Blu-ray: La Belle Noiseuse

STUDIO: Cohen Media Group | DIRECTOR: Jacques Rivette | CAST: Michel Piccoli, Emmanuelle Beart, Jane Birkin, Marianne Denicourt, David Bursztein
RELEASE DATE: 5/8/18 | PRICE: DVD $17.99, Blu-ray $20.99
BONUSES: Audio commentary by film historian Richard Suchenski, interviews with Jacques Rivette and scripters Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent
SPECS: NR | 238 min. | Foreign language drama | 1.33:1 widescreen | 2.0 mono | French with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this incisive fine-art drama could have been as dull as — excuse the expression — watching paint dry. Instead, La Belle Noiseuse by Jacques Rivette (Out 1, Around a Small Mountain) is one of the greatest films ever made about the artistic process and a sublime showcase for its two stars, Michel Piccoli (Belle de Jour) and Emmanuelle Beart (L’Enfer).

The film is a characteristically epic-lengthed Rivette film and, like all of his best work, it starts out slow but gradually catches fire as its leads are increasingly drawn into the act of creation. The combination of Rivette’s eccentric but effective pacing, gorgeous imagery and smart scripting earned the film the Grand Prize award at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.

The plot, concerns Frenhofer (Piccoli), a master painter whose best work is seemingly behind him. When he is visited by a young artist (David Bursztein), it is suggested that Marianne (Beart), the young artist’s girlfriend, might be the perfect model for a painting Frenhofer abandoned ten years before, when his wife (Jane Birkin, Blow-Up) was his model. As the film moves on, a unique power struggle emerges between the artist and the model, in which Marianne ends up convincing the doubtful Frenhofer to continue his work.

The aspect that draws the viewer into the film most deeply is watching Frenhofer figure out what he’s doing — he sketches Marianne in a sketchbook, paints on paper and then finally moves on to a canvas. Although Rivette keeps a sense of real duration throughout we certainly aren’t seeing every single step of the artistic process. We do see enough of it, though, to comprehend the conflicted emotions felt by Frenhofer and Marianne.

This emotion is forcefully present in the dialogue, which was beautifully crafted by Rivette’s regular collaborators Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent. A most singular betrayal is committed at the point where Frenhofer needs a canvas quickly and chooses an old one, painting over the face of his wife for the long-awaited final portrait of Marianne. Upon discovering this, Birkin’s rather passive character finally becomes three-dimensional and sympathetic.

Rivette provided two plum roles for Beart and Piccoli. Beart spends a good deal of her screen time completely naked yet Marianne is dignified and has a stronger personality than Frenhofer. Piccoli is absolute perfection, conveying his character’s strong fear that he’s lost his talent and disciplined approach to his subject.

The film’s miracle is that it remains so engaging while offering so much “process.” This is due, of course, to the talent of the cast, but two individuals in particular made the film the singularly detailed masterwork that it is. The first is Bernard Dufour, the unseen artist who drew all of the sketches and paintings — Piccoli’s hands in close-up shots are always Dufour’s. The other MVP here is longtime Rivette collaborator William Lubtchansky, who executed the graceful camerawork that moves the viewer from Frenhofer to Marianne and from the personal life of the characters to very private act of creation.

The feature-length audio commentary by film historian Richard Suchenski discusses many elements of Rivette’s style, including his use of onscreen space and the sense of “ritual” that pervades the film.

Two rare video interviews are included in this package as supplements. The first is an interview segment with Rivette, in which he discusses the genesis of the film, which came from a bit of dialogue he added to his previous feature, The Gang of Four (1989), based on the plot of a Balzac short story. He also discusses how he chose Dufour to be the artist supplying Frenhofer’s creations.

Most of the Rivette interview, though, concerns the variant version of La Belle Noiseuse that he was contractually obliged to supply — a two-hour edit that he playfully titled Divertimento. Rather than chopping down the original four-hour Noiseuse, he and his editor Nicole Lubtchansky (the wife of William) set themselves a more compelling task: to create a different version of events that would be comprised from outtakes and alternate takes of scenes that were included in the full Noiseuse.

An additional interview with Rivette’s frequent scripters Bonitzer and Laurent offers very interesting info about the film. They note that the Balzac story was only one building block of the plot — other elements came from two Henry James stories — and that one key element (the “helpmate” wife character played by Birkin) was entirely their creation.

Bonitzer and Laurent also address technical issues, like the fact that Rivette shot the film in the 1:33 ratio (the oldest, “square” movie ratio) because of the emphasis on Frenhofer’s canvases. They also note that Rivette continued his practice of encouraging the cast to offer suggestions about their characters, which resulted in some very key last-minute rewrites.

The most interesting issue they address is the film’s running time, which they note lends the proceedings a “documentary” tone at certain moments and the “weight of real time” during the posing scenes.

La Belle Noiseuse is the first of ten Rivette titles that Cohen Media Group will be releasing in the months to come (including Divertimento). The titles range from Love on the Ground (1984) to The Story of Marie and Julien (2003).


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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”