La Belle Noiseuse Review

Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli) is a once famous artist - still of great renown, but he has been unable to paint anything of significance for a number of years. A young artist Nicolas (David Bursztein) and his girlfriend Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart) visit the artist at his country mansion in the South of France and a certain tension develops between Frenhofer and Marianne. Frenhofer believes that she could help him complete his great unfinished masterpiece – La Belle Noiseuse. The idea causes inevitable tensions and friction between Frenhofer and his wife Liz (Jane Birkin) and between Marianne and Nicolas. Each have to ask how far they will go to allow the creation of a work of art. Will they go as far as allowing The Beautiful Troublemaker to destroy their own lives and ambitions?

Adapted from a Balzac short story, Le chef d’oeuvre inconnu, this is Jacques Rivette showing what he is capable of when the combination of all the elements that make up the filmmaking process work in perfect accord. It's grand, yet at the same time a chamber piece of a film with a small group of actors – very fine actors – acting and reacting off one another; a hothouse situation where egos interact, clash and give rise to a collective situation that involves and reveals the individual personalities of each of the characters. La Belle Noiseuse works particularly well because of the nature of the subject – the chemistry between an artist and a model that inspires the artist to create a masterpiece. The film likewise benefits from the subject and situation – the chemistry between the director, writers and cast inspiring the creation of a special and unique film. This affinity for the subject matter allows the film to work much more successfully than the similarly themed Va savoir (2000) (although not everyone would agree with me here as Rivette’s recent film was very well received), where the characters I think were far less interesting, the situation more contrived and the outcome inconsequential and uninteresting.

The subject in La Belle Noiseuse also dictates form and while many will tire of long drawn-out sequences of what on the surface appears to be a very slight plot – you do literally watch paint dry - the length of the film and the takes are crucial. The slow accumulation of detail, getting below the surface is apparent not only in the actual story but in the very direction and form of the film. Much of the film is wordless, the tension between Frenhofer and Marianne apparent only looks and glances, in a hesitancy or in a single brushstroke. The cast are magnificent in conveying this mainly wordless plot - Jane Birkin particularly impressing with a nervous timidity that masks passionate emotions deep below. The long slow pans of the camera over Emmanuelle Béart, who poses nude for most of the film, and the violent positions and poses she is put through, do as much to convey the laborious struggle to turn inspiration into creation.

The Artificial Eye Region 2 DVD contains the full 229 minute version of the film, split over two discs, using the film's original interval as a break point. There is another shorter 2-hour version of the film, known as La Belle Noiseuse: Divertimento, which is not an edit of the long film, but actually composed of alternative takes and scenes and has a different focus. Rivette also used the same technique to create two versions of his most recent film Va savoir.

The film is presented in the same 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio that the director approved for the Rivette box set recently released in France. Some might question this decision, but few will find much of a problem with the quality of the print. The picture quality is pretty good, managing to cope equally well with dark, shadowy interiors and brightly sunlit exteriors. The image is clear and reasonably sharp with very little sign of grain or marks on the print. Colours are perfectly balanced and blacks are deep and true. Only a very faint telecine flickering and general unsteadiness prevents this from being a great picture, but even this problem is not noticeable to any great extent.

The soundtrack is presented in the original Dolby Digital 2.0 and it sounds like a mono soundtrack through two channels. The actual sound design of the film is carefully constructed – the persistent chatter of crickets and sounds of the countryside dominating the exterior shots and a perfect natural reverb in interiors. Every sound contributes to the atmosphere and narrative of the film, the creak of floorboards, the rattle of a pencil, the scratch of charcoal on paper. All this is more than adequately well presented, clear and natural with depth and no background noise.

Theatrical trailer (1.02)

The trailer effectively and succinctly sums up a four-hour film into one minute.

Interview with Jacques Rivette (13.27)
The interview with the director is interesting and revealing. The idea for the film started out as a joke. When asked about his next film, Rivette would say it was going to be ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’. The title, a Balzac short-story, is also referred to in an earlier Rivette film La Bande des Quatre. Rivette also discusses the differences between the full-length film and the Divertimento.

Interview with Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent (21.08)
The writers talk about the literary sources for the film – more Henry James than Balzac. They also confirm the choice of the 1.33:1 aspect ratio as it suited the shape of the artist’s canvas – although matting of the film to a 1.66:1 ratio would have been allowed to enable most cinemas to project it. None of the shots or script were improvised, although sometimes dialogue was provided to the actors only moments before shooting.

La Belle Noiseuse is a brilliant film – it really couldn’t be any better. A difficult subject worth exploring, an intelligent and thoughtful script, a strong set of actors and a considered direction that draws the full power out of each scene and each minute of the four-hour running time. This is a fine DVD edition of a film that must be regarded as a modern cinema classic.

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