a legendary artist of about 60 who hasn’t been able to paint for 10 years. Now, at last, he has found an inspiration: a spectacularly beautiful new model named Marianne (Emmanuelle Beart), who bewitches him with her looks and her proud, curious spirit.
Within Frenhofer’s cavernous, stone-walled studio, Rivette slows the action down so that it’s as close to ”real time” as possible. There are endless close-ups of Frenhofer working away with his pens and brushes. Rivette captures one aspect of the creative process better than just about any director before him — the arduous, time-consuming, often tedious work.
The director shares his hero’s fixated gaze, lingering with serene detachment on Marianne’s exquisitely proportioned — and amply displayed — body. As Frenhofer begins to draw her portrait, going through canvas after canvas, their relationship becomes an abstract sexual dance, an erotically charged mind game. ”I’ll break you to pieces,” he says. ”I’ll get you out of your back, out of your skeleton.” Trying to reduce Marianne to pure ”form,” Frenhofer, like Picasso, becomes a kind of painter-conquistador out to capture the invisible essence of a woman’s sexual being. At the same time, there’s a hint of sadomasochism in the way he turns Marianne into human modeling clay, posing her in painful, sculptured positions, ”binding” her with her own limbs.
Rivette sets up a dense spiral of loyalties and jealousies. Mostly, though, he’s interested in the distant, imperious Frenhofer, who finally comes face to face with the prospect of his own death as an artist. La Belle Noiseuse often begs its audience’s indulgence. Yet the film works as a kind of tonic deconstruction of the artist-in-action genre. In Rivette’s hands, the struggle of one man to paint the hidden reality of what he sees becomes blessedly life- size. B