Jacques Rivette’s much praised Cannes Grand Prize winner vacillates between genuine insight and didactic mystique-of-the-artist bullshit. It is most fascinating in its setups and silences; the delayed introduction of the painter Frenhoffer (Michel Piccoli) owes a clear debt to Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (a favorite, much deservingly so, of the Cahiers crowd) and the artist’s sittings, especially the first, with the physically striking Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart) are masterful disquisitions on the tempestuous relationship between creator and subject. Unwilling to settle for anything other than a masterpiece, Frenhoffer’s every brushstroke cuts like a knife; the creation of the titular portrait is nothing less than a slow-burning and violent act of transference, the extraction of a soul to canvas—and one, fittingly, to which we never bear final witness. But it is all-too-clear, particularly in several on-the-nose expository moments, that La Belle Noiseuse began life as a joke, one extending from a character’s monologue in Rivette’s prior film Gang of Four. Marianne’s relationship with her boyfriend Nicolas (David Bursztein) is given an illusory weight in the film’s first scene where they act out a mock-angry roundelay for the benefit of two American tourists (Daphne Goodfellow and Susan Robertson). Things are not always what they seem, Rivette seems to say. We are all performers, and art—that cruel mistress—sets us achingly, perhaps unwillingly free. But his observations never resonate, not even in Frenhoffer’s relationship with his increasingly jealous wife—and former model—Liz (Jane Birkin), who more often than not vocalizes the film’s themes, though her exasperated explanations would be better left unsaid so that they might emerge from the fabric of what Rivette clearly intends, per his use of excerpts from Igor Stravinsky’s ballets Agon and Petrushka, to be a dance. As is, the revelations of La Belle Noiseuse are decidedly obvious and small, and rendered nearly insignificant by the ill-fitting actions of the peripheral characters whose petty problems (arising from the actors’ own improvisations) offer a less-than-satisfying counterpoint to Frenhoffer’s intense and invasive creative process.
- New Yorker Films
- 240 min
- Jacques Rivette
- Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, Jacques Rivette
- Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin, Emmanuelle Béart, Marianne Denicourt, David Bursztein, Gilles Arbona, Marie Belluc, Marie-Claude Roger, Leïla Remili, Daphne Goodfellow, Susan Robertson, Bernard Dufour
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