Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5.
France/Switzerland, 1991. Pierre Grise Productions, George Reinhart Productions, FR3 Films Production, Centre National du Cinema et de L’Image Animee, Canal+, Investimage 2, Investimage 3, Région Languedoc-Roussillon. Scenario by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, Jacques Rivette, dialogue by Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, inspired by the novella Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu by Honore de Balzac. Cinematography by William Lubtchansky. Produced by Martine Marignac. Music by Alphonse Leduc. Production Design by Emmanuel de Chauvigny. Costume Design by Laurence Struz. Film Editing by Nicole Lubtchansky. Cannes Film Festival 1991. Toronto International Film Festival 1991.
Jacques Rivette explores the process of artistic creation and representation with this daring, exquisite four-hour long work of art. Emmanuelle Béart is married to an artist (David Bursztein) and feels disconnected from him, accompanying him to a gorgeous provincial town to visit an older, venerated painter (Michel Piccoli). While in his studio, Piccoli tells them of a project he had once dreamed of but never completed, “la belle noiseuse”, capturing the spirit of a fin-de-siecle woman whose erotic qualities drove her admirers wild (the plot is loosely inspired by Honore de Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece). Without asking, Bursztein volunteers Beart to pose for Piccoli and she, despite not wanting to do it, shows up for work in a spirit of resentment, angry at her husband, the painter and life itself but subjecting herself to the process anyway. Daily, she enters the studio, disrobes and allows herself to be put in a series of painful and awkward positions while Piccoli attacks pen to paper in an effort to capture not only the lines and contours of the image of her body, but its very emotional vivacity. The frustration and anger that flares from Beart’s eyes is as revealing as her nudity, rarely has someone looked more naked in a film while not feeling exploited or exposed for our voyeuristic pleasure. Meanwhile, Piccoli’s wife, played by a lovely Jane Birkin, treats the project with a great deal of understanding despite having been the model for the first failed attempt to paint this character, her own regrets and worries coming out in subtle and sharply observed ways. Rivette puts us in the mind of the artist who is challenging himself to actually try to put life on the canvas, the scenes of pen or brush creating images (with closeups achieved by Bernard Dufour subbing in for Piccoli) are actually absorbing and fascinating. Then after four hours of beautifully elegant painting and drawing sessions, Rivette saves his biggest joke for the conclusion, the artist’s attempt to touch the divine is something he realizes is not something to be toyed with lightly. Even in the oeuvre of a filmmaker who made uncompromising masterpieces that really took your mind far afield from where you ever thought film could go, this is a rare and precious entry in his filmography and, strangely, among his most accessible; you’re not trying to figure out the caprices of Celine and Julie Go Boating or understand what the hell is going on in Noroit, this one’s events are, in description, easy to interpret but powerful to experience.