Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Michel Piccoli, Emmanuelle Béart, Jane Birkin, David Bursztein, Gilles Arbona, Marianne Denicourt
Written by: Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, Jacques Rivette, based (loosely) on Honore de Balzac's story
Directed by: Jacques Rivette
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 240
Date: 05/01/1991
IMDB

La Belle Noiseuse (1991)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Body Eclectic

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I first saw this four-hour masterpiece in San Francisco on the Castro's big screen early in 1992. Improbably, I was on a date at the time, and I couldn't help wondering how awkward it would be for both of us to stare at Emmanuelle Béart's naked body for many long minutes.

It turns out that the experience was far more beautiful than erotic. Sure, there's a moment when the shockingly gorgeous Béart first drops her robe that takes your breath away. But not long after, you find yourself appreciating her body the way an artist would, or the way you might appreciate a painting or a photograph.

My date and I eventually went our separate ways, but I've never forgotten the majesty, the greatness of La Belle Noiseuse. Years later, as a critic for bayinsider.com, I chose it as the second best film of the decade (after Pulp Fiction). Now, New Yorker has finally released it on a two-disc DVD. I sat down and watched the entire film again and found it just as enthralling as I had 12 years ago.

Béart stars as Marianne, a beautiful girl in the middle of a stormy relationship with a young artist, Nicolas (David Bursztein). Nicolas longs to meet his idol, the veteran painter Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) who lives in a beautiful French villa with his longtime lover -- and former model -- Liz (Jane Birkin). Art dealer Porbus (Gilles Arbona) introduces them, and we learn of Frenhofer's unfinished masterpiece, "La Belle Noiseuse," or the beautiful "nut." Someone suggests that Marianne could pose for Frenhofer and Nicholas volunteers her without first consulting her.

When Marianne arrives, she already has a chip on her shoulder. Frenofer will have none of that; his method of working with models consists of breaking them down until their true selves show. He bends Marianne into an increasingly painful series of poses, and she endures it each time. Eventually they win each other's confidence and they begin a series of fascinating discussions.

I won't explain what happens with the masterpiece; even at four hours, the film cooks up a certain amount of suspense and surprise.

Meanwhile, outside the studio, smaller dramas play out. Liz worries that Marianne will suffer too much under Frenhofer's gaze, and Nicolas worries that he will lose his girlfriend. Nicolas's doting sister (Marianne Denicourt) turns up as well, to try and drive Nicolas away from Marianne.

The movie works because of Piccoli and Béart's fearless performances, and because of the beautiful brush strokes of Bernard Dufour, who appears as Frenhofer's hand (although Piccoli clearly does a bit of painting and drawing himself). Director Jacques Rivette holds his camera still for long minutes at a time as we watch the blank page being turned into something beautiful, or Marianne, as she rigidly, painfully holds her pose, or Frenhofer trying to transfer the real-life beauty onto the canvas. Many long moments go by without a word, nor even any music. It's that mesmerizing.

Rivette was a founding member of the French New Wave, along with Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol. He began as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema and eventually picked up a camera himself. But while the other filmmakers each found a niche for themselves, Rivette was concerned with searching for the meaning of art within cinema.

One of his first films, Out 1, ran something like 12-1/2 hours and has only been exhibited once. (An edited version found a release.) He has also explored the nature of theater (Gang of Four, Va Savoir) as well as painting. And at other times, he has merely wished to get inside a more conventional story. His thriller Secret Defense spent three hours trying to understand a murder rather than playing it for thrills. And his brilliant four-hour Joan the Maid re-told the Joan of Arc story with a sense of beautiful despair. Not to mention his most complicated and beautiful film to date, Celine and Julie Go Boating, which is the closest Rivette ever came to getting inside cinema itself.

But La Belle Noiseuse is arguably my favorite of all these. Even with its extreme length, it has a cleanness, a purity that makes one re-think the possibilities of cinema. This is not just a film of painting, it's a painting as film.

Note: The same year, Rivette made a second, two-hour version (Divertimento) of the film using only the outtakes and leftovers from the La Belle Noiseuse shoot. I haven't seen it, but some people prefer it to the four-hour version. Rivette talks just a little bit about it in his interview.

DVD Details: New Yorker's superb DVD presents the film on two discs, using the film's natural intermission as a breaking point (unlike the awkward break that Warner Home Video made on their 2003 Once Upon a Time in America disc). It's a beautiful transfer, capturing Rivette's warm light tones and open spaces. Extras include a charming new interview with Rivette, as well as an interview with co-writers Christine Laurent and Pascal Bonitzer, plus filmographies and trailers.

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