For fine-art mavens looking for a change of pace from all the virtual exhibitions that have been proliferating in the wake of COVID-19, allow me to suggest a movie. Not just any movie, though, but one of the best films ever made about the artistic process: La Belle Noiseuse, a four-hour film from 1991 directed by the late iconoclastic French filmmaker Jacques Rivette that became available to stream on the Criterion Channel earlier this month.
If you find your eyebrows raised at the mention of La Belle Noiseuse being four hours long…well, yes, it is by no means a breezy sit. But if duration can be considered a legitimate artistic property, then Rivette—no stranger to long movies (his multipart 1971 film Out 1 lasts just over 12 hours, for instance)—finds an ingenious use for it in La Belle Noiseuse. Though there are sketches of plot and character arcs, much of the film is given over to long sequences of an artist simply sketching and painting a subject, the camera simply playing the observer. For this viewer at least, the immediate effect of these scenes is not at all boring, but hypnotic and mesmerizing. Add all these scenes up, and cumulatively, La Belle Noiseuse is that rare film among movies about art in which you not only see but feel all the hard work that goes into artistic creation.
There’s much more to Rivette’s film than just its sense of time, however. La Belle Noiseuse is inspired by Honoré de Balzac’s short story “The Unknown Masterpiece,” which describes efforts of an artist named Frenhofer to finish a painting—a portrait of a courtesan named Catherine Lescault who was commonly known as “la belle noiseuse” (or, roughly in English, “the beautiful troublemaker”)—that he has had trouble completing for 10 years. He finds his artistic block broken when he meets Gillette, the girlfriend of a younger friend and admirer Nicolas Poussin, and is so struck by her beauty that he resumes work on the painting right away. But when he finally finishes the piece, Poussin, Gillette, and fellow painter Porbus are so puzzled by the work that Frenhofer, in his bitter disappointment, destroys the painting and kills himself. (That is by no means a spoiler for Rivette’s film, though, which ends quite differently.)
One of Rivette’s chief additions to Balzac’s tale is its deepening of the Gillette character. Named Marianne in the film (and played by Emmanuelle Béart), this particular muse is by no means a silent and submissive type. Instead, she’s a strong-willed yet insatiably curious individual who balks when he hears that her boyfriend, Nicolas (David Bursztein), has essentially offered her without her permission as a model to Edouard Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli, the great veteran French actor who passed away earlier this month) without her permission. Nevertheless, Marianne decides to model for Frenhofer anyway (though, perhaps true to Rivette’s general air of serene detachment in the film, her reasons for going along with the arrangement after her initial vehement resistance are never fully explained).
A psychological battle of wills gradually develops between the artist and his model that adds another layer of tension to the lengthy drawing and painting sequences. The first half of “The Unknown Masterpiece” featured long stretches of Frenhofer opining to Poussin and Porbus on his philosophies of art (case in point: “The aim of art is not to copy nature but to express it,” he says to Porbus at one point. “You are not a servile copyist, but a poet!”). Rivette’s Frenhofer has a similarly, perhaps even impossibly demanding view of artistic perfection, and periodically explicates it to Marianne, who herself has an interest in literature and can thus be seen as an intellectual equal. But Marianne, explicitly and through physical gestures, pushes back against Frenhofer’s pretensions, demanding that he see her as a human being, not as merely a vessel for some yet-to-be-discovered artistic pinnacle. La Belle Noiseuse, then, becomes a dialectic between Frenhofer’s high-mindedness and Marianne’s more down-to-earth nature, with our sympathies constantly shifting throughout.
There’s more to the film than just these two characters. Rivette adds a love interest for Frenhofer, Liz (Jane Birkin), who was the model for Frenhofer’s previous attempt at creating his Catherine Lescault portrait 10 years ago before he fell in love with her and felt he couldn’t go through with the painting. “Do not let him paint your face,” Liz warns Marianne at one point, an admonition that may be fueled to some degree by jealousy, but mostly appears to derive from her experience witnessing how far out on a limb he’s willing to go in his pursuit of absolute truth—even if it makes someone look unflattering as a result. Jealousy definitely seems to animate Nicolas, who soon begins to regret suggesting Marianne pose for Frenhofer, especially as Marianne starts to emotionally pull away from him.
But the relationship between Marianne and Frenhofer is the heart and soul of La Belle Noiseuse. At the end of the film’s patient, challenging, and altogether absorbing four hours, Rivette will leave you reflecting anew on age-old questions about art: what makes great art, and what it takes to be a great artist. These are issues that no global pandemic will ever render irrelevant.