Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Films I Love #43: La belle noiseuse (Jacques Rivette, 1991)

La belle noiseuse is a late masterpiece from Jacques Rivette, a typically haunting and enigmatic study of the mystery inherent in artistic creation, and the ways in which art and life inform and bleed into one another. The film centers around the aging and increasingly unproductive painter Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli), who is rejuvenated by the appearance at his country estate of a young woman named Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart), who inspires him to begin painting again. The film is sensuous and quiet, slowly exploring the developing relationship between the painter and his muse through lengthy, nearly silent scenes in which Frenhofer poses the nude Marianne into stiff, contorted poses, molding her body, frantically trying to capture her essence. Throughout these scenes, the only sound is often the scratch and scrape of Frenhofer's brushes and pens on paper and canvas, and Rivette frequently points his camera for long stretches of time at the painter's work area, tracing the progress of his art from a blank page to a developed sketch. The film's rhythms are slow and measured, appropriate for a document of the artistic process, the slow carving out of a creative statement from paints and inks on a plain white expanse. Forms and ideas take shape slowly, and the longer Frenhofer paints, both artist and model become more confident, more emotionally invested in the work — Frenhofer finds his passion for painting reawakening, even taking over his life, while Marianne develops from an introspective, nervous model to a passionate, deeply engaged collaborator, sharing in the demands and rigors of Frenhofer's art.

Rivette's deliberate pacing and careful eye lend themselves well to this exploration of creation. His camera circles the protagonists, lingering on Béart's nude form as though it was a statue, staring at Frenhofer's canvases and sketchbooks as the painter's ideas take shape, all of it accompanied by the distinctive scritch-scritch-scritch sounds that, by the end of the film, are subconsciously associated with artistic creation. Although the center of the film, and its heart, is dominated by the lengthy, intense scenes between Frenhofer and Marianne, ancillary characters linger around the edges, affected in various way by the all-encompassing passion of this artistic collaboration. Frenhofer's wife Liz (Jane Birkin) is increasingly driven away, shut out, conscious that Marianne is replacing her as her husband's muse: at the height of his passion for his art, Frenhofer even pulls out a long-abandoned painting of Liz and begins reimagining it, painting over it with images of Marianne, striving to create his masterpiece. Meanwhile, Marianne's immersion in Frenhofer's art causes her to neglect her own lover, Nicolas (David Bursztein), who is left to chat with the disconsolate Liz and his friend Magali (Marie Belluc). Rivette's film not only traces the process of creation and limns its mystery and magic, but examines the effects of such intense creativity on those who surround the artist and inspire his work.


Kevin J. Olson said...

Sounds great, Ed. I haven't seen a single Rivette film...I am going to rectify that soon. Any suggestions (unfortunately Netflix doesn't have a lot to choose from as the earliest film they carry of his is a version of Wuthering Heights from 1985)?

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Kevin. Rivette is one of my favorites, so obviously I recommend checking him out -- he can be a bit daunting, of course, since most of his films are extremely long and extremely challenging; there's nothing else quite like him in cinema. It looks like Netflix has a pretty dire selection of his films, though, since he's much better represented on Region 2 DVD than Region 1 (one of many reasons I went multi-region long ago). No sign, even, of his most popular film, Celine and Julie Go Boating, in R1 yet.

Based on what I see there, I highly recommend, obviously, La belle noiseuse, but an even better introduction might be the comparatively accessible History of Marie and Julien, which was my own first Rivette film. It also stars Emmanuelle Beart and is utterly charming and mysterious and beautiful. It's relatively straightforward for Rivette and certainly set me along the path of wanting to explore his work further. His Wuthering Heights isn't bad, but it's rather uncharacteristic and minor, not one I'd recommend except to Rivette completists.

Ed Howard said...

Incidentally, here's my rough ranking of the Rivettes I've seen in order of preference, which underscores just how many of this master's best films are unavailable on DVD here in the States, and in some cases not really available on DVD at all.

Le Pont du Nord
La belle noiseuse
The History of Marie and Julien
Celine and Julie Go Boating
Gang of Four
Love on the Ground
Don't Touch the Axe (The Duchess of Langeais)
The Nun
Secret Defense
Paris Belongs to Us
Hurlevent (Wuthering Heights)

DavidEhrenstein said...

Ed -- you forgot "Out 1"!

La Belle Noiseuse is full of strange savage intensity. Piccoli is often frightening in his intensity.

The film it most resembles in the Rivette canon is L'Amour Fou.

Ed Howard said...

I could never forget Out 1 — I just wish I'd seen it! For that matter, same thing with L'amour fou. I hope there's another big screening at some point, I missed out on the previous round.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I do wish Crtierion would put out Out 1.

I saw the screeeing here in La.A. It was a two-day event with dinner breaks and such for each day. As each episode is roughly 90 minutes it proved to be quite digestible. It's not a 13-hour marathon at all. It's a serial --like Les Vampires (which in the last half it quite resembles.)

It's the definitive Post May 68 zeitgeist movie.

Ed Howard said...

Yes, Criterion releasing Out 1 would be amazing. They're currently being petitioned to do so on Facebook, and I gather that they're a little surprised by the passionate response they're getting from a seemingly offhand question. I hope it amounts to something, anyway.

Krauthammer said...

Isn't it a running joke that Criterion hates Rivette?

I was just going to ask 1. Where to start with Rivette and 2. How the hell to get a hold of his movies, but that's been gone over already.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Thanks, Ed. I've added the necessary titles to the queue. I will look into getting a region free DVD player.

Sam Juliano said...

"Throughout these scenes, the only sound is often the scratch and scrape of Frenhofer's brushes and pens on paper and canvas, and Rivette frequently points his camera for long stretches of time at the painter's work area, tracing the progress of his art from a blank page to a developed sketch."

You related the essence of this film here and the inexplicable (for me) fascination at what should rightfully be one of the most tedious cinematic experiences ever. The exorbitant length of the film only re-inforces this sentiment. The combination of the words "scratch" and "scrape" really re-create in my mind the sustained sound of this magisterial story of the creative process. This was the first Rivette film I ever saw (DON'T TOUCH THE AXE followed in a theatre) and it remains for me, with CELINE ET JULIE VON EN BATEAU one of Rivette's two supreme masterpieces.

And I say that having watched the rather torturous OUT 1, but that's a story for another day, and I'll admit it's almost certainly me here.

It's wonderful to see the esteemed Mr. Ehrenstein here--I also have greatly appreciated his work for Criterion--and it's also great to see Kevin is taking the plunge with Rivette.

Ed, I will also rank the Rivettes I've seen. Unfortunately I have not seen several on your list, but I have seen a key work, that you will no doubt be seeing yourself soon.

Celine et Julie von en Bateau
La Belle Noiseuse
Jeanne la Pucelle (Batailles; Prisons)
Don't Touch the Axe
La Pont du Nord
Paris Belongs To Us

The Region 2 AE of the Joan of Arcs is magnificent, and a major step in making Rivette even more accessible.

Oh yes, Emanuele Beart in LA BELLE must be mentioned. Ravishing.

Allan Fish said...

Difficult to avoid this, considering my love for Rivette as you well know, Ed. There are still one or two I haven't seen. As far as his truly major works, I'd have to say Duelle for me, quel surprise, and then probably La Belle Noiseuse, Céline et Julie, Le Pont du Nord, Out 1, L'Amour Fou, Jeanne la Pucelle, Noroit, La Religieuse, Paris Nous Appartient in roughly that order off the top of my head. As for Marie et Julien, it was OK, and I could watch Béart till the end of time, but it was lesser Rivette for me.

However, I haven't had chance to watch my newly acquired Jeanne la Pucelle Artifical Eyes, which are of the full 5½ hour cut, rather than the 4 hour version shown in the UK and US. That may well rise higher.

Sam Juliano said...

Ah, I also saw LA RELIGEUSE, but forgot to mention it. It would rank second from the end.

Sam Juliano said...

Geez, I'm senile. Obviously I saw OUT 1 as well, but didn't place it on the list. It would be at the bottom for now.

Ed Howard said...

Krauthammer, yes, I think Criterion really does hate Rivette. Or at least they've been disinterested in releasing anything by him, despite owning at least Paris Belongs to Us for ages now. Hopefully they finally get moving on some of his work now.

Sam and Allan, interesting rankings. Jeanne la Pucelle is the next Rivette I have to see. I held off for a long time knowing that only the edited version was available, and now I finally have the new AE discs and just need to find a few hours to watch them. A couple of other 90s works also await. I'm thrilled that this film is at last out in its full version, and I hope the gradual process of making Rivette available on DVD continues. Of all the New Wave directors, he's probably the least known and appreciated, but in terms of his importance I'd place him on a tier with Godard — and that's really saying something for me.

Irocheez said...

thanks for sharing!

Drew McIntosh said...

Very nice review Ed. Rivette is also one of my absolute favorites, and La belle noiseuse is certainly high on my list of his films I haven't yet seen. My rankings of those I have seen:

Out 1: Noli me tangere
Celine & Julie Go Boating
Le Pont du Nord
Jeanne la Pucelle 1&2

I was disappointed with Noroit. I should probably watch it again now that my expectations are tempered, I found it absolutely gorgeous visually but something about it failed to arrest me on the same level of some of his other work. Also conversely to your rankings, I watched Merry Go Round recently and was surprised at how playful and engaging it was, much better than I anticipated.

Ironically I got my dvd copy of Gang of Four in the mail just yesterday and am anxious to give it a spin this weekend!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Gang of Four (aka. Bulle Ogier's School For Actresses) is a lot of fun.

Out 1 "torturous"?

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Irocheez.

Interesting rankings, Drew. I actually agree that Merry-Go-Round's playfulness is enjoyable, there are some great scenes in that one even though on the whole I'd consider it a lesser work. He's enough of a favorite for me that just because I like a film of his the least, it doesn't mean it's an entirely bad film. I actually think most of Rivette's work, despite his reputation for being difficult and challenging, is very playful and fun. I watch most of his films with a big smile on my face. You just have to be attuned to his special sense of humor and play.

David, I too find it hard to imagine any Rivette film being deemed "torturous," no matter how long it is.

Drew McIntosh said...

Ed I absolutely agree with you about most of Rivette's film being playful. It's the quality that drew me to seek out his other work after watching Celine & Julie for the first time, perhaps the most "playful" movie I've ever seen.

I watched "Gang of Four" over the weekend and thought it was excellent! Would probably rank between Duelle and Merry-Go-Round on my list. I'm always amazed at the quality of performances Rivette is continuously able to evoke out of his female actresses, and everyone in Gang was truly outstanding.

Ed Howard said...

Celine and Julie is not only "playful," it's about the playfulness and imagination of moviegoing: it's an ode to watching movies, to loving stories so much that one wishes to join in on the action.

I'm glad you enjoyed Gang of Four so much, it really is great, and like every Rivette film, it boasts some phenomenal performances. It's also the source for La belle noiseuse: at one point one of the characters tells the story of the painter Frenhofer, who hides his final masterpiece where no one can find it.

dmk said...

I adore Rivette.

I would rank him:

1. Amour fou, L' (1969)
2. Up, Down, Fragile (1995)
3. Wuthering Heights (1985)
4. Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974)
5. Religieuse, La (1966)
6. Pont du Nord, Le (1981)
7. Gang of Four (1988)
8. Paris Belongs to Us (1960)
9. Belle noiseuse, La (1991)
10. Histoire de Marie et Julien (2003)
11. Don't Touch the Axe (2007)
12. Divertimento (1991)
13. Merry-Go-Round (1981)
14. Secret défense (1998)
15. Duelle (une quarantaine) (1976)
16. Out 1, noli me tangere (1971)
17. Love on the Ground (1984)
18. Noroît (1976)

I clearly don't think Hurlevent is a minor Rivette. I adored it, although I adore almost every Rivette I see.